December is an incredibly busy time for most, but especially if you’re a musician – and perhaps even more so if you’re a musician AND a student. Regardless of the music itself, the UNC Jazz Band should be commended for playing a semester-ending concert right in the middle of finals week. However, the quality of their performance belied the academic calendar. Led by Jim Ketch (UNC’s Director of Jazz Studies), the UNC Jazz Band performed a fun and festive concert full of Christmas favorites.

Although nearly all the pieces on the program featured at least one soloist (and usually more than one), the band showed a tremendous amount of synchronicity, and very rarely did the levels sound imbalanced between ensemble and soloist. Notable solo moments included Nick Sengstaken (tenor sax) in “Let It Snow,” Anne Bennett (alto sax) in the final piece, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and pianist Julian Lambert throughout (particularly in the contemporary Gordon Goodwin arrangement, “Yo! Tannenbaum”). This Goodwin piece that closed the first half was particularly enjoyable, beginning deceivingly with a brass-centric hymn texture before diving into two tempo changes and a sense of freedom that made the whole band shine.

Special guest and trumpet soloist Ken McGee joined the UNC Jazz Band (and his daughter Renee) to play Tom Kubis’ gospel-like mashup of “O Come all Ye Faithful/O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The two trumpeters each took one side of the combo, with solos that seemed to climb higher and higher to the end. Not only is Ken McGee a father to Renee, he also happens to be the current leader of the US Army Blues as well as a former lead trumpet soloist with the US Army Band.

While some of the Christmas arrangements performed started out predictably but soon delved into freewheeling, swing jazz, a few arrangements were more straightforward and featured vocalist Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė. Her gently nuanced vocals fit well with Jerry Novak’s romantic arrangement of Mel Thorne’s “The Christmas Song” before showing a more upbeat style later on with a bit of scat singing in “Jingle Bells.”

Despite having a concert of entirely winter/Christmas themed music, the holiday spirit never got too tiresome, thanks to the skill of the UNC Jazz Band and Ketch’s easy-going yet firm leadership. For many in the audience, this performance was probably a great kickstart to a month of listening to holiday favorites. (For these musicians, the holiday spirit started at the first rehearsal!)