Harry Connick Jr. Trio – Music from 'The Happy Elf' (2011)

This plays like Vince Guaraldi for a new generation, as Harry Connick Jr. performs an all-original, Christmas-themed set that recalls the spirit of the season without falling into the cliches that often follow better known Yuletide classics.

And Connick’s done his share — including the 2003 best-selling album Harry for the Holidays, which featured the original vocal version of “The Happy Elf.” There followed a TV program, a stage production and a new children’s book on the same theme — about this helper for Santa who saves a town full of naughty youngsters from missing out on Christmas.

Music from ‘The Happy Elf’, however, stays well away from his earlier holiday projects’ often very standard fare, not to mention their more-expected singer-led big band arrangements. This album — his fourth in the Connick on Piano series for Marsalis Music — instead is, after its first-track reading from the new book, a cleverly delivered trio recording that surprises as often as it delights.

I mention Guaraldi only for his cultural importance as a doorway for many into jazz each holiday season; the truth is, Connick shows far more improvisational range. There’s “Santarrific,” where a roiling stride opening gives away to this lean, thrumping swing. And “Naughty Children of Bluesville,” which comes off like a finger-popping, soul-drenched “O Tannenbaum.” Then there’s the West Coast cool of “Christmas Day,” and the undulating propulsion of “Gotta Be On My Way.”


The songs, originally penned for the stage musical of The Happy Elf, are interpreted in a deeply joyful way, unfettered by the draggy sentiment that threatens to sink many such projects — and the perfect salve for people who are starting to get sick of Christmas music right about now. Accompanied by two mainstays of his big band, bassist Neal Caine and drummer Arthur Latin, Connick plays with a jazzman’s verve and a New Orleans native’s gumption.

My favorite new Yuletide release.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.