Have yourself a jazzy little...

UVA Jazz Ensemble
at Old Cabell Hall
Friday, December 6

The drifts were still deep Friday evening, but a sizeable number braved bitter cold to get to Old Cabell Hall to see John D'earth lead the UVa Jazz Ensemble in their annual Holiday Concert. The full house was surprising; I'd expected fewer warm bodies, because of the travel-unfriendly conditions and final exam madness. But cabin fever had hit hardcore jazz enthusiasts in a bad way.

Although the Jazz Ensemble line-up molts every Graduation Day, the group has, in my opinion, never disappointed. And some of the alums have continued to carry the torch.

For instance, Lisa Mezzacappa, their upright bassist around 1996-1997, jumped to Baaba Seth, and then to acclaimed Berkeley/San Francisco improv. And Ken Parille, the versatile guitarist who graced the Ensemble's ranks for years (playing alongside such honored guests as Pat Metheny), recently published a guide for aspiring Wes Montgomeries on how to tame those six strings.

This time around, I didn't recognize any faces. The newbies seemed a little unsure at first, dazzled by the spotlights and camcorders. But as the first number, "Make My Day," an original by arranger Bill Holman, got rolling, they eased into the tune, in-tune. Each member of the 18-strong group was given a chance to try his or her hand at least once at a solo; as a coach, John D'earth excelled, constantly praising and thanking each of the blushing kids for their hard work and dedication.

One of the best numbers, Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," featured an eyebrow-knitting solo, the first for tiny trombonist Ginny Chilton. Other highlights included an arrangement of "My Funny Valentine," with Shaun Nedeau. His face deepened three shades over the strain of those high notes, but all that practice (years of sprained cheeks?) on such a difficult instrument certainly paid off. As D'earth quipped to the amateurs in the audience, "Welcome to Heaven, here's your saxophone. Welcome to Hell, here's your trumpet."

The special of the evening turned out to be an unusual pairing of the Jazz and Early Music Ensembles. Led by Paul Walker, the group exquisitely harmonized upon two 17th century hits by Praetorius, a German composer known for his complex scoring for choral music. Meanwhile, with D'earth on drums or trumpet, the Jazz Ensemble explored the themes, often splicing in fun and entertaining digressions. During "Psalite," vocalist Julie Turner soared over the polyphonics with a gorgeous trill, in what might have been Church Latin Scat.

Mirabile visu-su-su. Mirabile dictu-dat-dat-a-doo.