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In the past decade, members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, music director and lead trumpet, have become like old friends at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. This is the fourth time that I have had the pleasure of hearing these superlative musicians at Memorial Hall, home field of Carolina Performing Arts. This program was called "Big Band Holidays," and perhaps it was the best of them all.
By this time of the year it's easy to grow a bit weary of the usual holiday fare, but it is the great artists that are able to transform well loved but somewhat overplayed favorites into something new and refreshing that grabs your attention. This consummate big band did just that by emphasizing the arrangers – all but one whom are members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Also on hand were two singers, Denzal Sinclaire and Audrey Shakir (who is also the mother of band member Walter Blanding, tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet).
The completely sold-out auditorium erupted when the guys came out (there are no women in this band). You might think "Jingle Bells" is the most trite of all Christmas songs but a Count Basie Orchestra arrangement had the band swinging with that unmistakable Basie style to launch the evening’s festivities.
Marsalis may be one of the biggest and most influential musicians on the planet, but here – in his most natural habitat – he is just the lead trumpet player sitting with the three other trumpeters. He is however the spokesman for the band, so he not only calls out the soloists after each number but also tells brief but very interesting tidbits for each selection.
What's a big band without a singer? Out came Denzal Sinclaire, a new name to me but a vocalist I want to hear more of. Smooth and elegant, with hints of Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman, and Nat King Cole in his delivery, he sang "Caroling, Caroling, Christmas Bells are Ringing." arranged by Marcus Printup. This included a seductive solo by Ted Nash on alto sax and guitarist James Chirillo. The favorite "We Three Kings" is filled with the possibility of outlandish harmonic and rhythmic excursions, and bass player Carlos Henriquez's arrangement perked up our ears. Considered a bit too risqué by church authorities when written in 1952, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" skyrocketed up the charts, at least partially because of its "forbidden" subtext! These guys could make "Three Blind Mice" swing!
When you think of jazz arrangements of Christmas songs, it's reasonable that Elvis Presley’s big hit "Blue Christmas" would never enter your mind – but then, you would not be trombonist Chris Crenshaw, whose arrangement of this tune brought down the house. It featured singers Sinclaire and Shakir, another new name whose CDs are now on my wish list. Her scatting approached the skill of Ella Fitzgerald, and she and Sinclaire were deliciously playful and seductive together.
Even the best performances generally have some second-half walk-outs, but I saw no empty seats after intermission. Right away we had our minds blown by one of the most intriguing and unusual arrangements in an evening filled with those: Chirillo’s take on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" – set to a samba beat! (Off to the beaches of Rio for caroling!) Then a relatively little-known upbeat ditty called "Everybody’s Waiting for the Man with the Bag" was a family affair with Shakir singing her son Blanding’s soulful arrangement.
Most of the band took a break as they whittled down to a trio featuring pianist and arranger Dan Nimmer, bassist Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson on a smokin' "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." This was the time to raise the flag of nearly unimaginable virtuosity, and did they ever! Next, Sinclair returned to sing probably the most well-known and beautiful holiday ballad, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." written in Los Angeles in 1944 in sweltering heat.
Think you've heard enough creative, thinking-outside-the-musical-box arrangements? Perhaps the best was saved for last: the usually reflective "Silent Night," arranged by multi-instrumentalist Victor Goines as an homage to various New Orleans styles. From Satchmo to Delta blues to Fats Domino, this was a funhouse ride of unexpected twists and turns. After this fabulous night of familiar music in unfamiliar packages, you may never think of these tunes in the same way again.