It wouldn’t be the Holidays without the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO) concert. Special guest John Pizzarelli added extra glitter to this year’s program. And with the energy of a nor’easter that meets up with southern twister, it was a great concert. The swinging celebration took place at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The playlist included holiday favorites, some of which were arranged by NCJRO personnel and played by the band. There were also plenty of wonderful arrangements by Don Sebesky. And as Pizzarelli said in his introduction, they would start with holiday tunes and then swing outside of that world, including several pieces from his new album, Double Exposure (Telarc 33221-02).

The orchestra opened with two of my favorites: William Fritz’ (baritone sax) arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peanut Brittle Brigade,”  the third movement from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s golden adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. We wouldn’t hear the entire work this time, but for those who are interested, you can hear more on NCJRO’s CD-recording, Holiday Jazz Blizzard (VAC, CD9703). They also performed Gregg Gelb’s beautiful arrangement of “We Three Kings.” Gelb’s (tenor saxophone/clarinet) solo gave it a Klezmer-like feel.   

John Pizzarelli joined the orchestra for the next set. Don Sebesky’s arrangements of Duke Ellington pieces featured several standout players. “C Jam Blues” with soloists Ed Paolantonio (piano), Gregg Gelb (tenor sax), Lucian Cobb (trombone), Pizzarelli (guitar/voice) was held together with a tight rhythm section (Ed Paolantonio, piano; Jason Foureman, bass; Stephen Coffman, drums). And “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo/Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” in the key of G-minor (giving it that ‘depression sound’) tickled everyone’s funny bone. Jim Ketch (trumpet) and Ed Paolantonio (piano) both did a fine job. 

Introducing the last set, Pizzarelli talked about the jazz/pop pairings in his new album beginning with “Walk Between the Raindrops.” (Donald Fagen’s text on Thad Jones’ “Tiptoe”). Superimposing jazz harmonies and style over pop songs works so well musically. With a smooth tenor voice, Pizzarelli was at his best on the ballad “Drunk on the Moon” (Waits/Sebesky). But he is also at home with scat as he doubles himself on guitar (“Avalon,” Rose/Jolson/DeSilva/ Sebesky). There were great instrumental solos: Paolantonio’s beautiful piano solos in the aforementioned piece and “Ruby Baby” and Aaron Hill (tenor saxophone) on “Drunk on the Moon.”

Taking it out with Johnny Mandel’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and “I Feel Fine” (Fagen/Sebesky), NCRJO cut loose with their bright trademark sound. It’s truly a joy to hear this fine jazz orchestra perform in Memorial Hall again. It was great to share the love with a new face. Pizzarelli gave the orchestra members plenty of accolades and clearly they had a lot of fun sharing the stage.