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The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra is a modern big band consisting of 17 of East Tennessee’s most gifted professional musicians. Their latest CD titled Christmas Time Is Here features 12 original arrangements penned by the group’s director and founder, Vance Thompson. The result is holiday classics performed with innovative demeanors.
Released on Nov. 1 on the Shade Street Records label, Christmas Time Is Here also includes cameos by two choirs, star soloists Gregory Tardy on the tenor saxophone, Tim Green on the alto saxophone, Dan Trudell on the Hammond B-3 and guest vocalist Jill Andrews.
The opening track is a song the holidays wouldn’t be complete without, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The orchestra harmonizes its instruments beauteously and a big band feeling emerges as the track goes on. Yet, the sax play throughout gives this holiday classic an unmistakable jazz bend making it unique among other past versions. The track is sure to make listeners envision sitting by the tree with friends and loved ones by a roaring fireplace.
“Let It Snow” is the album’s second track and it starts off slowly with expert piano play and bass in the background, but then the orchestra’s signature big band sound resounds as KJO’s trombone section makes its presence known.
The album’s fourth track “O Little Town of Bethlehem” features guest vocalist Jill Andrews. Andrews brings to life this subtle ballad as the orchestra accompanies her lush vocals with flourishing harmonies, striking woodwinds and the surprising sound of the orchestra’s bossa nova section. Andrews' dulcet vocals compliment the orchestra’s instruments perfectly, making this rendition destined to be a classic in its own right.
“Go Tell It On the Mountain” is the album’s fifth track and it begins with Trudell slowly building up with the Hammond B-3 and then he lets it go full tilt as the saxophones chime in. It’s a lively track that listeners are guaranteed to want to grab the nearest person and get on the dance floor to show off their holiday attitude.
The album’s sixth track is another classic the holidays wouldn’t be the same without, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The orchestra seamlessly unifies their instruments into the perfect blend of tradition and tranquility. Some instruments boom, announcing themselves, then Trudell’s Hammond B-3 calms things down, but then the saxophones bring the track up into a jazzy tempo. The track includes nods from McCoy Tyner’s trio arrangement of “Old Devil Moon” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” among others.
“Jingle Bells” is the album’s ninth track and the orchestra uniquely turned this holiday staple into a romping samba jaunt. The original is unarguably fun and danceable, but with solos from Tardy’s tenor sax and Green’s alto sax, this version could be heard on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, as this staple gets a Brazilian makeover.
The final track on Christmas Time Is Here is “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Thompson’s arrangement of this spiritual song is the most impressive work on the CD. The idea came from Chris Potter’s quartet arrangement of the tune on his CD Traveling Mercies. The choir harmonizes exquisitely, and then the orchestra takes over as drums, saxophones and its other big band instruments wail away with infectious holiday spirit.
To conclude, Christmas Time Is Here from the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra is the quintessential holiday album for not just jazz enthusiasts, but for anyone who wants to feel the tingle of the holiday spirit and may want to add some new holiday classics into their repertoire that have some unconventional musical twists.