What makes an album of Christmas music distinct from another? When the artist shakes up traditional arrangements and creates some fresh and invigorating. That’s what listeners get with Christmas Time Is Here by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Some of the arrangements are closer to classical music than jazz, but that’s hardly an issue.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a slow, mellow take that features Greg Tardy on tenor sax. That’s followed by a slightly more upbeat spin on “Let It Snow,” featuring pianist Bill Swann and trombonist Tom Lundberg. Overall, the horns are more prominent.

The brass comes through strongly on the swinging “Deck the Halls,” featuring Tardy and bassist Rusty Holloway. Tardy’s middle solo sizzles. The orchestra goes into full sass mode with “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” featuring Dan Trudell on Hammond B3, William Boyd on tenor sax and drummer Keith Brown.
Other holiday favorites are “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” (from The Nutcracker), “Jingle Bells,” “A Not-So Silent Night,” the title song and “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”

The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra features 17 of East Tennessee’s top professional musicians, plus several guests and cameos by two choirs. The saxophones: Mark Tucker, alto and flute (tracks 1-5, 8 and 11); Tim Green, alto (tracks 6, 9, 10 and 12); David King, alto and flute; Tardy, tenor and clarinet; Boyd, tenor and clarinet; and Tom Johnson, baritone and bass clarinet. The trumpets: Michael Wyatt; Stewart Cox; Michael Spirko, Tom Fox and Vance Thompson. Rhythm section: Swann, piano; Trudell, Hammond B3 organ; Holloway, bass; Brown, drums; and Bob Adamcik, auxiliary percussion. The trombones: Lundberg, Don Hough, Chris MacTavish and Brad McDougall. French horns: Robert Owen, Jeffery Whaley, Mark Harrell and Mitzi Hall. Tuba: Sande MacMorran. Arrangements and conducting: Vance Thompson. Assistant conductor: Alan Wyatt.

Joining the orchestra are Jill Andrews, vocals on “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; Church Street United Methodist Choir, directed by Tim Ward; Community Evangelistic Presbyterian Church Choir, directed by John Jackson; and vocalist Kelle Jolle.

Thompson says of this collection, “We’ve been doing an annual Christmas concert since 2004, and each year I’ve written a few arrangements to keep things interesting. When I realized that I was closing in on 20 original Christmas arrangements, I knew it was time to choose my favorites and record.”

The result is a diverse, eclectic mix of holiday favorites.