While I hesitate to use the word “best” when referring to music (as one too often has to swallow and digest that word), I can’t resist observing that the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra opens Christmas Jazz with the best arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy” I’ve ever heard. It’s by the band’s talented young guitarist, transplanted Vermonter Peter Bouffard, and includes among its background riffs brief quotes from a large number of seasonal classics from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Frosty the Snowman” to “Deck the Halls” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” — he even finds a place for “Auld Lang Syne.” The band, which has logged steady progress under music director/saxophonist Ed Love, is rock–steady throughout this colorful program of well–worn Christmas garments. There are six other engaging charts by Bouffard (including a rockin’ “Good King Wenceslas”), two by Mark Benson (“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Carol of the Bells”) and one each by Rex Cadwallader (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”) and Dave Sharp (“Sleigh Ride,” set to an uncommon shuffle rhythm). One ingredient the orchestra lacks at this phase in its development is a convincing vocalist; while Annette Murrell does the best she can (on “The Christmas Song,” “O Christmas Tree,” “Silent Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), we’d rather hear the band, which is in superior form on the incendiary “Carol of the Bells” and elsewhere. This is Volume VI in the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra’s recorded musical odyssey; I don’t know what became of Volumes I–III; I have IV–VI. Volume IV is generally unimpressive, on the order of a modestly rehearsed community band. Volume V, which covers the years 1992–96, is far superior, and VI continues along that path. There is more talent in the ranks, the orchestra plays with greater assurance and precision and is undaunted by the inclusion of strenuous charts. It’s never too early to prepare for the holiday season, and the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra’s Christmas Jazz can furnish a sumptuous musical backdrop for any plans one may have in mind.
Track listing: The Little Drummer Boy; The Christmas Song; We Three Kings; O Come, All Ye Faithful; Sleigh Ride; O Christmas Tree; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Carol of the Bells; Good King Wenceslas; Silent Night; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (54:32).
Tom Cliffton, Dave Sharp, alto, soprano sax; Mark Benson, alto sax; Ed Love, tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Scott Vicroy, tenor, baritone sax, clarinet; Brian Morrow, tenor sax; Mike Murphy, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Jon Hischke, baritone sax; Dean Haist, Jeff Patton, Bob Krueger, Brad Obbink, Brian Grasmick, Mike Anderson, trumpets; Steve Henderson, Todd Thatcher, Arthur