Concerts of holiday music have been some of Jazz at Lincoln Center's most popular programming for at least 25 years now. Given the talent of its in-house big band — the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis — it's no surprise that the results are consistently fine. But here's a pretty Christmas ornament that's a little rougher around the edges.
The Orchestra's version of "We Three Kings" begins with all sorts of textural noise — plucking inside the piano, strumming on the guitar neck, scraping of cymbals, decorative bleating of saxophone. Over this bed, a lone muted trumpet heralds the familiar melody. Then with a wink, the groove shifts to rim shots, and three plunger-muted trombones, royalty of the Orient that they are, declare themselves. Their regal presence is greeted by a brass chorale on full blast, a major-key bridge which tees up Ted Nash on soprano sax. It's his arrangement, and he certainly exerts his authority over it, digging in harder and harder over a single pedal point until the intensity triggers a reset and it all begins anew. PHEW.
This recording comes from the new release Big Band Holidays, an album of mostly jolly straight-ahead swing from the Orchestra, with some typically detail-oriented and impeccable guest turns by vocalists Cecile McLorin Salvant, Rene Marie and Gregory Porter. That makes this instrumental arrangement a bit of a cheeky move — a little spice in the mulled cider, so to speak. Then again, the JaLC's musical director would know something about doing that with this song, no?
Big Band Holidays is out now on Blue Engine Records.