Unless you have been holed up in an underground bunker for the past two months with no access to the outside world, by now you would have been subjected to a relentless onslaught of arrangements of Christmas music, much of it ranging from horrible to insipid. So it was no surprise that given the chance to hear these perpetually labeled “holiday favorites” in a unique and creative setting there would be a packed house at Hill Hall Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After several years of playing their annual “Holiday Jazz” concert at the more upscale and remodeled Memorial Hall just steps sway, the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO) returned to their original home base for a swinging holiday concert that delighted everyone.

In this day of musical styles that many attendees probably don’t even know exist, the NCJRO, sadly, is nearly an anachronism. While the musicians in this traditional big band regret the huge drop off in popularity from their heyday of the 1930s and 40s, they are proud and virtuosic practitioners of their craft. No one exemplifies this more than James Ketch, Musical Director of the NCJRO, and Director of Jazz Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Ketch, doubling as trumpeter and convivial host of the concert, is a furious champion of big band music. Part of the purpose of the NCJRO and its sponsoring Jazz Foundation of North Carolina, Inc. is continuing this tradition, especially through music education at the youngest levels. Evidence of this was an excellent pre-concert performance by the A.L. Stanback Middle School Jazz Ensemble. There were some very fine soloists as well as a good ensemble feel in a group with some members as young as 12!

Despite my previous somewhat maligning comments about repeated hearings of some Christmas music, there is a wealth of great holiday tunes that provide a wide creative harmonic and melodic palette for arrangers. Tonight’s selections featured some arrangements from the great big bands of the past: Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, as well as several by William Fritz and Gregg Gelb, longtime members of the NCJRO’s saxophone section.  The first set consisted of a quartet of the most familiar: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “I’ll Be home For Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and “Little Drummer Boy,” all played with great energy and finesse.

All of the saxophones, trombones and trumpets took a break for two numbers, as the rhythm section alone backed up Lois DeLoatch, wonderful jazz vocalist as well as one of the board members of the Jazz Foundation. She gave a brief but varied set with the up tempo “Winter Wonderland” followed by Vince Guaraldi’s lovely ballad “Christmas Time is Here” from the original Peanuts Christmas.

The second half had “Good King Wenceslas” swingin’ as well as a fairly recent arrangement by a current working L.A. big band with the relatively updated “Yo Tannenbaum.” No holiday concert would be complete without the obligatory sing-along and Ms. DeLoatch led the audience in a medley of three favorites – words provided in the program. A perennial favorite in these annual concerts, and one of the most interesting classical to jazz adaptations, is Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of four selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The band really showed off their prodigious chops in this brilliant transformation of high romanticism to great jazz.

The whole evening had a very special down home feeling – and I mean that in the very best sense – as the concert combined a friendly, informal atmosphere with some of the finest playing of this regrettably endangered style. The main audience demographic did tip a bit towards those who have memories of this music as that of their youth, but there was also a good contingent of all ages. A nice reception afterwards in the ancient Hill Hall rotunda was a lovely exclamation point on a great evening of music that we hope will continue to thrive.