Review: Durham University Big Band and Jazz Orchestra’s ‘Jazzy Christmas’

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Coming into the early days of December, filled with snow (and some slippery sleet), Durham University’s Big Band and Jazz Orchestra hosted a ‘Jazzy Christmas’ to put us all in the Christmas spirit. The yearly Big Band concert took on the Jazz Orchestra in collaboration this year, which was in support of ‘Brass for Africa’, an organisation striving to support children and young people in Sub-Saharan Africa by providing them opportunities to develop their lives through music. With 50% of the proceeds from the event going towards the charity, the large turnout of the audience meant that it was most definitely not in vain!

To set the scene of the event, the Castle Great Hall was transformed into a venue, that one could argue, resembled an underground jazz bar. Many were entertaining a drink while settling at their tables and taking in the festive atmosphere, as the night began with the Jazz Orchestra opening the first half.

took us on a wintery tour of a ‘Jazzy Christmas’ through the iconic New York City! Making ‘stops’ at many notable jazz spaces like 27th Street, home of the Jazz Standard club in Manhattan, and down to the infamous Broadway with Lullaby of Broadway, the Jazz Orchestra truly transported us to ‘the jazz mecca’. 

They opened the night with their rendition of Jingle Bells, which set the scene to such a high standard, but even so, they continued to wow us multiple times throughout the night! Some of the standout performances were Señor Blues (arranged by the Jazz Orchestra’s Musical Director, Tom Hardy), a Rich DeRosa arrangement of I’ll Be Home for Christmas and Bob Mintzer’s Latin Dance. Señor Blues took us to the previous jazz club, Café Bohemia, where The Jazz Messengers band undeniably drove the genre forward in the 1950s. Hardy’s arrangement of this piece truly showcased the talent of each individual, through multiple dazzling solos across all sections and a remarkable showcase of their unified sound. Although we are introduced to the alto vocalist, Abby Helsby, in the previous piece Lullaby of Broadway, it’s in the orchestra’s cover of I’ll Be Home for Christmas where Helsby truly shines through her soothing, silky tone and her tasteful, controlled use of vibrato. In the orchestra’s groovy rendition of Bob Mintzer’s Latin Dance, the Jazz Orchestra flaunts their stacking talents through the rhythmically challenging ending to the piece, which they executed flawlessly, even without Hardy conducting!  

Despite these three stellar pieces, the number I continue to endlessly think about, even as I am writing this, is the third piece Walking By Flashlight, by Maria Schneider and transcribed by Hardy. This piece featured a stunningly entrancing solo by clarinettist and saxophonist, Freya Lockeretz, who truly stole the show with her beautiful phrasing of the melody, as a feature on this number; a moment where time stood still; an audience fully captivated. It would be a true disservice to the orchestra if I didn’t commend their masterful artistry and their ability to give and take in the most perfect moments.

The orchestra truly demonstrated their musicianship by utilising their use of dynamic contrast to support the raw emotion of Lockeretz’s solo… It was a piece that was understandably the crowd’s favourite

Introducing the second half of the night, was Durham University’s resident Big Band. With their well-established name, expectations were high and they did not disappoint! 

Their opening big band number, Night Blood, introduced their full, warm tone that could keep you toasty all winter. The standout trumpet section carried the melody with ease and had me on the edge of my seat, itching to hear them feature again. Their second number, however, had us twiddling our thumbs in anticipation when they began to clap the complex rhythms of Bob Curnow’s First Circle, due to its unexpected nature. The change in pace from the previous piece to this alternating 10/8 and 12/8 rhythm created a lovely framework for the mood of the number, and the audience could still feel this rhythm once the instruments sounded.

I simply must highlight the rhythm section in George Gershwin’s Strike Up The Band, where Tom Hardy (keys), Ewan Thomas (double bass) and navigated difficult rhythms yet still provided such a solid foundation for the woodwind and brass section.

The woodwind section handled challenging runs and Thomas Hughes’ intricate saxophone solo oozed with passion; a similarly fantastical ending followed it

We later hear another solo from Hughes in Scott Arcangel’s Stakeout, where his sheer dexterity fused beautifully with the epic spy-esque nature and bluesy feel of the piece; also noting the exceptional walking bass by Thomas. 

A crowd favourite (for its popularity and familiarity) was an Anthony Strong arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough. This arrangement was such a unique take on the chart-topper and the muted trumpets recreated the infamous riff within the song. The Big Band’s resident vocalist, Alexandra Tyler, featured in this, but it is in the following piece that I found her voice to be the most impressive. The Big Band closed their set with the famous Christmas tune Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and despite Tyler showcasing her vocal agility in previous numbers, she showed off incredible runs and presented this Michael Bublé feel, which perfectly suited the vibe of the piece.

The ‘Jazzy Christmas’ concert at this point was unfortunately coming to a close, but to end the evening, the Jazz Orchestra joined the Big Band onstage for one last number: Love For Sale by Buddy Rich. This number featured solos from almost every section and trombonist, Felix Hollenbery, snuck a Christmas tune into his solo, which felt like the perfect roundoff to the night. The drummers, Jobburn and Janathan Karunakaran, coordinated a tight, enthralling drum duet (on one drum kit) that surpassed my expectations; a well-deserved dramatic ending to this fabulous event and the audience’s applause reassured this notion.

Highlights of the event are available to watch on PalTV’s YouTube channel or you can watch the event in full on Durham Student Music’s YouTube channel!

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