Jolly good jazz

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Brimming with excitement and conviction, Byron Stripling begins to make his point.

"The people that come to our concerts are not jazz fans," says Stripling, artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra.

He raises his fist to his mouth, as if it were the trumpet he plays so expertly, and emits a blaring "Tada!" sound effect.

"Surprise!" Stripling says, breaking into a laugh. "They're just people that like good music."

Stripling is a forward-thinking guy. He wants nothing to do with stodgy traditionalism. So in the five years since he took the job, he has worked to make CJO the sort of band that appeals to more than just jazz scholars.

Getting there has been a fun trip. The band has played behind ballet dancers and in front of video projections. They've collaborated with a country fiddle player and a gospel choir.

They've also thrown yearly holiday concerts with the goal of subverting expectations and delighting through the element of surprise. The latest series of seasonal shows runs through Sunday at the Southern Theatre.

Stripling's first holiday show was intended as a one-off event, but it was so popular that it's become an annual event by default. That has led to a yearly quest to keep up the element of surprise.

A clown, a skit and a children's choir have popped up in past years, but the real variety in these yuletide performances is in the playlist. Rather than trot out the same old tunes from year to year, CJO is constantly shuffling in a new set of songs and giving them a specialized spin.

"We'll take a traditional tune, and we'll just simply jazz it up," Stripling said, lifting an actual trumpet this time and exhibiting the difference between a straight take on "Jingle Bells" and a rendition with jazzy flair.

This year's program stars gospel singer Nia Allen, whose solo in last year's show brought down the house. The Columbus native, who recently moved to Nashville to pursue her music career, has returned to close out the CJO show with renditions of "This Christmas," "O Holy Night," "Go Tell It On the Mountain," "Silent Night" and "My Father's Eyes."

Also appearing is local go-to guy Derek DiCenzo, who handles guitar duties for most of the show and throws in a little steel-drum action. Stripling promises another surprise special guest as well.

These holiday shows are a good introduction into jazz for listeners that are intimidated by the genre, Stripling said.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," Stripling assured the doubters. "We get to take people on this journey, to give them a window into our creative process."

The "orchestra" tag might imply something closer to the clockwork precision of classical music, but jazz bands really just appropriated the word "orchestra" to gain a measure of respectability in the mid-20th century, Stripling said. CJO's performances aim to embody their genre's tradition of creativity in action, free flowing and unpredictable enough to yield a different show every night.

When they pull it off - and more often than not, they do - it's infectious.

"The virus starts way down here," Stripling said, tentatively tapping his foot like someone being wooed by jazz for the first time.

But Stripling is no novice. When it comes to jazz, he's been around the block, and he'll be happy to give the grand tour to anyone who's willing to tear down walls of inhibition and let the toe-tapping take over.

What: Columbus Jazz Orchestra: Home for the Holidays

When: Through Sunday, Dec. 7

Where: Southern Theatre, Downtown