The Nashville Jazz Orchestra joined forces with the Blair Big Band Friday night to celebrate the holiday season and reaffirm that there’s plenty of vitality left in the classic swing/big band idiom. While each ensemble’s menu was heavily rooted in ’40s material, the most interesting aspect was hearing the young players covering tunes far older than they were, and contrasting their presentation with the approach of the more seasoned NJO.
The Blair Big Band was directed by Billy Adair, and included a five member reed section, four brass members, and a guitar/bass/piano/drums rhythm section. They were assisted by two vocalists, Caitlin Quinlan and Laney Keeshin. Quinlan’s spotlight moments came on “Get Happy,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and “I Should Care,” which were her best numbers.
Adair’s arrangements nicely augmented her exuberant rendition. Keeshin’s numbers included “Taking A Chance on Love,” (a decent version that was well played by the Blair band), “All About Ronnie,” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” a tougher number requiring quite a bit of emotional nuance, something that Keeshin provided in a surprisingly effective manner considering she lacks the age and experience that many of its past performers have brought to their renditions.
Top soloists among the Blair unit included trumpeter Brent Baker (who also performed later with the NJO), Zach Green, Austin Conner and Ann Goodrich (on a variety of reed instruments) and trombonists Eric Osborn and Sam Dunn. Pianist Shelby Flowers provided capable rhythms and good solos in crisp segments, while drummer Truman House (a high school student) got one of the night’s loudest ovations for a lengthy solo during the finale.
The Blair Big Band’s 60-minute plus segment before a nearly full house got things going in solid fashion, as their collective playing was loose and vibrant, rather than merely accurate and respectful. They didn’t just engage the classic songs, they interacted with them, showing that it’s still possible to inject personality into interpretations of Ellington, Arlen, Kahn, and others from the swing era.
Of course, that’s always been the stock in trade of the NJO, and Friday’s edition proved no different. From the blistering pace set on their opener “In the Mood” down to the final moments that included a definitive version of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the NJO once more combined high professionalism, entertaining solos and rigorous performances. They were also joined by two outstanding singers well known to Nashville jazz fans, Annie Sellick and Matt Belsante.
They did several splendid duets, most notably a spicy rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which was a big hit for the team of Ray Charles and Betty Carter. They included some updated personal dialog, while ably communicating the tune’s playful and passionate message. Belsante’s top moment came on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” while Sellick was outstanding on a cover of Nat “King” Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Goody Goody,” a number that’s easy to make overly coy and cute (which she avoided).
The other strong tunes included “Christmas Time Is Here” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Under the usually reliable direction of Jim Williamson, the NJO’s ranks featured four-member brass and trombone sections, plus five saxophones, piano, bass and drums. Kevin Madill took over the piano for the evening, while Mark Douthit joined the reed crew and provided several sterling solos. There were plenty of other first-rate soloists, among them Doug Moffet and Evan Cobb, as well as Baker (the aforementioned Blair trumpeter), Williamson and trombonist Roger Bissell. Bassist Todd Parks and drummer Bob Mater were also excellent in supporting roles.
While holiday/seasonal fare can be captivating or annoying, the NJO and Blair Big Band’s show proved so entertaining only the most Scrooge-like types wouldn’t have enjoyed it.