The road to Fernando Ortega's first Christmas record was a long one.
"Christmas Songs is a project I've wanted to make for a very long time," he says. "I love Christmas, but I had no idea how to approach the songs without falling into repetition and cliché."
The answer came as he sat at the grand piano in the living room of his Albuquerque home. Christmas 2007 had passed, but the early days of the New Year found him playing songs from the Oxford Book of Carols. He had been thinking about the possibility of a series of liturgical records since he had recorded his 2006 album, The Shadow of Your Wings, which drew from the Book of Common Prayer. Finally, the two paths merged.
"Those songs stuck with me," he says, "and I knew it was time to get serious about making a Christmas record."
From there, it was simply a matter of making a record that reflected the intelligence and integrity Ortega brings to all his projects, and his belief that music for the church should be beautiful, personal and theologically sound.
"I actually started working with 'Carol of the Bells'," he says. "I recorded it and really liked the arrangement, but in the end it seemed kind of like a throwaway."
He set "Carol" aside, but it served as a touchstone as he went forward, choosing songs that bring together the great dichotomies of Christmas, where the eternal meets the temporal, beast and angel commingle and Kingship occupies a manger.
Beautifully produced, movingly arranged, with simple yet compelling instrumentation, Christmas Songs is a richly textured and compelling addition to the music of Christmas. Its songs are taken from throughout Christian history. "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" is drawn from the 4th-century Liturgy of St. James, while "What Child Is This" pairs a 19th century lyric with a melody nearly half a millennium old. Songs range from the more obscure "Carol Of The Birds," and "Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella," Andalusian and French works, respectively, to the widely known "Go Tell It On The Mountain," "Joy To The World" and "Angels We Have Heard On High." Ortega brought his own melody to the lyric of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and closes the CD with the only original, a remake of his "Jesus, King of Angels," Christian Research Report's "Inspirational Song of the Year" in 1999.
The album shares with The Shadow of Your Wings an organic feel that grows more fully out of Ortega's justifiably admired keyboard work.
"My approach to both records," he says, "was centered at the piano as opposed to laying down grooves first or playing off loops to find song ideas. All the tracks were recorded on the piano first and then built from there, and that meant my classical background was a lot more helpful. I was practicing Scarlatti piano sonatas when I came up with the runs that are in 'Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,' and my arrangement of 'Carol of the Birds' was also inspired by a Scarlatti sonata."
Working with friend and engineer Jay Fisher, Ortega recorded the keyboard parts "at my house in our living room, which is a great setting for recording. We live in an older adobe house with big thick walls, the ceilings are those old round timbers, and there are wood floors."
They experimented with microphone placement and hung carpets at various spots in the room to help with reverberation problems.
"We were set up that way from January until the end of April," he says, laughing at the memory. "There were cables everywhere and I had to unhook the carpets from the ceiling so we could watch TV."
Then there was dealing with his neighbors' menagerie, not to mention the occasional wild bird.
"In the middle of recording 'Carol of the Birds,'" he says, "you might think it would be appropriate to hear a rooster or a crow. It's not."
He co-produced the record with longtime friend and collaborator John Andrew Schreiner, who also engineered, assisted by Josh McKendry, with guitarist Bob Somma, bassist Jimmy Johnson, drummer/percussionist David Owens, cellist Cameron Stone, Cathy Schreiner (wife of John Andrew), and violinist Charlie Bisharat. Together they sought a straightforward, understated approach that used elements Schreiner had long brought to Ortega's music.
"He really taught me how to use tension with chords to underscore or emphasize a lyric and how to simplify things, to leave out what doesn't need to be there, to let my music breathe."
Christmas Songs is the latest offering from a man whose immersion in music stretches back to childhood. Classically trained, with a degree from the University of New Mexico, he embraces influences from virtually all genres of music and brings them to bear on albums that have won three Dove awards and earned 15 nominations. He was a musician for Campus Crusade before becoming music director at a church in Irvine, California, and then part of the staff in the church pastored by Chuck Swindoll.
He recorded several albums before signing a major label deal in 1997 and releasing This Bright Hour. His 2000 release Home won the Dove award as "Best Inspirational Album." Long known both for his interpretations of traditional hymns and for the accessibility of his own writing, he has, in Christmas Songs, brought both aspects of his talent to bear on the thematic riches of the season, adding an impressive new chapter both to his own catalog and to the music of Christmas.