My Rating: 4.8 / 5
Christian artist JJ Heller released her first Christmas album this season, and it is a blessing. Unto Us, the 13-track album, features timeless renditions of Christmas classics. Regarding her thoughts and inspiration behind this project, Heller shares, “When Christmas comes around each year and I hear the jazzy sounds of The Vince Guaraldi Trio playing ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ or Bing Crosby singing ‘White Christmas,’ I'm somehow transported to another place. I hear just a few notes of these familiar tunes, and somehow I'm six again opening stockings with my family, or driving around my neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. This music; these memories fill me with nostalgia. These are the feelings I wanted to capture when I set out to make my own Christmas album, Unto Us.” Without a doubt, Heller achieves her goal of capturing that Christmas season nostalgia. Every track on Unto Us communicates immediate comfort, warmth, and joy. With occasional, sometimes subtle, folk and jazz influences, the songs speak easily into our heart and soul, layered with Heller’s voice as the perfect storyteller- soothing, crystal clear, and sure.
With sounds that immediately inspire that contagious holiday spirit, “Christmas Is Here,” opens with an angelic children’s choir. The choir’s melody is further developed by piano, soon joined by Heller’s raw yet polished voice. Co-written by Heller herself, the tune holds an honest and simple expression of a melody that draws in the listener without hesitation. As the song continues to develop, drum accompaniment joins to give structure, along with a few supporting instruments. The message of the lyrics describes what characteristically heralds the presence of this season, beginning by drawing on simple imagery of candles, church bells, and snow, then progressing to the deeper feelings that stir when elaborating upon the birth and wonder of Jesus. As the track proceeds to a close, the piano expertly overlays a twinkling excerpt of the melody of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” drawing familiarity.
Unto Us features expert renditions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Heller’s velvety vocals glide over a slow, easy groove and expression of this classic. Mostly composed of guitar and lead vocal, the tune contains occasional lyrical and jazzy aid from solo piano and trumpet. “Let It Snow” begins with descending block chords on piano, reminiscent of the clanging of church bells. The song develops into a smooth jazz style, involving brushed percussion, strings and brass filling in complementary musicality. Beautiful accompaniment on piano begins “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” in tandem with Heller’s voice. Repeating patterns on piano, along with the addition of a choir, continue to develop the song and melody. Some original material, co-written with husband David Heller and featured as the song’s bridge, puts an original twist on this well-known classic.
A unique treat found on the album, “Count Your Blessings,” may not be a commonly heard carol but is a great addition to this collection. Sweet beginnings on piano join with the clear, true voice of Heller, creating a beautiful duet. Woven in the middle of the tune is a music box-like interpretation of the melody, echoed by a choir. A retrospective and peaceful lullaby for adults and children alike, it helps direct our thoughts away from the anticipation, anxiety, or worry we might be feeling this Christmas season and refocus on the abundant blessings we have already received. If you find yourself a fan of her lullaby sound, Heller provides listeners a way to share abundant blessings by continuing to pledge a copy of her 2014 lullaby CD I Dream of You for donation to neonatal ICUs and children’s hospitals across the US every time a copy is purchased.
Unto Us is an expertly crafted Christmas album and is a must-add to your collection this season. It inspires those feelings of joy, love, warmth, and hope that make this time of year truly special. Whether you’re decorating the tree, spending time with loved ones, baking cookies, or looking for comfort when circumstances keep you away from home this year, Unto Us will provide the perfect soundtrack to your reflection, worship, and creation of new memories. “As you gather around your tree with your loved ones to celebrate the birth of Christ this year, I hope this music creates a backdrop for you to express the love and joy that comes with the season,” Heller shares.