Critic's picks: Harry Connick, Jr. Trio, 'Music From The Happy Elf'; Ellis Marsalis, 'A New Orleans Christmas Carol'; Geri Allen, 'A Child Is Born'

Contributing Music WriterDecember 12, 2011 

How curious it is that three of the finer releases in an especially weak pack of new holiday recordings belong to jazz pianists whose take on yuletide sounds could not be more varied.

Pianist Harry Connick Jr.'s Music From The Happy Elf might be the most unexpected of the three. A veteran of several Christmas-themed recordings that showcase his big band and traditional (and overtly commercial) pop preferences, Elf presents the pianist in one of his most inviting and overlooked settings: the piano trio.

It's hard not to smile at the percussive cracks of drummer Arthur Larkin and Connick's sparse piano mischief during Naughty Children of Bluesville (which sounds like O Tannenbaum trying to escape from a blues cellar) or the way the light, lullaby turns of Christmas Day melt into the intimate swing of What a Night.

Music From The Happy Elf is, aside from a 10-minute opening medley with narration, completely instrumental. Add that all of the music is original (but revisited from works Connick composed for the stage musical The Happy Elf), and you have a holiday recording that's risky and refreshing.

One of Connick's prime piano mentors, Ellis Marsalis, embraces his longstanding Crescent City inspirations on A New Orleans Christmas Carol.

There is an understated robustness to this recording, typified by the muscular modal playing behind We Three Kings that could pass for a vintage McCoy Tyner knockabout with John Coltrane. Fun as those moments are, A New Orleans Christmas Carol delights most when Marsalis plays things cool.

Among such highlights is a duet arrangement of O Holy Night, on which Marsalis provides stately support behind the lean but beautifully expressive vibraphone lead of son Jason Marsalis. It's a serene little street-corner moment on an album that wears its abundant New Orleans jazz heritage proudly without overplaying its hand.

The real surprise of the pack is Geri Allen's A Child Is Born, a fascinating solo piano/keyboard recording that lightly accents a deep spiritual cast with vocal and choir accents.

The most arresting example of the album's rich solo-and-then-some sound is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It allows Allen to overdub piano and celeste in a manner that recalls the great Bill Evans. But then, vocal samples by the Women of the Gee's Bend Quilt Collective, recorded in 1941, enter as if summoned by a séance. The resulting music is beautifully (and sagely) ancient.

The tune is reprised at the end of What Child Is This?, minus the vocals, to affirm the spiritual roots that remain at the heart of the sounds of the season.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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