Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling says of the holidays, "In the Western world, whether you're Christian or not, Christmas has some kind of seasonal relevance to you...You really cannot escape the holiday—even if it is just coming at you on television...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 would carry their own such memories; and not all those memories are of happy occasions."
Memory is an essence of Christmas, an experience that is filled with history and resonance. This is never more true that in the more contemporary and secular celebration of the holiday. The Hope of the message is always present in the memory....
It is a great day, in any art, when concept, theme, arrangement, and performance all intersect. Such is our good fortune on Kurt Elling's bold and spirited The Beautiful Day. As the only possible heir to that place in jazz vocals vacated by Mark Murphy, Elling creates a solid seasonal statement wrapped in genius and creative invention.
His triumph is his inspired treatment of Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" well punctuated by Jim Gailloreto's tart and slippery soprano saxophone. The song almost sounds completely out-of-place until subsequent listenings put it into perspective. It also sets the creative tone of the recording with very contemporary readings of very contemporary compositions. Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" is so hip it will give you whiplash. Of the traditional carols (and, yes, there are some), Elling turns them all on their ears. "Wenceslaus" is offered in a three part, wordless vocal suite probing the depths of that old melody. Each of the three sections is dramatically different, deepening the harmonic message. Elling's "We Three Kings" features new lyrics by Tori Amos and some challenging soloing by guitarist John McLean.
From a technical angle, Elling's fine band hits its rhythmic nirvana in the release just prior to Stuart Mindeman's two-fisted piano solo in the Clark Sommers arranged "Christmas Children." This is what author Ted Gioia would call that "thing" separating the novices from the experts. A simple transition that amps up everything.
It is in its sheer creativity that Elling's The Beautiful Day captures the hope and celebration to be found in Christmas.