Big band brings out bold flavours in Christmas classics

WJO's Hymn for Freedom hits a high note


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SUITE Jesus, what a show!

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2014 (2793 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SUITE Jesus, what a show!

A big band interpretation, and reinterpretation, of Handel’s Messiah adds a secular, jazzy touch to the oratorio composed in 1741 while maintaining its religious core in Christ’s life.

And the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra was cooking Sunday afternoon through its three-movement Suite Messiah and a host of Christmas-themed numbers in the first of two weekend concerts.

Erin Propp

The suite, featuring the band’s brand of unusual arrangements and extraordinary ensemble and solo performances, was the centrepiece of the concerts and a just-released CD of the same name.

Winnipeg singer Erin Propp, a joy to hear, gave life to seasonal songs such as Caroling, Caroling and Joy to the World, drew on a favourite spiritual Somebody Talkin’ Bout Jesus, and brought down the house with a simply great rendition of Canadian jazz giant Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.

Hallelujah, the third movement of the suite, brought trumpeter Darren Ritchie out in front of the band to do some testifyin’ using a plunger mute, following a great tenor saxophone solo by Jeff Cooper.

Band members met Ritchie’s slurred delivery with hand-clapping and choruses of “oh yeah,” giving the piece a revival-meeting feel.

Two Scandinavian Folk Songs, a piece arranged by trombonist Jeff Presslaff based on an Icelandic folk song and a Swedish hymn, featured a lovely, unaccompanied solo by pianist Will Bonness.

The concert delved into Canadian territory with Huron Carol and a performance of Peterson’s Hymn.

Huron Carol featured great work by trumpeter Richard Gillis, WJO artistic director, and tenor saxophonist Jonathan Stevens. The piece became a bit of a showcase for bassist Gilles Fournier.

Hymn for Freedom, the concert closer, became two pieces as the big band opened with a front line of Gillis, Stevens on clarinet, trombonist Brad Shigeta and Ken Gold on baritone saxophone, performing the classic as a dirge before the full band joined in for a bold version.

Propp returned to the stage for a spirited interpretation of the hymn’s lyrics as audience members sang along. Propp had earlier delighted the audience with There’s a Train Out For Dreamland, I’ll Be Home For Christmas and Some Children See Him. She is a confident, expressive singer no matter the song’s genre, but she brought colour and feeling especially to these Christmas songs.

The WJO’s quirky approach to arranging and Propp’s dead-on vocals hit the right note for an exciting concert.

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