Christmas musical traditions come in all shapes and sizes, yet an annual celebration featuring a big band and a Grammy nominated singer is as rare as grits in New York. Luckily for us here in the Triangle, we have the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO) to count on for an evening of swinging arrangements of classic Christmas (OK, holiday) favorites for the past 22 Decembers. Last year featured the first-time appearance of triple threat (singer, actress, writer) René Marie. The chemistry between her and the NCJRO was so electric that, by popular demand, she was asked and agreed to return for this year’s concert. Presented by Carolina Performing Arts as part of the tenth anniversary of the renovation and re-opening of Memorial Hall as the cultural centerpiece of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this was a joyful evening of great jazz and a kickoff to the holiday season.

The NCJRO is led by James Ketch, Professor of Jazz Studies in UNC’s Department of Music, who plays trumpet in the band and serves as an enthusiastic and lively host. Plus, you’ve just gotta love his unique count-offs to every song. Unfortunately, neither the Memorial Hall program booklet, nor the insert listed the band members, and it looked to me like there were quite a few personnel changes since last year’s concert. (You can find the artists at the NCJRO website.). The program did list, for each song, the arranger, which is often overlooked but may be the most important ingredient in the mix. Soloists, if any, were also listed.

The party began with one of the most stately of all the carols, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Arranged by Gordon Goodwin, this was a richly harmonized version with Ketch taking a trumpet solo as well as longtime pianist Ed Paolantonio. Next was a favorite of the NCJRO and one of Duke Ellington’s most celebrated adaptations: a bluesy and sultry version of several movements from The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. Renamed “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” “Sugar Rum Cherry” and “Vodka Vouty,” I suspect that the Old Russian would not be pleased, but I never tire of hearing this slow cookin’ version, especially when it’s played with such finesse and joyful abandon as the NCJRO did once again.

In case the guest artist would be too humble to brag on herself, before bringing René Marie out, Ketch announced that just earlier in the day her newest CD, I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt,was nominated for this year’s Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album. Quite an accomplishment for a singer who began her professional career at the age of 42 in a very crowded field of female jazz singers! Her first selection was the up-tempo gem “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” Her delivery is direct. She played with the melody a bit but didn’t veer too far away to obscure the original tune. She had great rapport with the audience and band, helping us feel like we were in a late-night club in New York instead of a large, impersonal auditorium. Next up was a relative newcomer that is becoming a Christmas classic, and possibly the most beautiful: Thad Jones’ “A Child is Born.” Originally an instrumental piece, the lyrics were set by Alec Wilder and it took off from there. This was a lush arrangement by longtime band member Gregg Gelb that featured a well-developed solo by guitarist Marc Davis.

As mentioned earlier, René Marie is not “just” a great singer. During the concert she displayed her songwriting skills (something she did not divulge last time in Chapel Hill) with three selections: “Rufast Dallarg,” “Colorado River Song,” and “Take My Breath Away.” I honestly can’t say that any of these was particularly memorable, and there are plenty of holiday or even winter songs that would have been more appropriate. The highlights, for me, were “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Santa Baby,” two cuts from her Grammy nominated CD. These are sultry, sexy, and very suggestive (but all in good fun) with the theme being that the singer promises to “be good!”

The band alone played what was almost a “minute waltz” type arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that was over after just a few breaths –  a nice change of pace. The guest vocalist also sang a beautiful rendition of “The Christmas Song,” arguably the finest non-carol song of the season – written during a heat wave in Los Angeles by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells. She and the band closed out the concert with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as arranged by William Fritz and with a cool solo by Gregg Gelb on tenor sax.

Well, good luck to René Marie during this year’s Grammy Awards!  Since a tradition has begun for her with the NCJRO, we hope that if she does win that she will still return to those who knew her on the way up.