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Tchaikovsky, Ellington/Strayhorn: Nutcracker Suites

Release Date: 10/08/2013 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 907493   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Edward "Duke" EllingtonPeter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Curtis FowlkesGeorge CablesRon JannelliBobby Lavell,   ... 
Conductor:  Steven Richman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Harmonie Ensemble New York
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 54 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY Nutcracker: Suite (original and arr. Ellington-Strayhorn) Steven Richman, cond; Harmonie Ens/New York; Lew Soloff (tpt); Lew Tabackin (t sax); Bill Easley (cl); George Cables (pn); Victor Lewis (dr) HARMONIA MUNDI 907493 (54:17)

The biggest surprise of this CD may not be the novelty of juxtaposing Tchaikovsky’s original Nutcracker Suite with the jazz version created by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington in 1960, Read more nor the fact that the Ellington-Strayhorn version, considered a dud in its day, is now considered good enough to revive, but that this recreation actually sounds Ellingtonian. I say this because the Duke Ellington Orchestra, though comprised of the same forces as most other big bands of its day (four trumpets, three trombones, five reeds, and rhythm section), was an aggregation built around the specific sound of its individual members and not a band whose sections played with a generic blend. Thus even in ensembles, one was always conscious of the pungent tonal quality of trumpeters Cootie Williams and Willie “Cat “ Anderson, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, trombonists Britt Woodman and Lawrence Brown, saxists Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, and Harry Carney as much, if not more, than the way they sounded when playing together, and by some miracle of osmosis this band—with very different personnel—sounds eerily like the original. Not a single musician in this band ever, to my knowledge, played with Ellington, yet all of them, even down to pianist George Cables, somehow managed to channel their deceased forebears.

As I say, the original Ellington LP of this Suite provoked a massive ho-hum from jazz critics. Coming on the heels of Ellington’s 1958 masterpiece, Such Sweet Thunder, it was described as being too derivative, too “cutesy,” and neither original nor jazzy enough. In the past decade, however, it has miraculously staged a comeback, not least in imaginative stagings such as the one I witnessed here in Cincinnati by an independent dance company a few years back. Productions like these have caught the imagination of a new generation who not only do not damn the work but didn’t know it even existed. What is especially interesting is that the group of star soloists used here—trumpeter Soloff, clarinetist Easley, and guest tenor saxist Lew Tabackin—also manage to channel an Ellingtonian spirit while maintaining their own identity. In short, this band and these soloists sound more like the real Ellington band than the “ghost band” led for many years by Duke’s son Mercer.

As for me, I always liked the arrangements while feeling that the 1960 sonics (at least, as they were reissued on the Odyssey label) made the band sound thin and shrill. None of that affects this new release. The titles Ellington used (such as “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” and “Arabesque Cookie”) made it clear to me that, in a way, this suite was geared towards younger listeners, not small children, perhaps, but probably 10-to-12-year-olds. It should also be noted that 4/4 is the rhythm of the day in Ellington’s conception, thus the “Waltz of the Flowers” becomes a swinger in standard jazz rhythm titled “Danse of the Floreadores.”

The Tchaikovsky original, which precedes the Ellington-Strayhorn version on this disc, is played by an entirely different ensemble: a legitimate 65-piece orchestra with the usual complement of strings, oboes, bassoons, horns, and harp. Remarkably, it, too, is a splendid performance, a little on the brisk side but still one of the finest recordings of the Suite I’ve ever heard. Harmonia Mundi’s sonics, as usual, are of the highest quality: crisp and clear, with just enough ambience around the instruments to give some “juice” to the sound. Of course, I’m not sure if the same listeners who would love the Ellington Nutcracker would also appreciate the formal version or vice versa. As a fascinating juxtaposition, as well as individual performances of the two versions, however, it works beautifully.

But where to catalog and shelve it? Next to Tchaikovsky or Ellington? That decision is up to you!

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Nutcracker Suite, for jazz band by Edward "Duke" Ellington
Performer:  Curtis Fowlkes (Trombone), George Cables (Piano), Ron Jannelli (),
Bobby Lavell (), Lew Soloff (Trumpet), Steve Bernstein (Trumpet),
Scott Robinson (), Mark Gross (), Scott Robinson (Bamboo Flute),
Lew Tabackin (), Scott Robinson (Clarinet), Art Baron (Trombone),
Victor Lewis (Drums), Bill Easley (), Bill Easley (Clarinet),
Bob Millikan (Trumpet), Wayne Goodman (Trombone)
Period: Modern 
Length: 29 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Steven Richman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Harmonie Ensemble New York
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Russia 
Length: 21 Minutes 0 Secs. 

Featured Sound Samples

The Nutcracker: Suite (arr. Ellington/Strayhorn): Dance of the Reed-Pipes
The Nutcracker: Suite (arr. Ellington/Strayhorn): Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
The Nutcracker: Suite (arr. Ellington/Strayhorn): Entr'acte

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Two sides of a coin January 9, 2014 By Carol C. (Strongsville, OH) See All My Reviews "This is an unusal disc inasmuch as traditionalists will enjoy the conventional treatment of the Nutcracker Suite whereas Jazz lovers will appreciate the very interesting interpretation of this much loved and familiar music arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The latter does some very interesting things with the Nutcracker music and is an enjoyable and fresh take on this Christmas favorite." Report Abuse
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