Thursday, December 18, 2014

Far away from his usual genres, the blogger sings the blues about a household problem and his quest to solve it

Eyes on the prize: Don't bother about style.
 Mousetrap Blues

 (The most memorable blues songs are seamless blends of autobiography and art. About half of what follows really happened, half is made up. You can decide which is which, and sing it to any blues tune that seems to fit.)

When you go out shopping, better stick to the task at hand
When you go out shopping, better stick to the task at hand
      Don't set a person's talk right, as long as you understand.

Went to the hardware store, looking to win a fight
Went to the hardware store, looking to win a fight
      To rid our old house of the mice that come at night.
Chose my mousetrap wisely, was walking down the aisle to pay
Chose my mousetrap wisely, was walking down the aisle to pay
      When a man who worked there said in a friendly way:

“That trap works good, I’ve been using them myself” –
“That trap works good, I’ve been using them myself” – 
    He said that I’d picked up the best one on the shelf.

His free endorsement sure did make me glad
His free endorsement sure did make me glad
     But the way he said it struck me as a little sad.

“This trap works well, I’m sure you meant to say”
“This trap works well, I’m sure you meant to say”
      Then and there, I watched his smile fade away.

His lip curled slightly, and he fixed me with his eye:
His lip curled slightly, and he fixed me with his eye:
      “We got another one in back I’d like for you to try:

“Same brand, but bigger, and tough: I’m tellin’ you true
 “Same brand, but bigger, and tough: I’m tellin’ you true —
       It’s a trap for Grammar Nazis, oughta work REAL GOOD for you.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interstate connections: Local jazz prof links with Florida trio for an evening at the Jazz Kitchen

Tracking well: Zach Bartholomew, Miles Bozeman, and Brandon Robertson played the Jazz Kitchen.
It was a short second set during which to gauge the fresh rapport between saxophonist Matt Pivec, director of jazz studies at Butler University, and the Zach Bartholomew Trio from Tallahassee, Florida. But I had a good feeling about the contributions of each party to this get-together Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

Maybe a half-dozen numbers (with Pivec sitting out the trio's traversal of Kenny Barron's "Voyage") are sufficient when you're savoring the kind of musical empathy that's an indelible part of jazz tradition. Either it happens or you get something akin to the parallel play of toddlers.

Pivec told me he'd met Zach Bartholomew, Brandon Robertson, and Miles Bozeman for the first time that afternoon. A former Pivec student had contacted him to ask for help getting ZBT (as it likes to be known) an Indianapolis gig to fill out the trio's short Midwestern tour.

Matt Pivec
And so it came to be. One could well argue that Sam Rivers' thoughtful "Beatrice" didn't quite earn its place as the evening's finale. But Pivec thought there would be another set, it turned out, so the impromptu quartet closed things out about a quarter-hour early.

The meeting of minds occurred early, fortunately, around the evergreen "There Will Never Be Another You." Launched by Robertson's rubato bass solo and initial statement of the melody, the performance evolved as  pianist Bartholomew and Pivec found common ground. The tune permits lots of motivic fragmentation without disintegrating, and that's what pianist and saxophonist explored, each in his own way.

Pivec was also on alto sax for "Beatrice," which approached finale suitability with solos by drummer Bozeman at beginning and end. Contrast was provided by the tom-tom emphasis for his first turn in the spotlight, then a snare-centric coda to wrap things up. Bozeman likes to play with the components of the kit close in; his ability to vary intensity and timbre with no wasted motion would be good for young drummers to study.

What came off best were the foursome's interpretations of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You." In both instances, I admired the way Bozeman's drumming heated up behind Bartholomew's adventuresome solos. The ensemble was unified and powerful — and polished enough without ever coming close to being staid. Robertson took a searching solo in the Monk standard, infused with energy, though on the verge of sounding cluttered.

The most consistent change of pace, Hoagy Carmichael's sublime "Skylark," featured splendors as well as a problem. Bartholomew brought loads of insight into his solo, adding a blend of tension and lyricism with a repeated-note passage that functioned as a tribute to the title's avian songster. And Bozeman's use of mallets behind Pivec's solo was a zesty choice.

The problem? I sensed the band didn't know the bridge thoroughly: The harmonic shift toward the end — where Johnny Mercer's lyric goes "sad as a gypsy serenading the moon" — was never properly stated. Well, elision and deconstruction are part of jazz, too; I just regretted it had to happen to such a great song.

