First-ever Jazz Vespers proves holiday tunes can really groove

Success drives KU to make swingin' version of Holiday Vespers an annual tradition

Let's hope this tradition catches on.

Following the lead of Kansas University's 78-year-old Holiday Vespers (the ever-adored and always sold-out choirs and orchestra collaboration), jazz studies director Dan Gailey this year dreamed up Jazz Vespers.

The sweet and low-down variation of the traditional Vespers made its debut Thursday night at the Lied Center, and man was it swingin'.

KU Jazz Ensemble I, the university's premier jazz group, put new signatures on classic holiday numbers and delivered a dazzling rendition of Duke Ellington's "Harlem Nutcracker," music rarely heard in northeast Kansas.

The 16-piece ensemble set the mood with a Gailey arrangement of "We Three Kings." The glitzy trumpet section unleashed pure, metallic tones between big-band sections that packed big body. The "embellished" version of the Christmas carol made it clear that there's enough room in Lawrence for both Jazz and Holiday Vespers because even if the song lists were identical, the concerts would sound worlds apart.

"That was 'We Three Kings,'" Gailey said at Thursday's show. "It was in there somewhere."

Ellen Bottorff joined the ensemble on piano for the second number, a warm, cozy arrangement of "Christmas Time is Here." Her sultry alto complemented her silky piano playing as the ensemble wove a quiet backdrop.

Featured in "Greensleeves," another Gailey arrangement, were Keith Wright on flute and professor Kip Haaheim on fretless electric bass. In the several bars that Wright and Haaheim played in unison, the tones of the flute and guitar almost worked against one another. But they and accompanist Keith Johnson shined during their solo moments. Wright achieved a purity of tone that rose angelically above the dirty bass line and then turned driving and repetitive in the best way possible. Who knew you could groove on a flute?

Gailey wasn't kidding when he said Herbie Hancock's well-known arrangement of "Deck the Halls" started off traditionally enough, but "in the middle of it, musically, all hell breaks loose." After an impressive piano solo featuring the nimble fingers of Johnson, a host of soloists layered together a cacophony maelstrom that was somehow still musical and exciting.

But the piece de resistance came when the ensemble launched into the Duke's "Harlem Nutcracker," a collection of jazzy movements that makes Tchaikovsky's suite sound almost prudish. KU professors Larry Maxey and Vince Gnojek wailed on clarinet and saxophone respectively.

A crowd favorite was "Sugar Rum Cherry" ("Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"). Josh Adams on drums beat out an exotic, bongolike percussion under the soulful playing of Gnojek on sax. The result was mesmerizing. Equally captivating was "Arabesque Cookie" ("Arabian Dance"), which began with the piercing, snake-charming sound of the bamboo flute, played by Wright.

Gailey said Friday the inaugural Jazz Vespers went so well that he already was flipping through music for next year's show.

"We'll try to make it a new tradition," he said.

Thursday's audience seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of an annual event, calling out its support in hoots and applause any time the prospect was mentioned.

For those who didn't make it this year, it'll be worth marking your calendar for the next Jazz Vespers.

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