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"A Christmas Prayer" is a first-class affair. When I first glimpsed this album, the James Kellerman Ensemble's first release, I assumed that this would be exclusively a classical offering. I was wrong.

Oh, the CD does contain some excellent classical numbers, including "In Dulce Jubilo" and "Le How a Rose Er Blooming," but the album also ventures into more modern and relaxed territory, tackling contemporary options such as "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Toyland." One truth is present throughout--these artists operate with the sensibilities of an intimate classical ensemble; in other words, the production is clear and crisp, the professionalism is highly polished, and the musicianship is warmly wonderful. This album won the 2002 Minnesota Music Award for "Best Classical Ensemble Recording," and it is easy to see why.

As might be expected, James Kellerman is the driving force behind this talented group. He supplied most of the fine arrangements, wrote the one original number, produced the album, and played several instruments (piccolo, flutes, clarinets, sax). His original composition--the title number--is a charming and evocative piece.

"A Christmas Prayer" is an all-instrumental effort with two small exceptions. Bruce Henry supplies a warm and winning vocal on "A Cradle in Bethlehem," and James Kellerman gives a brief, but effective, vocal on "Toyland." The album's mood is stately, but not stiff. The musicians deliver excellent, compelling performances again and again.

This is a quality holiday album through and through. My favorite tracks are "Lo How a Rose Er Blooming," which features an artful arrangement and an excellent flute lead on the melody, and "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella," which unexpectedly morphs into a very cool, primitive percussion-driven force-of-nature midway through the number. Finally, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has a decidedly jazz mentality that sweeps me away.

For those needing some relief from the pressures of a hectic holiday season, pray for "A Christmas Prayer" by the James Kellerman Ensemble. Here's hoping your prayers are answered!

--Carol Swanson

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