The Capitol Bones All-Brass Big Band has presented “A Stan Kenton Christmas” for over 15 years at various venues in Washington, D.C. A few days before Christmas 2022, they performed their program but with a difference. In addition to their annual recreation of charts from jazz legend Stan Kenton’s 1961 album, “A Merry Christmas!”, Capitol Bones was assisted by the Virginia Jazz Orchestra in recreating generous samples of Duke Ellington’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the “Peanuts” special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It was a wonderful opportunity to hear tracks from these seminal, holiday jazz albums performed live. The band also was joined by Darden Purcell, whose fabulous vocals of “Let It Snow,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “What Child is This?” (complete with scat singing) blended jazz stylings with nostalgic memories of popular, musical Christmas traditions. The orchestra was particularly dynamic that evening, with its shuffle rhythm and showboating trombones on “Blue Christmas,” an exciting, upbeat rendition which was anything but blue.
The orchestra was particularly dynamic that evening…
The Kenton selections included traditional Christmas carols such as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “O Tannenbaum,” “We Three Kings,” Good King Wenceslas,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Emulating the 1961 Kenton approach, the orchestra began these yuletide selections in a traditional, almost classical-sounding, brass band manner. The tempo then sped up with driving, swing-style arrangements. The orchestra—and audience—particularly enjoyed “The Holly and the Ivy,” with band members whistling the tune at the beginning.
In their annual holiday performance, the Capitol Bones were highly unique in that the saxophone section, featured in nearly every big band, is replaced with a quartet of mellophones, inspired by Kenton’s innovative use of an instrument called a mellophonium. The mellophonium is a less stable instrument in terms of sound balance and is not readily available. The Capitol Bones leader and trombonist, Matt Neiss, explained: “Mellophones are very similar in sound, easier to manage, and are very common in marching bands. They are sometimes referred to as marching French horns.” Mellophones are usually played by trumpet players such as Erik Ramos, who also has the distinction of having a doctorate in music. He confirmed that “Kenton Christmas” is the one time in the year in which he has an opportunity to play the mellophone and participate in a live salute to Kenton’s Mellophonium Orchestra, as it was known in that stage of Kenton’s career.
At one point in the evening, the mellophones departed and the saxophone section from the Virginia Jazz Orchestra moved in for a recreation of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutckcracker Suite” by Washington, D.C. native Duke Ellington who, in 1960, produced the piece as a big band jazz album. This version was presented in an innovative way, with catchy and upbeat rhythmic elements and the playful titles which Ellington lent to them. “Sugar Rum Cherry” (usually known as “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) featured a slow, captivating rhythm by the drummer, and “Chinoiserie” (“Chinese Dance”) had the time signature in remembrance of the Romantic Era love of the exotic with which Tchaikovsky imbued his original “Nutcracker” ballet. A particularly vibrant moment in the program was Tchaikovsky/Ellington’s “Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers),” taking us next to the world of Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The “Peanuts Suite,” as Mr. Niess termed it, was familiar not only to jazz fans but to all those who enjoyed the holiday special growing up. “Skating” featured a saxophone solo, jovially “skating” around the melody. “Linus and Lucy,” perhaps the tune most associated with the Charles M. Schulz’ “Peanuts” specials, was performed with loud brass while retaining all the essential parts of the original Guaraldi arrangement. The last of the “Peanuts” pieces was “Christmas Time Is Here,” which has long been a staple of the Capitol Bones’ holiday performance. This pensive arrangement, by Jim Roberts in the Kenton style, again highlighted the mellophones, a lyrical trombone solo, and wonderful orchestral color.
One other standout piece was “My Favorite Things” from Broadway’s “The Sound of Music,” a non-holiday tune which has become a Christmas standard. Here, another jazz Christmas album of the 1960s was briefly saluted—“Christmas Album” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The Alpert approach, interpolating the James Bond Theme with “My Favorite Things,” was introduced thanks to the piano work of Tony Nalker.
The venue of the Carlyle Room provided retro ambiance with its Art Deco style. The room was filled to near capacity with enthusiastic audience members, including a great many young people.
We hope that in the future the Capitol Bones will perform live recreations of other Stan Kenton albums, such as “Kenton in Hi-Fi,” “Kenton’s ‘West Side Story,” and “Artistry in Bossa Nova.” Listeners who were not present that wintry night at the Carlyle Room can enjoy many of the “Stan Kenton Christmas” selections performed by the Capitol Bones on their CD release which can be purchased here.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.
“A Stan Kenton Christmas” was performed on December 19, 2022 presented by The Capital Bones All-Brass Big Band featuring Darden Purcell and friends at The Carlyle Room, 1350 I Street NW, Washington DC 20005.