Friday , December 1 2023
Harmonia Mundi presents both the traditional and the swinging Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn versions of ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ on the same CD for the very first time.

Music Review: Tchaikovsky and Ellington/Strayhorn – ‘The Nutcracker Suites’

000In the liner notes to the new Harmonia Mundi release The Nutcracker Suites, conductor Steven Richman closes his introduction with a great quote from Duke Ellington: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” The Duke was speaking in general terms, but his comment is highly appropriate for this disc as well. The Nutcracker Suites presents two versions of the holiday classic, the original 1892 composition by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and a wonderful jazz take of it from 1960, written by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Both are presented side by side on this single CD.

The music for the traditional Nutcracker is performed by the Harmonie Ensemble/New York, conducted by Steven Richman. For the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker, Richman has assembled some of the finest players in jazz. This project was a natural for Richman, who has been involved in a number of jazz/classical hybrids of late. A couple of these include Symphonic Jazz: Grofe and Gershwin, and a new recording of the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration, Sketches of Spain.

The 1892 Nutcracker Suite is first, and it is a piece of music that I have a very deep affiliation with. I began taking my daughter to the Pacific Northwest Ballet presentation of The Nutcracker in Seattle when she was five years old. This year is a special one for us, as it marks our 20th anniversary. The beautiful sets and costumes were designed by Maurice Sendak, and the orchestra always does a magnificent job with the music. After 20 years, I am very familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

Although I am very partial to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s rendition, I must say that the Harmonie Ensemble/New York have done a marvelous job. For some reason I cannot help but “see” those fantastic Sendak costumes and sets whenever I hear The Nutcracker, but I suppose that is to be expected after attending so many performances.

The placement of the traditional Nutcracker Suite before the Ellington/Strayhorn version was a stroke of genius. By doing this, the original is still fresh in the listener’s mind when the swinging jazz version of it begins. Ellington and Strayhorn took some liberties with the Suite, and this is apparent right from the start.

Imagine the “Overture” as played by a big band, and you will have some idea of what Ellington and Strayhorn were up to. The piece opens with a descending bass line, then the horns come in, and it is clear that this will be very different from what Tchaikovsky wrote. This is nothing compared to what follows though.

In the traditional Nutcracker, the “March” is the second movement, but Ellington and Strayhorn composed a piece titled “Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed Pipes)” to follow “Overture.” Bill Easley’s clarinet is the star of this one, although he gets plenty of help from the other horns along the way.

“Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)” is third, and it really swings. This time it is the trumpet of Lew Soloff that is featured, at least in the first half. The piano of George Cables takes over after Soloff‘s solo, and when he comes in we are ready for just about anything. As if those were not enough, Lew Tabackin’s tenor sax takes the tune home in wild style.

As befits a man who spent plenty of time performing in the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, Ellington’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is renamed “Sugar Rum Cherry.” Tabackin’s sax is played down low this time, and the piece retains the mysterious mood of the original.

“Entr’acte” is a short (1:56) tune featuring all of the horns, until Soloff and Easley close it out with dueling solos. “The Volga Vouty (Russian Dance)” is another swinging number, and while it sounds great, I would have had a hard time guessing that it is Ellington and Strayhorn’s version of a Russian dance. It sounds like a hot night at the Cotton Club to me.

As anyone who has seen or listened to the Nutcracker knows, the second act is all about the foreign worlds that young Clara dreams of on Christmas Eve. “Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance)” is probably the closest Ellington and Strayhorn come to Tchaikovsky. While the melody is very similar, it is still a very different listening experience to hear a jazz band in place of an orchestra.

The traditional Nutcracker closes with the beautiful “Waltz of the Flowers,” but Ellington and Strayhorn have placed it as the seventh movement. They also changed the name to “Dance of the Floreadores.” This dance is very much a big band arrangement, and swings with abandon.

We close with “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance).” At 5:53, this is the longest piece of the Ellington/Strayhorn interpretation. The jazz take of “Arabian Dance” does not differ significantly from the original, but it does give drummer Victor Lewis a chance to show off his chops, albeit it in a muted way. I find it interesting that they chose to put this at the end, as Tchaikovsky placed it midway as the fifth movement in the original Suite.

After seeing The Nutcracker so many times, I eventually realized that it is “about” a child’s imagination coming to life in a ballet. To them, the mysterious ways that adults act makes for a world that is as foreign as any distant land. These are thoughts that I keep to myself when watching the performance, although now that my daughter has little ones of her own to care for, I wonder if she sees it this way too.

In any case, when listening to the 1960 jazz take on the classic Suite, it is clear that both Ellington and Strayhorn respected the underlying themes of Tchaikovsky’s classic. They also had a great deal of fun, which is important as well. Listening to the two side by side is an excellent way to hear them, but it would be a mistake to actually compare the two. More than anything else, I believe that Ellington and Strayhorn meant their Nutcracker to be a tribute to a masterpiece.

I know that most people have a few holiday records that they pull out each year, which is certainly the case with our family. If you are looking to add something new your seasonal music mix this year, I recommend The Nutcracker Suites. It is a wonderful CD.

About Greg Barbrick

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