Since last night and thanks to the pianist's generosity, I've listened with pleasure to ZBT's "Out of This Town," a CD of mostly originals recorded in 2012. In this program, the five-year-old band lives up to the evidence of true partnership I heard at the Jazz Kitchen. It's an imaginative, tight-knit unit around the nine tunes, most of them Bartholomew's. These young men know how to relax, too, so the listener always feels invited to eavesdrop on a fascinating three-way conversation.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beyond observation: Poetry has to confront the unsayable and tell it, not just fluff our sensory pillows

Definitions of the nature and function of poetry sometimes seem to weigh as heavy as the poems themselves. No one needs another, but perhaps I can be excused for bringing back an old one that's germane to the present moment.

E.A. Robinson told Joyce Kilmer (of all people!) what poetry is.
Something Edwin Arlington Robinson once said prophetically addresses the overabundance of contemporary poems that regard bare statement, viewpoint, and observation as sufficient. We hear this kind of verse in Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac," and such poems are the first choice for speakers in nonliturgical religious services and other self-consciously solemn occasions. If the poem draws attention to our duty to perceive more sensitively, and is winsome about it, it goes to the head of the class. It is shared on Facebook, and goes over well at poetry readings and in some anthologies.

These days, poetry that relies only on imagery, and otherwise tells us just what we want to hear, is practically inert. It's mere charity to detect fresh energy in words that decline to struggle with the difficulty of apprehending what lies beyond words. Where in all this verse is that which really stirs the senses and the mind? Where do you find poems that act as acutely as they claim to see, rather than poems that mean only what they say and no more?

Here's how the most significant modern New England poet before Robert Frost was quoted in a New York Times interview 98 years ago. "Poetry is a language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said," Robinson told his young poet-interviewer. "All real poetry, great or small, does this."

Paradoxical, isn't it? We necessarily use words for what we have to say, so how can poetry, which relies on words (what else?), tell us the unsayable?  Robinson went on, according to the interview excerpt Mark Van Doren uses in his 1927 book on the poet: "And it seems to me that poetry has two characteristics. One is that it is, after all, undefinable. The other is that it is eventually unmistakable."

Did Robinson muddy the waters, or is muddy water what inevitably confronts the genuine poet as he sets to work? Our commonplace poets today, even if they throw up a puzzle or two in their imagery, seem to be obsessed with what they want to say and comfortable in their powers of observation. By isolating what "cannot be said" as a touchstone for poetry, Robinson was declaring that you can't groom your thoughts and observations into carefully chosen words arranged down the page with a ragged right-hand margin, then conclude you've committed poetry of value.

This is true whether you practice free verse or the more or less formal kind. Robinson's formula for poetry was lost on his interviewer, for instance, a versifier by the name of Joyce Kilmer, author of the once popular "Trees." Kilmer hardly bothered approaching the boundary of what cannot be said.  He was so intent on communicating a humble, worshipful attitude toward trees that he ended his most famous poem like this: "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree." Except for its verse-marking rhyme and meter, this doesn't get close to poetry as Robinson defined it. It's a sentiment that could have been uttered in prose by a fatuous Arbor Day speaker after setting down his shovel or watering-can.

Williams' poetry has ideas as well as things.
I'm moved to figuratively grab poets by the scruff of the neck and guide their meditation toward Robinson's wise words by a segment on last weekend's "The Art of  the Matter" (WFYI-FM) about local poets' involvement in "The Healing Project" at Eskenazi Health, Indianapolis' visionary new hospital. One of the two poets in conversation with Travis Di Nicola read a long poem inspired by William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow,"  a classic of American modernism.

The young poet (I'm only certain of his first name: Adam) takes a narrow view of the "The Red Wheelbarrow" as an indication of Dr. Williams' steady, penetrating perspective on the material world around him. True, Williams is responsible for the formula "no ideas but in things" (which our Eskenazi poet quotes) and was the unwitting progenitor of boatloads of inert, flat, thing-stuffed poetry. But Williams, a thoughtful poet, did not  advise us: "No ideas are necessary; just focus on things."

