By now most of us have endured an unavoidable assault of Christmas (or “holiday” for the PC police out there) songs. The saving grace of this situation is that most of these classic carols and songs are actually quite good and are filled with harmonic opportunities, and thus they serve as a rich canvas, full of endless possibilities for arrangers to display their talents. Nowhere is this more apparent than jazz treatments of these classic tunes. For the twenty-second year, the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO) presented their big band treatment of a generous selection of these timeless favorites in a program called “Jazz for the Holidays.” A nearly full house at Memorial Hall on the UNC Chapel Hill campus braved a miserable evening of icy rain, and it was well worth the trip. The presenter was Carolina Performing Arts.

The NCJRO, under the direction of Jim Ketch, is an ensemble that successfully endeavors to keep the great music and legacy of the big band alive and well. Once ubiquitous on the American musical landscape, big bands have struggled to retain their once unsurpassed popularity, so we in North Carolina are indeed fortunate to have this professional, swingin’ group in our own backyard. The lineup of this group is just as you would have seen back in the day: five saxophones, including baritone, tenor, and alto, as well as members of that section doubling on flute and clarinet; four trombones; four trumpets, and a rhythm section consisting of drums, bass, piano, and guitar. Based on my memory from a few years back, there appears to have been a fairly large turnover in personnel.

The evening kicked off with a Gordon Goodwin arrangement of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and from the first verse we knew we were in the presence of a group of supremely talented jazz cats. In fact, without any disrespect to former members of the NCJRO, they sounded better than ever. In previous years, a major part of these annual concerts was at least several movements of Duke Ellington’s creative take on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, but this time we had just one: the renamed “Sugar Rum Cherry” written to depict what a certain level of inebriation might do to “Sugar Plum Fairies.” What is probably Leroy Anderson’s biggest hit, “Sleigh Ride,” in a slowed down version, was up next.

Over the past twenty years or so there has been a tremendous renaissance of exceptional female jazz singers, making it difficult to keep up with all of them. I had not heard of René Marie before this concert, but after this program I put her right at the top of this group of jazz greats. What makes her even more special is that this Virginia native did not begin her professional career until the age of 42. When she came out and launched into Sammy Cahn’s “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!,” within moments you knew you were in for a very special evening. Despite her confession of extreme nervousness, none was evident. She has a powerful alto voice and a demeanor that beautifully illustrated the message of the lyrics. My personal favorites tended toward the ballads, particularly the gorgeous Thad Jones composition “A Child is Born” and Mel Tormé’s beloved “The Christmas Song.” She was given “permission” to veer away from strictly Christmas works and we were treated to some great standards like “Exactly Like You,” “Day Dream” and “Until I Met You,” the stunning adaptation with lyrics of Benny Golson’s classic “Corner Pocket.”

Ketch (director of jazz studies at UNC) and Marie traded stories and mutual admiration and the result – in addition to the superb music – was an atmosphere of great camaraderie and musical fellowship among the players and with the audience. One of Marie’s influences was Eartha Kitt and she gave a spectacular homage to her with a sizzlin’, slow burning version of “Santa Baby,” that defined sultry. She even sang the somewhat insipid “Jingle Bells” and managed to make it daring and interesting, even reprising it for a poorly supported sing-along.

Non-classical concerts tend to have no intermission and no programs or listings of what will be played. Thankfully this concert defied those expectations, and it made a big difference. They even went one step further and for each selection listed the soloist(s). At the risk of excluding someone, suffice it to say that nearly everyone in the band had a shot, and each demonstrated remarkable fluidity and creativity and performed at the highest level. It is also important to mention the great job the sound engineers did, particularly the full, amplified, but not electric-sounding bass as well as piano. The balance was perfect.

Events become traditions for a reason, but it is even more special when these events get better and better each time. The NCJRO’s annual holiday jazz concert, like Messiah at Duke Chapel, has now reached legendary stature in this region. This year’s performance made it clear that it well never become “more of the same stuff” and will continue to delight all, whether hearing it for the first or the 23rd time.