By Frank Barron
It wasn’t a silent night, it was a swinging night for the Pasadena Convention Center, which turned into the hottest jazz club in town presenting “The Nutcracker Swings: A Cool Jazz Christmas concert.”
Bryan Gallyot hosted the three-hour extravaganza with panache and Nutcracker trophies for all the special guests! Music lovers came from far and wide to enjoy the family-friendly benefit for The Pasadena Jazz Institute. The opening act was the PJI Junior Superstars, a quintet of teenagers whose smooth jazz performance was the caliber of the top musicians who graced the stage later.
The Pasadena Jazz Orchestra thrilled everyone by bringing back the Big Band era and a Gene Krupa-style drummer (Paul Lines). It made for a super-cool evening that lead to the grand finale, a concert featuring Duke Ellington’s sophisticated rewrite of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” Maestro Victor Vener lead the orchestra, with interludes explaining what made Ellington’s jazzed-up version of the classic so great.
For a change of pace, the Sacred Nation Gospel choir had the audience clapping in rhythm, under the strong guidance of Sylvia St. James. This was a real “Hallelujah” rouser and got everyone in a joyous mood.
There were so many highlights during the toe-tapping evening from Executive Producer Andre Vener. The familiar Charlie Brown Christmas music by Vince Guaraldi was performed by the RedWhite+Bluezz All Stars, a small combo with a big sound. Fronted by bassist Ryan Cross, he was joined by drummer Gene Coye and pianist Brandon Coleman, who channeled the spirit of Schroeder for the occasion. Then the combo backed up jazzy singer James Tormé. Yes, he’s following in the footsteps of his late great dad Mel Tormé and sang the classic “The Christmas Song.”
Another soloist delighting the crowd was singer Renee Olstead, who got her start with the Pasadena Jazz Orchestra. Her sweet voice was discovered by the Pasadena Jazz Institute’s artistic director Paul Lines (yeah, the guy on drums). “This is a homecoming for me,” she gushed from the gaily decorated stage that also saw Santa come out and make a fundraising plea. The merry crowd responded with generosity.