On the one hand, I despise like so many others the relentless pre-December celebration of Christmas, primarily an outrageous October start to the commercial enterprise focused on prising us out of our money, the once TV subliminals totally usurped by the contemporary in-your-face temptation to acquire anything and everything advertised as the insistent norm of possession at this festive time. On the other, I do love when December arrives.
I like especially Christmas music/songs. Radio play of ‘classic’ hits [Slade et al] also begins too early, but today has opened the aural doors to my now unimpaired-by-principled-resistance listening appreciation and I have enjoyed an early morning breakfast sampling. The industry has also for years mass-produced established musical stars’ Christmas albums, from bands and solo singers [think Motown] to genres like Country and Soul – you can recall millions. Increasingly, this has been variously gift-wrapped in the poles of the turgidly repetitive to the genuinely adventurous, the latter often intentionally paradoxical: though I can’t think of an exact illustration [!] but, for example, a raw punk Christmas carols collection. You know what I mean.
Joy to the world then to have this Kurt Elling Christmas album, a jazz manoeuver into the festive oeuvre that has credibility in the sublime vocal as well as musical arrangements of the American singer. More than this, Elling’s rationale for the album makes eminent sense when he expresses it so sensibly: In the Western world, whether you’re a Christian or not, Christmas has some kind of seasonal relevance to you. You can’t really escape the holiday – even if it’s 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 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.
One of the sweetest spots is Elling’s covering of the beautiful Christmas melody We Three Kings. This has a rolling piano to introduce a choric start and then into its melodic line, this harmonised in his signature way, and next guitarist John McLean adds his own jazzy lines. Elling’s baritone brings forward individual narrative lines interspersed with a chorus as the song progresses.
Another sweetly emotive rendition is of the 1951 Hutson and Albert carol Some Children See Him, contemporised also by James Taylor, and though Elling cannot supplant its heavy Christian referencing – not that he wants too – his phrasing seems to bring out its poetry much more, and Jim Gailloreto on soprano sax adds his own poetic jazz verses.
In more playful mood, Little Drummer Boy gets another Elling signature stroke, here the scatting of its lyric and especially of the onomatopoeic Pa rum pum pum pum/Ra pum pum pum/Ra pum pum pum, drummer Kendrick Scott ‘smackin’ some skin’ in this perfect encapsulation.
Elling’s selection of traditional Christmas songs as well as newer ones [for example Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas] is extended by his setting of Kenneth Patchen’s poem The Snow is Deep on the Ground to music, conveying perhaps the most stereotypical jazz inflections [phrasing over melody], and this is merged first with the A.R. Ammons’ poem Winter Scene
There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree:
except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,
in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch
breaks out in blue leaves
and then secondly – so the third segment of this poetic amalgam – lyrics from the Manhattan Transfer song Snowfall: such a literate selection and structuring.
The penultimate song is Hathaway’s funkyish number, and the album closes on a sweet title track duet between Kurt and his daughter Luiza, with accompaniment by Jill Kaeding on cello, and the childlike desires of its imaginings, which reside unashamedly in the Christmas dream, are ones we can accept for the range of considering that has preceded them.