Wednesday December 14 Out there: Improvisation--a staple of the jazz aesthetic--is only the springboard for the kind of sounds you'll hear during Frontiers: Explorations in Out Music. The new series, sponsored by the Creative Music Works and taking place every other Wednesday through February at the blessedly smokeless Vartan Jazz, 231 Milwaukee St., will spotlight Colorado artists engaged in the fine art of stretching the limits of the musical imagination. Arkestra Pirata and its offshoot, the Four Corners Quartet, kick off the series tonight at 8. Admission to the bimonthly adventure is a $5 cover charge ($4 CMW members); for details call 499-1111 or 758-6321.

Thursday December 15 Swing time: "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" may have been one of his first hits way back in 1951, but smooth vocalist Tony Bennett has never had to look back--and the dream has never been stronger. Perhaps the secret to his irrepressible popularity--other than his image as the nicest guy alive--is his uncanny ability to swing, to take every song for a classy ride in a sleek, emotive vehicle of a voice. He's flown to the moon with the likes of Basie, Bill Evans and Ray Charles, and he's been plugged in and Unplugged. You'll leave your heart at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Pl., tonight when he revs up around 7:30. Tickets are $32; call 290-TIXS to reserve yours.

Friday December 16 Sugar plum good: You say there'll be hell to pay if you're forced to sit through one more stodgy performance of The Nutcracker? And a lot of screaming, too? Well, forget all that--and check out the clever version put on annually by the David Taylor Dance Theatre. This one sports gangster mice, a gigantic Mother Clara and, for the style-conscious, set designer George Peters's stunning black-and-white deco party scene. Not only that, but this year's performances include some snappy toe work by Chinese dancers Nian Mei Geng and Qian Ping Guo, both joining Taylor's troupe as guest artists. Tchaikovsky's holiday confection shows daily through December 23 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd. For tickets, $12 to $22, call 431-3939 or 290-TIXS.

Beggars' banquet: Christmas shopping can be fun--especially when you dress up the shopping environment like a Victorian English town, make it feel authentic with roving, costumed entertainers, town criers and carolers, and fill it with beautiful handmade gift items and scrumptious food. You'll get all that at the Dickens Christmas Fair, a period-piece shopping experience at Currigan Hall, 1324 Champa St., today through Sunday. The kids will enjoy Tiny Tim's arcade, replete with games, activities and a jolly Victorian Santa, and the whole family will love the hot turkey sandwiches, mashed potatoes, hot cider and wassail available to hungry shoppers. In addition, Children's Hospital volunteers will bravely man gift-wrapping tables so you can bring your purchases home and set them right under the tree. Admission to the fair, a portion of which benefits the hospital, is $4 (kids under twelve free); hours are 11 to 9 today, 10 to 9 tomorrow and 10 to 7 Sunday.

Saturday December 17 Miracle fabric: Four guys, four great voices--that's pretty much the story with The Nylons, a quartet of vocal Canadians who feel at home with '50s-style street-corner harmonizing but are unafraid to take on more contemporary tunes by Marvin Gaye and the Beatles. They'll be joined by jazz flutist Tim Weisberg tonight at 8 at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Pl. To reserve tickets, $18.50 plus service charges, call 534-8336 or 290-TIXS.

Hillbilly Hendrix: Guitar whiz Junior Brown doesn't have to waste time or lose a beat when he wants to switch instruments--his unique guit-steel, a combined six-string and lap-steel instrument of his own invention, puts plenty of options right in his lap. And it's a lucky turn, too, because Junior is all over that thing--plucking lightning-fast virtuosic licks on either set of strings. Put that together with an almost comical clean-cut cowboy look and an eclectic repertoire that touches on bluegrass, surf music and, yes, the inimitable Hendrix, and you've got a hell of a concert. Brown appears tonight at the Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax; tickets are $10. Call 322-3208 or 290-TIXS. And if you miss him tonight, he'll reappear Sunday at E-Town in Boulder; for details call 786-7030.

Born to shred: Snowboarders will have a chance to learn everything they ever wanted to know about the sport this weekend at the Slide and Ride Snowboard Festival, a two-day extravaganza of board, boot and clothing demos and free lessons that takes place today and tomorrow in Winter Park. When they're done dilly-dallying around the fest, attendees can also take advantage of $26 discounted lift tickets to try out their boards ($18 for the beginner run). Admission is free; for information call 1-303-420-1641.

Sunday December 18 Top of the pops: What more can you say about a guy who's played the roles of John Lennon and Buddy Holly? That he's got to be some kind of pop genius? In the case of Marshall Crenshaw--who appeared as those respective rock-and-roll giants in Beatlemania and La Bamba--well, yes. Hands down. Crenshaw, an encyclopedic student of popular music who first wowed the critics in 1982 with a crisp self-titled album, is crawling out from under a low profile with the release of Live...My Truck Is My Home, an album featuring some of his best covers and impeccable original tunes. Hear Crenshaw, appearing with Andy York, at an acoustic raveup at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Athens, Georgia, band Catfish Jenkins opens at 8; tickets are $10.50. Call 447-0095 or 290-TIXS.

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