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‘Tis the season for every conceivable musical configuration from pre-school “choruses” to the big-five American orchestras playing holiday programs. While nearly every community around the world takes part in this yearly ritual in some form, there is something very special and unique about one particular ensemble that is based in the Triangle area of North Carolina. The North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO), formed in 1993, is a standard big band whose purpose is to present the great charts and arrangements of an era gone by when these bands were as common as iPods are today.
Their current season consists of four concerts, but their annual "Holiday Jazz Blizzard" is by far the most popular and a bestseller. Fortunately, for audience comfort, bigger ticket sales and just plain aesthetics, this concert has moved from Hill Hall to the newly renovated Memorial Hall on the UNC campus.
The NCJRO is a shining example of a vision realized through committed people, intelligent use of grants, and organizational expertise. While not quite dinosaurs, the literally thousands of big bands that dotted the American landscape from the 1920’s through the 50’s have dwindled to a precious few – and even fewer if you don’t count school related bands. So, we are fortunate indeed in this area of diverse musical riches to have a professional group that preserves such an important indigenous American art form.
For those not familiar with the setup of a standard big band, it consists of the saxophone section down in front (including possible doublings on flute, clarinet and all sizes of saxes) with the trombones behind them and the high trumpets at the top of the bandstand. The rhythm section, usually stage right of the winds, has piano, bass, drums and guitar. The personnel of the NCJRO has been fairly stable over the years although new UNC music faculty member Stephen Anderson has taken over piano duties from longtime member Ed Paolontonio. John Simonetti is also new on bass.
This concert was 100% Christmas tunes – no filler or empty calories. Assuming that all of the players have great chops and can swing, big bands are an arranger’s art, just as at this time of year orchestras play countless arrangements of holiday favorites. Charts, as these arrangements are called in this world, are what often identified the sound and even the success of big bands. For this concert the NCJRO was able to commission four new charts – each by a member of the band. "Greensleeves" was the most ambitious of those, with a very complex rhythmic interplay between Drew Lile on guitar and the winds. In a more lighthearted vein was the lisp-inflected “All I Want For Christmas is My Thnow, Thnow, Thnow” which had the whole band singing the refrain. Less successful, as far as singing goes, was the four selections where longtime vocalist Kathy Gelb joined the band. Possibly due to a cold, her sound was wobbly and gravelly with a limited range.
Music Director, excellent lead trumpeter, and emcee of sorts was the always upbeat cool cat, James Ketch. His encyclopedic knowledge and love of this genre of jazz is evident, and he enthusiastically shared stories and background of each of the selections with the audience. He saved his most exalted praise and admiration for what has become the mainstay of this annual program – Duke Ellington’s arrangements of selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” It is a well-known fact that J.S. Bach swings, but most just quite can’t imagine that the old Russian can do the same. Ellington masterfully kept the essence of much of the harmonic and melodic beauty that makes this such a staple of the repertoire but added the drive, altered chords and creative orchestration that makes it a true original. Nine sections of the score were played, and each had its own surprises and unique spice. They stopped before the final “Waltz of the Flowers” to put an exclamation point on their holiday fun as each musician “donned their gay apparel” with a Santa hat. This performance has truly become the Messiah of jazz for our area, and we can look forward to many years of what has become the newest holiday tradition.