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Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra holiday concert a tantalizing delight at the Broadway Theatre (Dec. 16/2023)

by Scott Roos

photos by Deanna Roos/Contingent Colours Photography

It was a festive and celebratory affair as the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra (SJO) took the stage this past Saturday for their holiday themed “My Favourite Things: The Nutcracker Suite & More” performance at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon. The ensemble was joined on stage by guest trombonist Brad Shigeta, flutist Jennifer McAllister and vocalist Sanjana Brijlall who was subbing in for an ill Tatrina Tai. The Saskatoon Youth Jazz orchestra was also on hand to provide a brief set of tunes to open the second half. 

Kicking things off with the wonderful, lush, dulcet tones of the Bob Curnow arranged “The First Noel”, which was conducted admirably by Jennifer McAllister, the band set the tone for the evening and did not look back. Of course, the main event was a spot on performance of the Billy Strayhorn arranged “Nutcracker Suite” which was next on the program.  Originally penned for the Duke Ellington Band and featured on a 1960 lp, it’s chock full of tips of the cap in Tchaikovsky’s direction for sure, but also has its own jazzy vibe unto itself that is unmistakable. It’s an incredibly challenging piece but the SJO was up to the task on this night.

Trombonist Brad Shigeta, who had spent 19 years as part of the Mercer Ellington led Ellington Big Band was a treat to watch throughout the suite when he was featured. His Ellington street cred certainly gave an air of legitimacy to the proceedings. Tenor player Nathan Degenhart rocked several inspired clarinet solos throughout and drummer Luke Newman aptly handled the skins, pushing out the hard swing as well as some of the other more eccentric beat patterns in a way that provided a solid rhythmic support net for everything else taking place on stage. 

After a brief intermission, the Saskatoon Youth Jazz Orchestra (SYJO) took the stage and, to quote a popular phrase, “my have they grown”. Yes, the size of this crew has grown exponentially with six saxophones, six trombones, five trumpets, and a fully stocked rhythm section, but their overall sound, with their ability to tackle challenging repertoire, has also come a long way. They performed three numbers that included “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”. For “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” the SYJO was joined by talented vocalist Keegan Isaac. This band continues to improve and it’s awesome to see. Kudos to director Nick Fanner for all his hard work in building up this ensemble of amazing musicians.

The second set for the SJO was as varied as you can get for what was billed as a holiday themed concert. After opening up with an arrangement of “Let It Snow” the band featured Shigeta yet again for a great take on “Mood Indigo”. Prince Albert vocalist and University of Saskatchewan vocal major Sanjana Brijlall, who was, as mentioned earlier, filling in for Tatrina Tai, took the stage on three separate occasions. Her “moment” of the night came during the band’s performance of “Here’s To Life” which Brijlall had workshopped with vocalist Dee Daniels. Daniels had been in town for the SJO’s “When the Spirit Moves You: Ellington’s Sacred Music” concert earlier in the fall. 

In terms of the overall timbre of nineteen year old Brijlall’s voice, it was part loungey, Bublé-esque croon melding together with a Dinah Washington style vibrato and phrasing structure. She’s still finding her sound and style but did a fine job as an eleventh hour fill-in. It’s going to be exciting to see her potentially work with the band in the future. Brijlall is young and will no doubt continue to grow musically as she furthers her music studies at the University of Saskatchewan. 

The commissioned Fred Stride arrangement of “My Favourite Things” was another standout on the night. The piece was a reeling, rollicking fun take on a classic standard with all the “Stride-isms” one could expect in a Stride penned piece. Jennifer McAllister also came out to play a beautiful flute solo in “I Wonder As I Wander”. Finally, the group's encore number "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" featuring tenor saxophone player Sheldon Corbett, aka the Mayor of Nutana, to put a final stamp on the night. Collectively, the whole concert was a truly entertaining event once again proving why the SJO is our “Duo, Group, or Ensemble of the Year” winner for 2023. 

The SJO has one final concert left for 2023, the aptly titled “A Night To Remember”, on New Year’s Eve. The band will provide the entertainment once again at TCU Place to help folks ring in the New Year. Vocalists Jessica Robinson, Graham Dyck and Jillian Ramsay will sit in with the band. The SYJO will also be there. A 4-course dinner will be weaved throughout music sets highlighting different genres of music. A festive house cocktail (something sparkly) and a champagne midnight toast. For further information including how to secure your tickets to this amazing event, click HERE.

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