And "The Red Wheelbarrow" does indeed confront the unsayable. The things it presents are bathed in an emotional reaction and a complete range of thought. The poem meets Robinson's exacting criteria.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Adam the poet so badly needs to present this scene as merely observed and lacking any inherent autonomy that he ignores the crucial "so much depends" and interprets the wheelbarrow's red color as connoting rust and thus a condition of decayed usefulness. Rainwater on a rusty, decrepit wheelbarrow is unlikely to have a glazed look, and indeed it's clear that the wheelbarrow is only temporarily idle. At any rate, why should so much depend on it in a chicken yard? Why would Williams open this very short poem with such an emphasis?

Do I have to spell this s--- out for you? Very well.

Here's a relevant paragraph I just pulled off the internet: "Chicken manure introduces more nutrients into the soil than other types, such as steer manure. While this fertilizer might not beat chemical fertilizers in the nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium rating, it gives your soil something those fertilizers don't: structure. It serves as a soil amendment as well as plant food, improving drainage in dense soils and water-retention abilities in loamy soils."

A wheelbarrow might be of considerable utility in moving chicken manure to where it's needed, don't you think? So much depends on it, you might say, such as a thriving garden, such as our stewardship of nature and its bounty.

Williams' delicate arrangement of this scene is more than something he saw, whether in reality or in his mind's eye. The poem is a whole view of life — and its interdependence — in miniature. Williams was no proto-Instagram poet, taking verbal snapshots and displaying them in poetic form so people could admire the thrifty clarity of his vision. He was mounting an assault on what could not be said — at least, what could otherwise not be said so compactly and memorably and economically. The poem is active, and engages us because there is thought and emotion behind it. It performs — it doesn't just take in a scene and report it in short, jagged lines.

A couple of other Williams poems could be adduced in support of this. "This Is Just to Say" is a love poem revolving around appetite and a shared life, though its "sayable" content is an apology for eating plums the poet's wife was "probably saving for breakfast." And, speaking of plums, "To a Poor Old Woman" is about more than the sight of an impoverished stranger enjoying some fruit, cast in words because the poet is pleased with himself as an observer. Let's look at its most daring stanza:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

If we focus only on what Williams is observing, the threefold repetition makes little sense. But if we look at the shifting stress in the sentence lent by the line breaks, we know we are encountering poetry according to Robinson's standard. We pick up the unmistakable tone of empathy from a well-fed person toward someone much less certain of dependable sustenance. The poet is not just looking at the poor woman; he's also identifying with her. That the link is a shared love of plums is not trivial.

A more recent poet supports Robinson, though his use of "say" may create a little confusion. A.R. Ammons obviously means "don't have a damn thing to say" in the colloquial sense of lacking something of significance to impart verbally. I believe Ammons, a far different kind of poet from Robinson, is here also proclaiming poetry's responsibility to "tell what cannot be said."

"I'm sick and tired of reading poets who have beautiful images that don't have a damn thing to say," Ammons told the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1989. "I want somebody who can think and tell me something."

Indeed, why go to poetry for things we already know, or for sentiments and images that represent little more than a slight heightening of our best moments of attention? We should want poetry that is like the buck bursting out of the lake in Robert Frost's "The Most of It." As the poem opens, Frost's solitary lakeside walker is frustrated that the natural world gives back to him only the echo of his own voice: "He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech / But counter-love, original response."

The poem doesn't know what to make of "the embodiment that crashed / In the cliff's talus on the other  side." At the end of several magnificent lines of startled description, the last four words are "and that was all." An embodiment is not a revelation, after all — certainly not one that can be elucidated in tones of prosy reassurance. But it's the kind of communication we should expect from genuine poetry.

Mark Strand, who died recently at 80, approached the unsayable.
The communication needs to be only remotely concrete. In evidence, I want to end with a poem by the late Mark Strand. "Keeping Things Whole" is no masterpiece, but it's an honest piece of work on behalf of good poetry's pursuit of the unsayable.  The everyday saturates the poem, but the poem is not cluttered with everyday stuff. As poetry, it is undefinable — and unmistakable. Poems apprehending "counter-love, original response" are what we need. This is one of them.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lincoln Trio presents a Spanish composer's personal exploration in chamber music of his Andalusian heritage

A significant number of 20th-century American composers came into their own through study in Paris, chiefly with Nadia Boulanger. Earlier in the 1900s, a composer from a geographically closer but still culturally distant milieu acquired his own voice in the French capital.

