The announcement in August that Kurt Elling had signed to Sony and was planning a Christmas album may have caused some to suspect the American jazz singer had sold out. Yet The Beautiful Day shows him to be as much of a hepcat as ever — singing "we hit the skins for him" on Little Drummer Boy — while adding a devotional dimension to his often solemn way with a ballad.
In the sleeve notes Elling says he neither wanted to make a religious record nor swing the seasonal standards, but evoke Christmas as a "time of consideration". The result is a distinctive concept album that flows elegantly from the sacred to the secular. And even though the material is drawn from an array of external genres, including classical, carols and pop, it's still jazz that holds it together.
So on Christmas Children, one of three Leslie Bricusse songs from the film Scrooge, we have walking bass, brushes and a laid-back piano solo by Stuart Mindeman. The smooth electric guitar of John McLean leavens the jingle-bell soul of Donny Hathaway's This Christmas. Less jazzily, Same Old Lang Syne, a touching folk-rock ballad by Dan Fogelberg, shows Elling to be a fine, subtle storyteller.
On the religious pieces that delicate touch taps into an underlying mood that makes them universal. Worldbeat meets Tubular Bells in We Three Kings, which Elling sings with a passionate profundity. In The Michigan Farm Elling's new lyrics, set to Grieg's Cradle Song, invite us to wander in the snow and meditate on the mysteries of nature. After a turbulent year, it's just the sort of Christmas we need. (Okeh/Masterworks)
Four stars: â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜†