Knoxville Jazz Orchestra lights up stage with ‘Swingin’ Christmas’

Harold DuckettFeature, Our Town Arts

There were a lot of stars in Thursday’s Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s “Swingin’ Christmas” concert who lit up the night at the Tennessee Theatre, especially the terrific guest pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, who can tap dance all over the piano keyboard, and the sensational Greg Tardy, who can play sizzling and velvety Shakespearean soliloquies on both the saxophone and clarinet.

But the brightest star belonged to Vance Thompson, KJO’s director and brilliant arranger.

Lots of jazz orchestras play entertaining music. There are rotations of soloists, each taking their turn, while their bandmates play background music that won’t get in the way.

Thompson’s writing has moving internal parts, like a complex machine, out of which will emerge solo voices that take the texture and story line to new places that point out details in the scenery that might have otherwise been missed.

His orchestration of Donald Brown’s arrangement of the holiday classic “Sleigh Ride” was just one example. Tardy leaned into the sax solo line and Mark Boling turned up the heat with his electric guitar.

Thompson opened the show with a lively arrangement of “Deck the Halls” that included the first sparks of the night from Tardy’s sax.

Then the trombones took over with “Let It Snow,” with Tom Lundberg, Chris MacTavish, Brad McDougall and Don Hough out at the front of the stage in their Santa Claus hats and slick instruments.

From the low octaves Bill Swann hammered out on the piano in the opening of “My Favorite Things,” it was easy to figure out what he might want for Christmas. Trumpet player Thomas Heflin took off on an exploration of his own.

Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut

Thompson introduced the extraordinary Chestnut’s arrival on stage by pointing out that he may be the only pianist around to have accompanied both opera diva Kathleen Battle and the late, great, sing-whatever-she-wants diva Aretha Franklin.

Chestnut told a story about his high school years in Maryland that inspired his recording of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the music of which was the inspiration for much of the rest of the program.

In Thompson’s orchestration of Chestnut’s arrangement of “Skating,” clarinetist Mark Tucker paralleled the piano in a clever duet.

Peanuts characters also presented an opening for Chestnut’s reimagining of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” because Schroeder once played it on his piano.

Mixed in with Chestnut’s explosions on the piano keyboard, Tardy played a scorching clarinet solo.

Near the end of the show, jazz singer Kelle Jolly, who can wrap her dynamic voice around a hot poker, joined the orchestra and Chestnut for a glowing version of “O Holy Night.”

A second performance of Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s “Swingin’ Christmas” will take the stage at 8 tonight at the Tennessee Theatre.

Concertgoers are reminded to allow plenty of time for parking and getting through the increased security lines.

More information about KJO and tickets can be found here.

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