Like the Americans — including Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, and Aaron Copland — Joaquin Turina benefited during his foreign sojourn (1905-1914) from exposure to his Spanish
The Lincoln Trio probes the chamber music of Joaquin Turina.
countrymen. In Turina's case,  these were the eminent creative figures of Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albeniz.

What they urged upon him, according to Andrea Lamoreaux's program notes for a new Cedille Records CD set by the Lincoln Trio and guests, was cultivation of his homegrown musical traditions, bringing his sophisticated education to bear upon it.

Returning to Madrid with the onset of World War I, Turina made his mark as a composer and conductor. The new recording presents on two discs his works for piano and strings.

You can hear Turina's mainstream romantic roots in his Quintet in G minor, op. 1. There is a knack for establishing atmosphere in the muted opening of the first movement; his inclination toward an impressionism he would learn to call his own is immediately apparent. But the work becomes full-throatedly 19th-century in expression — chromatic, layered and quasi-orchestral; influences of both Franck and Wagner are discernible. (Violinist Jasmine Lin and violist Ayane Kozasa are neatly folded into the host ensemble of Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Mara Aznavoorian, piano.)

The work follows the Piano Quartet in A minor, op. 67, on Disc Two. Turina's mature gift for smoothly presenting a variety of texture and color shows up here. There are declamatory passages for violin and cello that grab the attention and foreshadow the internal drama to come. Thematically, we get lilting, dancing melodies and what seem to be folkloric elements. These are well displayed in the brisk, three-minute "Vivo" second movement. The performance is dazzling.

The highlights on Disc One are two piano trios with opus numbers, following a Piano Trio in F major that's both gripping and academic. In Opp. 35 and 76, Turina is at his best presenting dialogue opportunities for the three instruments; the conversation is carried out zestfully by the Lincoln Trio.  Formal novelties complement the idiosyncratic handling of melody and harmony: in Op. 35 in D major, the first-movement "Prelude and Fugue" moves from the slow, highly chromatic introduction to a fugue of unusually relaxed character. The subsequent two movements — a thoughtful theme-and-variations and a passionate sonata— bring out the Lincoln Trio's most expressive playing.

Each disc ends with a refined character piece. "Circulo," op. 91, memorializes three times of day — from dawn through noon to twilight. This eloquent trio offers fruitful comparisons to Disc Two's sextet,"Escena Andaluza," in two movements that show how well Turina distilled his take on impressionism. The dark instrumentation, keyed to a solo viola accompanied by piano and string quartet, makes of "Crepuscule du soir" and "A la fenetre" something peculiarly haunting.  Kozasa is the enthralling solo violist; other guests on hand are violinist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli and violist Doyle Armbrust.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Toad's broken clock doesn't keep 'A Year With Frog and Toad' from being time well spent

Jostling for space amidst the wealth of local holiday entertainment options, Actors Theatre of Indiana has made a tradition of "A Year With Frog and Toad." On Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theater, the company opened its 2014 production of Robert and Willie Reale's musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel's beloved "Frog and Toad" books.

A fixture on ATI's schedule — this is the company's seventh annual presentation of the show — "A Year With Frog and Toad"  runs blithely around the seasonal cycle in the fanciful pond-and-woodland setting of Lobel's whimsical series. The affectionate, uproarious tone of the original books is preserved in both the Reales' Broadway show and this peppy, well-designed production.

Visually, from the inspired costumes  on through the homey ambiance embodied in Bernie Killian's scenic and technical design, "A Year With Frog and Toad" makes every twist and turn of this amphibian friendship a joy to behold. Jonathan Parke's sound design, whose default setting is a blend of evocative critter noises, also encompasses a cornucopia of special effects, none more magnificent than those accompanying Frog's scary story.

Judy Fitzgerald's direction is vivid and calculated to maximize the fun, and the spirited tone of Brent E. Marty's musical direction serves the action and the clever songs well, with a small offstage band providing buoyant accompaniments.

Warts up: Toad bestirs himself to greet spring.
Don Farrell painted the full spectrum of Toad's character with deft brushstrokes of voice and gesture.
The fretful, dense, self-pitying, blubbery moods to which Toad is subject were effectively balanced against his fundamental joie de vivre and sporadic moments of self-confidence and bravado ("Toad to the Rescue").  "I was in absolute peril!" Toad roars reproachfully at Frog after one of their adventures, and in Farrell's portrayal you know the warty hero both means it and rather enjoys saying it.

