It's December and that means Handel's Messiah will be performed throughout the city.
But it gets a twist — a big band twist — in two concerts Sunday by the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, which coincides with the release of the band's third CD, Suite Messiah.
"We tried to follow it fairly closely," says WJO artistic director and trumpeter Richard Gillis. "The style has changed, of course, but it will be recognizable (to fans of the Handel original)."
The concerts, also called Suite Messiah, will include vocals by Winnipeg vocalist and Juno nominee Erin Propp on songs from the recording such as Joy to the World, There's a Train Out for Dreamland and Caroling, Caroling.
The WJO has performed other suites in the past, including Duke Ellington's work, but was looking for other writing projects when this was put together in 2008, Gillis says.
Arrangements were written by Gillis, Jeff Presslaff and Rick Boughton.
"We'd have done more movements if we'd had time," Gillis adds.
Handel doesn't give you a lot to work with when arranging his music for a jazz orchestra, the trumpeter says. Some sections, such as the Hallelujah Chorus, go in a direction you wouldn't necessarily go if you were writing the piece, he adds.
"It's a fun suite (with) some nice stuff in it. I enjoyed pulling it together," he says.
Propp, who also will perform other songs not on the album, says working with the WJO is always interesting and a little bit challenging because of the band's use of unusual arrangements.
"Whenever I sing with the WJO it's something different than I'm used to. It's not a hassle. It's fun. I get to explore a different part of my voice. Jeff and Richard's arrangements are good for vocalists. They understand where we would or wouldn't want to go," she says.
The WJO performs Suite Messiah Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Tickets ($35 adult/$15 under 30) are available at winnipegjazzorchestra.com.
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Longtime collaborators Richard Gillis and Icelandic guitarist Bjrn Thoroddsen celebrate music composed by the trumpeter on their eighth CD together, The Journey (Ice Music Press).
Gillis, WJO artistic director and a professor in the faculty of music at the University of Manitoba, composed a central suite of three pieces — Yatra, Asa and Patha (Hindi for journey, hope and path) — for the 11-track recording.
However, Precious, written in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in 2012, is especially poignant.
Saxophonist Jimmy Greene, a former colleague of Gillis's, just released the album Beautiful Life, his expression of the loss of his daughter Ana M°rquez-Greene in the Sandy Hook Elementary School slayings, and a celebration of her life.
Precious opens and closes with the bass playing 26 A-naturals, representing the 26 children and staff members killed. The piece combines sorrow for the loss and hope for the future.
Parado (Spanish for lazy) is a delightful piece marked by some wonderful flute playing by Shannon Kristjanson.
Ciro is a piece Gillis wrote for a Cuban drummer he performed with a few years ago. It is an energetic number punctuated by trumpet and guitar.
The melody of Life of Whales was written to create the sensation of being unstable, matching Gillis's feelings as he sailed on a whale-watching ship on a trip to Iceland.
Will Bonness (keyboards) and Gilles Fournier (bass) are essential to the success of the recording, but all the musicians, including Eric Platz (drums), Scott Senior (percussion), Greg Gatien (alto saxophone) and Jonathan Gillis (trombone), make up an excellent band.