It’s been five years since the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — the swingingest band on the planet — brought its annual holiday show to Orchestra Hall.
“I always love playing there,” said Wynton Marsalis, 58, JLCO’s founder and artistic director. And he loves holiday music. Among his favorites: “The Christmas Song,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas."
In the interim, the Pulitzer- and nine-time Grammy-winning trumpeter, composer and bandleader received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, wrote and performed original music for the film “Bolden,” about jazz legend Buddy Bolden, and launched a record label, Blue Engine.
When we spoke by phone, he and the band were somewhere in Nebraska, driving to the next stop on a 12-night, 12-city “Big Band Holidays” tour that began in Toronto and will end in Iowa City. From there, they’ll return to New York City for a series of holiday concerts at their own Frederick P. Rose Hall.
As JLCO walks onto Orchestra Hall’s stage Friday, fans will notice something they haven’t seen before: a young woman. Not a singer or guest, but a member of the band.
Camille Thurman plays tenor saxophone and she’s subbing for longtime JLCO member Walter Blanding, who’s in China working with the new Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Shanghai club.
“This is her second season playing with us,” Marsalis said. “She’s fantastic. Perfect pitch, very intelligent. She has a degree in geology. We’re looking to have her do something that combines geology and music. She’s a great singer and educator. Her musicianship is on a high level, and she’s very curious.”
Thurman isn’t singing in the “Big Band Holidays” shows. This year’s vocalists are Denzal Sinclaire, a Canadian baritone often compared to Nat “King” Cole, and teenager Alexis Morrast, the 2017 winner of “Showtime at the Apollo.”
“We love her,” Marsalis said. “It’s a great experience for her to be out with us and see what we do with our music. We don’t segregate our information or players. If you’re out here with us, we’re all playing and doing the same thing. Young musicians don’t feel a sense of competition, but feel embraced by the sense of continuum.”
JLCO does a holiday show and U.S. tour every year. Why? And how do they keep it fresh and interesting?
“This may be the only body of music we have nationally that appeals to all the generations at once,” Marsalis said. “Especially now, with people in pockets, everybody is so refreshed to not be segregated by hate.
“We always put new arrangements on it. This year’s show is being music-directed by [longtime JLCO trumpeter] Marcus Printup. Six of the arrangements are his. Whenever there’s a different music director, the band takes on a different personality and feeling. I don’t interfere with what the music directors do.”
Because of Printup, this year’s show might be a bit more church and a bit more funky.
Will the concert speak to the state of the world and concerns people have today?
“I don’t feel like a Christmas concert is the time to do that,” Marsalis said. “We do other shows that have that. These should be good, fun concerts for the family, where people come out, celebrate, hear some people play and enjoy themselves. That’s how we think of it. Play some music, tell stories and create a good family environment.
“We’re releasing all kinds of music [on his Blue Engine label] that has a freedom theme. I wrote a new piece, ‘The Ever Fonky Rolldown,’ that deals with what’s going on out here today. That will be coming out.”
Plans are for Blue Engine to release 100 recordings in five years. Some are drawn from JLCO’s vast performance archive. Others are new live and studio recordings.
The label made national news in late November with a previously unreleased video of Aretha Franklin performing at a 2015 “Big Band Holidays” concert at Rose Hall. To Marsalis’ surprise, the Queen of Soul decided to change the program. From the piano, she played and sang her own gospel-soaked solo version of “O Tannenbaum.”
“We had talked a long time about the arrangements,” Marsalis remembered. “Then she came on and said, ‘Wynton, we’re not going to do that song. We’re going to do this other one.’
“I used to talk to her all the time. I loved her. She was so knowledgeable about so many things. She was really funny, too. She knew a lot about jazz, the early musicians. She grew up with a lot of them. And she could play the piano.”
“O Tannenbaum” is included on Blue Engine’s latest album, “Big Band Holidays II,” out this fall. A few of the songs on that album, at most, will be heard at Orchestra Hall. But no worries. “We always come to play,” Marsalis said. “Our show is always about musicianship and playing at the highest level.
“And we will swing. That’s our calling card. That’s our address — Swing Street.”