If you run screaming from Christmas muzak that loops endlessly in the malls, then Kurt Elling's holiday album is for you. In characteristically idiosyncratic fashion, the singer sets out to remake and explore the songs, and the spirit, of the season.
The result is a brainiac take on Christmas carols that is, by turns, surprising, warm and rather dark. Sing A Christmas Carol, a musical montage from the 1970 movie Scrooge which yokes together the most famous lines of common carols in counterpoint harmonies, is the opening track that sets the tone for the album. This fractured presentation of traditional favourites is fair warning that Elling is not going to fall into the trap of seasonal schmaltz.
One of the pleasures here is how spiritual the musical exploration turns out to be (not surprising from a former divinity student whose father was a church musician). Listen to The Michigan Farm, where Elling's impressionistic lyrics about a night-time winter scene are an elegant match to 19th-century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's slightly sinister Cradle Song Op. 41/1.
Equally intriguing are three experimental, extemporaneous takes on Wenceslaus scattered through the programme like breadcrumbs - just brief wordless snapshots (vocal shots?)of the traditional tune.
We Three Kings gets a dash of Gregorian chant in the arrangement and souped up with additional lyrics from Tori Amos. Little Drummer Boy borrows some Nawlins marching band strut from drummer Kendrick Scott's sassy work and Elling's relaxed scatting.
The music making is effervescent, which would make even Scrooge believe in the season again.