The more sensible Frog, fully at home in his smooth green skin, was winningly played by Bradley Reynolds. Without smugness, and projecting genuine tenderness toward his problematic friend, Frog as portrayed by Reynolds adeptly fleshed out a delightful tribute to the value of bonding over time and through trials.

After reconnecting post-hibernation with the arrival of spring, Frog and Toad test their bond and simply enjoy each other's company in the midst of an amiable animal kingdom.  This is far from nature red in tooth and claw. Turtle, Mouse and Lizard tease the awkward Toad both in and out of the water. An Andrews-Sisters-like trio of Birds (played by the same versatile actors)  is blithely supercilious.

Frog (Bradley Reynolds) and Toad (Don Farrell) bond over cookies.
But nothing seriously threatens the friendship except a misunderstanding or two. The friends occupy common ground, despite Frog's superior swimming ability. When Toad bakes cookies with songful enthusiasm to end the first act, Frog joins him in blissful overindulgence. Most of the two friends' foes are figments of Toad's hopping imagination. The songs give three-dimensional zest to the friendship, but "A Year With Frog and Toad"'s family audiences are not destined to be burdened by anything weighty.

Tim Hunt, Kelly Krauter, and Kyra Jeanne Kenyon portray the amphibians' neighbors.
Kelly Krauter, Kyra Jeanne Kenyon, and Tim Hunt deserve plaudits for full-throated and -bodied commitment to the show's supporting menagerie.  In addition, Hunt gets a few well-paced solo turns as Snail, whom Frog charges with delivering a letter to Toad that arrives grotesquely tardy — but, as often turns out in cherished children's stories, at just the right time.

And this is just the right time to pay an initial or repeat visit to ATI's "A Year With Frog and Toad." It's not Handel's "Messiah," it's not "The Nutcracker," and it most definitely is not that didactic Victorian favorite, "A Christmas Carol."  But it deserves to leap regularly into the seasonal affections of local audiences.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

ISO's 'Yuletide Celebration' takes in some well-designed moments for Time for Three

A number of years have elapsed since I last saw "Yuletide Celebration," though its origin coincided with mine as the Indianapolis Star's arts reporter.

Angela Brown knows how to blend glamour and down-to-earth warmth.
Unlike me, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's holiday variety show seems to have gotten more energetic, stylish and refined with age, judging from Saturday night's performance of the 29th annual production in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Angela Brown, the effervescent operatic soprano who calls Indianapolis home, is reunited as host with Broadway baritone Ben Crawford. The couple revives its 2012 partnership. They engagingly manage the patter (with Brown owing more than a little to the style of the sainted Pearl Bailey), and a few apt remarks are contributed from the podium by pops maestro Jack Everly. Of course, Brown and Crawford get plenty of exposure in vocal solos and duets as well. A special feature of the 2014 show is the magnetism and panache of Time for Three, the Philadelphia-born string trio now in its sixth season as the ISO's ensemble in residence.

The Brown-Crawford "classical" vocal showcase — a medley of "Gesu Bambino," "Panis Angelicus," and "Cantique de Noel" (O Holy Night) — was the least satisfying of the show's medleys and mash-ups, despite Everly's attractive orchestration.  The two singers came off better in solos, such as Brown's in "Rise Up, Shepherd" and Crawford's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."

The ISO's pops side is more at the forefront in "Yuletide Celebration"  than its classical chops. The adroit company of singers and dancers supports the stars in the matter of refinement. If memory serves, even the time-tested first-act finale — an abundance of Santa Claus figures tap-dancing to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" — has changed into something more suave and intricate than ever.

There is certainly no surer hand to have at the helm of this kind of entertainment than Everly. He also  arranged a clever production around "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," with ISO  principal tuba player Anthony Kniffen coming down front to play the melody while Dr. Seuss' Grinch mugged menacingly from one of the stage set's lofty balconies. On the other side of intermission, Everly presides over the premiere performances of his arrangement of songs from the movie "Frozen," culminating in a powerful men's chorus. The suite was neatly tied together, with a particularly mesmerizing episode in which gymnastic aerialist Kristen Noonan also sang, followed by Time for Three's accompanying her limber display in and around an airborne hoop.

You never know what Tf3 will do next.
Time for Three has once again extended its range with this show. The lads had some light-hearted dialogue, they sang a little bit like any good boy band, and violinist Nick Kendall even had a few seconds of tap-dancing, though if you blinked you missed it.

