With The Beautiful Day, Kurt Elling has pulled off something close to a Christmas miracle. He has taken a secular approach to a religious holiday, without shying away from a spiritual message. He has taken Christmas – a day of the year that holds deep meaning and memories for him – and embraced it in all its Christian imagery and lore. But from these specifics he has chosen to amplify the holy day's universal themes of wonder, mystery, goodwill and hope. And he has done so with such deftness and generosity that people of all faiths can share in those concepts.… read more
"In the Western World, whether you're a Christian or not, Christmas has some kind of seasonal relevance to you," Elling said, shortly after completing this album. "You can't really escape the holiday – even it's just coming at you on television. I would hope as many people as possible have a positive connotation of Christmas – and that when they put this record on, they feel included in its energy. This record is not meant to be a reinforcement of dogma. At the same time, I?m not afraid to say the word 'Christmas': it's the name of the holiday.
"I knew I didn't want to make a 'religious' record, just as I knew I didn't want to make something musically cheap or just for commerce – or even just a standard, swinging Jazzy Christmas. If anything, I'm trying to expand my consciousness and embrace the goodness of the season. For me, Christmas is a time of consideration, of pondering mysteries. It's a dark time of year, both figuratively and literally, here in the northern hemisphere. It's a time when the snow quiets everything within its blanket, and of solitude, because people tend to rush back indoors – leaving the poet, like the poor, out on the streets alone. It's a time when I can go out on a stormy night, as I like to do, and listen to the wind through the trees." This experience is now memorialized in Elling's lyric "The Michigan Farm", set to the music of the 19th Century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.
Elling has investigated matters of the soul and of faith throughout his career. He's done so through his choice of repertoire; through his inventive infusions of poetry, some of which date back to the 13th century; and through his own writing (such as his lyrics to John Coltrane's epic spiritual quest A Love Supreme). Filling an entire album with such matters required a different effort. Making that album an inclusive ode to Christmas raised the bar.
"It's a funny thing, going in to make a Christmas record – a strange, exhilarating, challenging thing – especially when your father was a church musician, as mine was, and so much of your childhood was based around the church calendar and preparing music for religious observances. For me, the holiday comes enriched with a lot of beautiful personal memories. It also comes freighted with the knowledge that millions of other people around the world carry their own such memories; and not all those memories are of happy occasions. So it was daunting to take on something with so much history and resonance. I hope that with this material I found a sweet spot. The music has meaning; it's inclusive; it's seasonal, by which I mean the actual season of winter in North America; and it has a little bit of searching weight to it - avoiding, I hope, the usual seasonal cliché."
The Beautiful Day is definitively a jazz record, but the material draws from several genres - from traditional carols to the modern soul of Donny Hathaway and the folk-rock of Dan Fogelberg, with several delightful songs written by Leslie Bricusse for the lesser-known 1970 film musical Scrooge. The arrangements come courtesy of Elling himself in collaboration with newcomer pianist Stuart Mindeman and longtime guitarist John McLean. The band?s longest-serving member, bassist Clark Sommers, arranged the catchy "Christmas Children." And Kendrick Scott cloaked the "Little Drummer Boy" in a New Orleans street beat. "We Three Kings" gets an assist from the pen of Tori Amos. And the next generation – Elling's preternaturally poised daughter Luiza – bows winningly on the title track.
At several points, a misty shadow of "Good King Wenceslaus" (a tale of benevolence) reappears in the program. "It's a lovely story, but the lyrics are immovably time-bound," Elling explained. So rather than insert the song itself, he took "little mirror images: smoky phantoms from a slant angle, where the lighting of the Christmas tree is blurry and in your side vision," and used them as a recurring motif. These not only bind the album, they also provide "a settling influence to keep the listener in a steady contemplation."
Nothing captures the essence of The Beautiful Day better than "Some Children See Him," a song specific to Christianity yet dismissive of any clannish appropriation. "It's a deceptively simple song about how the central image of Christmas overflows the boundaries we try to construct," Elling said. "I believe that all races – and even genders – rightly see themselves in the Holy Infant. The spirit of Christ transcends any representative face we may imagine. One cannot 'own' the image of Christ, just as one cannot 'own' Christmas itself."
The human capacity for a quiet transcendence, born within each of us, is a concept at the foundation of virtually every creed, and ought to resonate for people of every faith tradition. That Elling can share it without diluting an ounce of his own belief is the reason this Christmas album transcends Christmas. (And the music soars; you can imagine happily playing The Beautiful Day in the heat of summer.) This may not qualify as an actual miracle. But in troubled times, it comes close enough.
By Edvard Grieg
Lyrics by Kurt Elling
Put away the colored lights.
Set aside the tinsel tree.
Step out into the night with me.
Christmas Eve is there, wait and see.
Come away from the fireside.
Feel the heat of the flame subside.
Fields are asleep deep under the snow.
Softly above, stars shimmer and glow.
Trees that with the winter frost,
cling to life but pay the cost.
Slowly, painfully, limbs still rise,
reaching longing arms to the sky.
Here, melodies no horn can play.
Earth whispers what no words can say.
Christmas carols the winds blow away.
Sweet, secretive lives dreaming of day.