December 10, 2013 | Howard Reich
Laurence Hobgood is one of many musicians with new recordings for the holidays. (Eric Antoniou)
Christmas recordings often yield unbearable treacle when it comes to jazz and standards, but this year happens to be an exception.
Thanks to pianists Laurence Hobgood and Ted Rosenthal, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, violinist Joshua Bell and others, music lovers have something to cheer about this season.
Among the best recordings:
Laurence Hobgood: "Christmas" (Circumstantial). Can overplayed holiday repertoire be transformed into art? It can when Hobgood is at work, the pianist turning in one of the most appealing recordings of an already distinguished career with "Christmas." Because most of the tracks are solos, listeners can savor the beauty of his touch, the subtlety of his voicings, the lushness of his harmonies and the ingenuity of his improvisations. Rarely has "Away in a Manger" sounded so lustrously Impressionistic, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" so brainy, "O Holy Night" so pristinely uncluttered or "Little Drummer Boy" so unapologetically trippy (thanks to Hobgood's doubling on acoustic and electric pianos). Hobgood's former collaborator, singer Kurt Elling, makes two cameos: an inspired and deeply idiomatic version of Joni Mitchell's "River" and a sappy, vibrato-drenched account of Hobgood's "Song of the Christmas Bells." But these are mere sidelights to the main event: Hobgood's glistening pianism, which always bears hearing, and especially on this album.