Their forte of effusive, close-order string-ensemble drill was amply on display, naturally. It's given a "bluegrazzy" feeling by their longtime colleague Steve Hackman in his arrangements of "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and in a clever, extended medley of "Let It Snow" interspersed with excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," supported by violinist Zach De Pue's ISO colleagues. Bassist Ranaan Meyer also appears without his trio colleagues in the midst of an effervescent medley of popular seasonal hits titled "Yuletide Jukebox."

Costume designer Clare Henkel's resourcefulness and intuitive pizazz added considerably to the production's visual richness. Especially notable were her multiple designs for Brown and the wealth of glitz poured into a number from "Elf: The Musical" led by Crawford at his most charming. The stage set matched the manner in which the performers were decked out, and Jennifer Ladner's choreography made the most of the large cast's aptitude for snappy, coordinated movement.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Cliche-free concert of Christmas-related music makes up Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra program at the Palladium

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in full cry.
It's hard to escape the most hackneyed music of the season these days, usually done in predictable ways. That's the kind of comfort food many people expect, but Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra offered something more bracing and satisfying Friday night at the Palladium. It's hard to put up with egg nog unless it's been suitably spiked, after all.

With Marsalis as featured trumpet soloist and master of ceremonies, the most eminent American big band now working presented a program neatly divided into six numbers in each of two sets. A notable standout among those dozen performances was guest vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Salvant personalized "What Child Is This?," restoring a sense of wonder to the text on the age-old melody "Greensleeves." The arrangement opened with a chordal onslaught by the J@LC's stellar sax section, then quickly settled into something more intimate and worshipful once the vocal started.

Her singing was witty and illuminating in more obscure pieces as well. Among them was Louis Armstrong's "'Zat You, Santa Claus?," with its novelty-number door knocking and the wary response to it of the singer, who hopes for a present that can be slipped under the door by the Right Jolly Old Elf.

Salvant displayed her scat-singing ability in "It's Easy to Blame the Weather."  Her affinity for this seasoned technique seemed more an extension of her loose textual phrasing — as adaptable, deep-delving and surprising as Sarah Vaughan's — than a set of tricks drawn out of a handy vocal bag.

In being all decked out in a splendid arrangement, that little-known song was typical of what the 15-member band played throughout. Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby's arrangement featured a poised, well-built trombone solo by Vincent Gardner.

Also striking was the exotic setting put behind "We Three Kings of Orient Are" by arranger-saxophonist Ted Nash. The arrangement comprised an arresting contrast between the main section and the "Star of wonder" bridge. The band had served notice that its program would be cliche-free by the glinting, fresh energy it gave to "Jingle Bells" to open the show — featuring a lengthy, adroit solo by Marsalis.

Reminders of other music stayed subtle in arrangements that were sophisticated but never glibly parodistic. The opening of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a hit during the Second World War, when the conflict split apart so many families, obliquely recalled Aaron Copland's contemporary "Fanfare for the Common Man." Salvant gave the song an aching quality without an ounce of affectation. The American common man, serving the cause of freedom under duress on two fronts, could promise to be home for Christmas "only in [his] dreams."

All the soloing was pungent and fully focused, except for a James Chirillo guitar outing in "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" that faltered before he yielded the spotlight. The fleet, soulful piano playing of Dan Nimmer was put on extended display in a trio version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," as was the zesty upright bass of Carlos Henriquez. Trumpeter Ryan Kisor and baritone saxophonist Paul Nedzela — withheld from being singled out until the last piece, "Good Morning Blues" — made up for lost time with their muscle-flexing moments in the sun.

Trumpeter Marcus Printup contributed the perfect rouser to end the concert's first half: an arrangement of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" that promised righteous testifying right from the trombone section's statement of the melody. The high-spirited performance included a friendly tenor-sax duel between Victor Goines and Walter Blanding and a rocking dialogue between percussionist Ali Jackson on tambourine and trombone soloist Chris Crenshaw.

And the program's most overplayed, overperformed seasonal association — with Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" — also stayed free of "been there, heard that" status as Marsalis and the band interpreted it without a vocal. Muted trumpets, a fine muted solo from Crenshaw and a heart-stopping full-band diminuendo at the end signaled  the J@LC Orchestra's appeal to both the appetite for seasonal comfort food and the restless, hopeful search for novelty that tends to characterize the turning of the year for all of us.