centerpiece of first-ever Jazz Vespers

Take Kansas UniversityâÂÂs annual Holiday Vespers, tweak it with a little skid-a-ree-doo-bop, and you get a new variation of the yuletide tradition that appeals to holiday hep cats.

KUâÂÂs jazz program will unleash its first-ever Jazz Vespers this week at the Lied Center. The program will feature a rare performance of Duke EllingtonâÂÂs âÂÂHarlem Nutcracker,â performed by the universityâÂÂs premier jazz ensemble and featuring special guest soloists.

âÂÂThe Ellington âÂÂ’Nutcrackerâ is a great piece. ItâÂÂs something IâÂÂve always wanted to try to tackle with a college band,â said Dan Gailey, director of jazz studies. âÂÂIâÂÂm really sorry I missed it by one year. Last year was the Ellington centennial.âÂÂ

Better late than never, though. EllingtonâÂÂs âÂÂ’Nutcrackerâ should be a real crowd pleaser, Gailey said. In the nine-movement suite, the jazz great sticks to the principal themes of TchaikovskyâÂÂs classic but jazzes up the interpretations.

âÂÂThe textures you hear are much more jazz-oriented,â Gailey said. âÂÂHe did some pretty funny things with the grooves and the tempos. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies is a slow, sultry almost New Orleans-based jazz swing.âÂÂ

The Ellington piece is performed in major cities almost every year, Gailey said, but always by extremely high-caliber groups. ItâÂÂs a number thatâÂÂs difficult to play and difficult to obtain the rights to play.

âÂÂItâÂÂs a really major undertaking. I donâÂÂt know that itâÂÂs been performed in the Kansas City area recently,â Gailey said. âÂÂItâÂÂs a pretty rare opportunity to hear it, at least in our neck of the woods.âÂÂ

The 18-piece KU Jazz Ensemble I will perform the piece in its entirety. Guest soloists include Toni-Marie Montgomery, pianist and dean of fine arts; Vince Gnojek, professor of saxophone and director of woodwinds; Larry Maxey, professor of clarinet; and Keith Wright, a Lawrence doctoral student who performs on the bamboo flute.

The jazz program always has a December concert. This year, Gailey finally decided there was enough holiday music arranged by jazz composers to put together a Vespers-style concert. ItâÂÂs likely Jazz Vespers will become an ongoing tradition, like its decades-old counterpart Holiday Vespers.

âÂÂHarlem Nutcrackerâ will end ThursdayâÂÂs performance. The first half of the show will include four original jazz versions of holiday favorites, arranged by Gailey. âÂÂSanta Claus is Coming to Townâ is an all-clarinet rendition punctuated with a drum kit. It features Larry Mallett, chair of music and dance; Larry Maxey; John Lynch, director of bands; and student performers Matt Heimbach, Merriam senior; Heather Brown, Topeka junior; and Josh Adams, Prairie Village sophomore.

Then the big band sound kicks in with a fretless electric bass and flute duet of âÂÂGreensleevesâ performed by Kip Haaheim, assistant professor of music theory and composition, and Keith Wright. Ellen Bottoff will serve as vocal and piano soloist on Vince GuaraldiâÂÂs âÂÂChristmas Time Is Here.â The first act will end with Herbie HancockâÂÂs version of âÂÂDeck the Halls.âÂÂ