The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra made the holiday season swing Monday night at Symphony Hall with an upbeat concert of favorite Christmas songs both sacred and secular. Led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the 17-piece “big band,” plus guest vocalists Veronica Swift and Vuyo Sotashe, performed two colorful, energized sets to an enthusiastic sold-out house. Marsalis emceed and directed the show from his central seat in the trumpet section at the back of the band.
It was the kind of music that touches upon fond memories, in particular for those boomer generation adults who grew up with the music of classic Christmas television specials. That mood was set from the outset as the band opened with the cheerful “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Written for the 1963 Christmas special of NBC’s popular television variety program The Andy Williams Show, the song celebrates gatherings of friends and families for holiday festivities — ideal for the coming together of band and audience for musical celebration.
The remarkable vocalist Veronica Swift joined the band for “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag,” a jazzy song from 1950 about old Mr. Kringle dropping off gifts to people who are “extra special good.” The song gave Swift opportunity to show off her considerable scat-singing skills. Swift and the band then cranked down the tempo for a soothingly sentimental waltz-ballad, “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The music turned to a couple of traditional Christmas songs but with a jazzy twist: a busily shuffling “Jingle Bells” followed by the number that brought the smooth-voiced Vuyo Sotashe to the stage for “Greensleeves” (“What Child Is This?”). Sotashe was joined by a vocal quartet drawn from instrumentalists of the band for a slow, soulful tight harmony a capella introduction, after which the song picked up the pace and turned jazzy.
A vocal duet between Swift and Sotashe ended the six-pack set. Written in 1934, “Winter Wonderland” is often thought of as a Christmas song, though the lyrics never mention the holiday itself. This version bopped along with occasional syncopated rhythms that kept the song fresh and again gave Swift a great platform on which to scat.
Another favorite from an animated television special launched the second set: a stealthily slinky “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the popular 1966 cartoon special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Next was a joyful jazzed up “Caroling, Caroling,” the best known of the 15 annual “family Christmas card” carols written by Alfred Burt between 1942 and his death in 1954, only one of which was heard outside of Burt’s circle of family and friends during his lifetime but which became immensely popular in the decades afterward.
Sotashe then sang “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”) in a higher tessitura than his other songs, resulting in a lovely but curiously androgynous timbre. It was hard to tell whether it was a high man’s voice or a low woman’s voice.
Swift was the singer for the up-tempo “Sleigh Ride.” Originally a seasonal light orchestra piece written by Leroy Anderson for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1948, the song’s familiar lyrics by Mitchell Parish were not added until 1950. Sotashe then joined Swift and the band for the final number, a bluesy, forward-moving “Silent Night” played in kind of a good-time New Orleans mode that defied the typical lullabyish paradigms for the song, finishing off the evening in a buoyant holiday mood.