Sunday, June 10, 2007

Stars in the Morning East—A Christmas Meditation

I was glad to discover that Jeff Johnson was releasing another Christmas recording because they are among my favorites of his work. Stars in the Morning East—A Christmas Meditation is the latest in a string of exceptional Christmas offerings that he has either produced or recorded. The list includes, Centerpoint - Poetry & Music for Christmas (1990), The Spirit of the Season (1994), One Wintry Night by Jerry Read Smith & Lisa Maria Smith (1998) and A Quiet Knowing Christmas (2001). As good as the past recordings have been, this surpasses the earlier ones and rivals A Quiet Knowing Christmas.

Stars in the Morning East is similar in sound to its predecessor. Violin, viola, cello, flute, guitar, bass and piano combine with more innovative sounds for a wonderful blend of traditional and contemporary styles. The spotlight is on the acoustic instruments that at times are allowed to stand alone or with minimal support. As usual with Johnson’s recordings, the production is outstanding, providing crystal-clear sound.

Though Johnson’s soaring and sweeping keyboards provide background throughout, it’s a delight to hear his gentle piano playing. Nowhere is that more in evidence than on the hauntingly beautiful "Coventry Carol," which is framed at beginning and end by mournful cello solos.

The recording opens with Barry McGovern’s reading of the poem "A Christmas Childhood," where the recording gets its title. The reading segues into one of two original compositions by Johnson and Dunning. The rest of the tracks consist of a few popular ("Sing, We Now Of Christmas," "Morning Has Broken" and "In The Bleak Midwinter") and a number of lesser-known carols.

As in past efforts, the traditional melodies serve as starting points for delightful musical improvisation. Classical-sounding music seamlessly gives way to creative and energetic hybrids of Celtic, folk and alternative sounds.

Jeff Johnson may be at his best when it comes to instrumental Christmas recordings. His ability to produce music that not only inspires but evokes a sense of childlike wonder, awe and mystery has given us a recording that is worthy of the season. Quite simply, it will be hard to find a more beautiful and artistic Christmas offering.

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