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Tuneful tidings: The best new holiday albums

December 16, 2011 |  6:00 am

The economy and the state of the nation wax and wane, but through it all, Americans still find meaning in the December holidays. That includes reconnecting with our favorite music and looking for new musical expressions of Christmas and Hanukkah. For recording artists, the Holy Grail is a Christmas release that the public will return to in coming years. There may not be a new “White Christmas” this season, but the 2011 season gives us some fine new jazz and vocal albums.

****‘A Child Is Born,’ Geri Allen, Motema

This well-considered program brilliantly stitches together familiar traditional Christmas and gospel songs, primarily played by pianist Geri Allen. She interprets from the heart (Thad Jones’ title cut, “Amazing Grace”) and arranges with her head in a quietly masterful display of artistic conception.

**‘Christmas Time is Here (and Chanukah and the Solstice)’ Lisa B, Piece of Pie

Pop singer Lisa Bernstein’s slightly nasal voice is something of an acquired taste on these well-toasted chestnuts. Her lower register serves her best on “Hine Ma Tov,” with a shimmering, layered orchestration by co-producer Jim Gardiner. Her own tunes aren’t likely to become standards, though “Holiday in Oakland” funks along easily.

****‘The Christmas Story’ Paul Hillier, Harmonia Mundi

Hillier arranged this meditative and moving choral suite from traditional European forms (dialogues, motets, chants, and carols) and motifs to tell the nativity story. His majestic vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices handles these mostly short pieces with restrained verve. Though there are fine solos, it’s the ensemble that shines throughout. The audio depth-of-field ascends, giving the album the holy sound of a cathedral.

**** ‘Christmas in July,’ Elisabeth Lohninger Band, JAZZsick

Give singer Lohninger an A for eclecticism. She gathers seasonal tunes from around the world: Germany, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and even Japan! Sometimes reflective, sometimes joyous — and everything many things in-between — her small but protean jazz band thoughtfully addresses the material. Modest but true of voice, she tags L.A.’s own gospel singer-songwriter Jester Hairston through his “Mary’s Boy Child.”

***‘Broadway’s Carols for a Cure,’ Rock-It Science

For musical theater completists, this collection of cast recording one-offs holds plenty of novelty: the “Mamma Mia” cast rocks “Hark! The Herald,” a morbid “13 days of Christmas” by “The Addams Family,” Tom Leher’s sardonic “Christmas Carol,” a “Lion King” “Silent Night,” and “Rent’s” raving “Go Tell It,” among them.

**‘Celebrating Christmas,’ Marcus Roberts Trio, J-Master

With such righteous musical colleagues as bassist Ronny Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, Roberts’ jazz piano interpretations can be surprisingly glib and one-dimensional. True, he explores rhythm and time in many ways, but Roberts could just as easily be playing on nursery rhymes. Marsalis claims “Little Drummer Boy” through rising and falling percolation alone. Would that Roberts had exerted such authority throughout.

**** ‘That Time of Year,’ Bill Cunliffe, Metre

The material may be common to the season, but pianist Bill Cunliffe’s probing solo jazz renditions are anything but standard, and they amount to a tour de force. He taps into the spiritual with “Angels From the Realms of Glory” and “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming,” while showing us how Bud Powell might handle “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

***‘Set for the Season,’ Nicole Henry, Banister

This swinging jazz singer performed this set to a receptive Japanese audience in 2009. Her keening sound is full of portent, and she lets her crack rhythm section fill the musical space admirably. Her “Holy Night” is sturdy, “Santa Claus iIs Coming to Town” with a second line beat is cute, but to include “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” at this point requires a darn good reason.

**‘Vintage Christmas,’ David Ian, Prescott

Guitarist and pianist David Ian gives today’s hipsters a December party soundtrack. Acacia’s spare vocals have a warm simplicity, but it’s junior grade Stacey Kent. There’s nothing terribly deep about these low-key versions of well-worn tunes, but they’re unassumingly agreeable: jazzy rather than real jazz.

***‘A Celebration in Time,’ Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, Justin Time

Canadian jazz pianist Oliver Jones helms this swing-styled jazz collection. A highlight is Ranee Lee’s darkly effecting vocals and Don Martel’s pungent alto sax, swaddled by the monolithic choir. Afro pop and reggae numbers surprise, spiking the fervent jazz-gospel tone.

— Kirk Silsbee