Forget the standard old tidings of good cheer, the same old set of swinging Christmas standards, and the sugary holiday treats that lack vitality and real sustenance. Kurt Elling certainly paid little mind to them when he was putting together this gem of a program. Instead of taking the road more traveled when it comes to holiday trips, Elling takes back roads and detours. And as with most of his projects, that makes all the difference.
For his first Christmas album, Elling does what he does best, embracing the art of possibility and enriching the topic(s) at hand with sophistication and sincerity. That's clear from the very first, as he quickly tips his hat to a bevy of Christmas favorites (in forty-five seconds) before leaving them behind for the cheery "Sing A Christmas Carol" – one of three selections here that were plucked from Leslie Bricusse's score for the 1970 film musical Scrooge. It's a merry introduction to what turns out to be one of the most gratifying holiday albums to emerge in years.
While Elling's programming savvy likely led to his decision to open in such an upbeat realm, his roaming artistic ear keeps him from staying put there. On first departure he creates a spectral body – a hazy sound painting, if you will – based on "Good King Wenceslaus." It's the first of three such variations that appear throughout the album. He then moves into a pensive state for a brief and extremely moving take on Terre Roche's "Star Of Wonder," delivers a powerful and mesmerizing take on "We Three Kings" that owes as much to his band's performance as it does to his own delivery, and takes a sly swinging stroll through Bricusse's "Christmas Children."
An easy waltzing "Some Children See Him," a swampy "Little Drummer Boy," further reflections on "Good King Wenceslaus," a marriage of Elling's lyrics and Edvard Grieg's music, and a smartly-rendered take on Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" follow, further illustrating how one man's voice and personality can serve as the ties that bind seemingly dissimilar material. Elling's collaborators – most notably, pianist Stuart Mindeman, guitarist John McLean, bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Kendrick Scott, and saxophonist Jim Gailloreto – also work wonders in bringing everything together harmoniously under one roof.
Elling remains a man of poetry, passion, and purpose here, regardless of whether he's giving a soulful nod to Donny Hathaway, investing himself in the music of John Hollenbeck and the words of Kenneth Patchen, wishing and dreaming through a vocal duet with his daughter, or visiting any manner of other people and places. This album is truly a breath of fresh wintry air.
Four & 1/2 stars: â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… ½