Among the numerous annual holiday events in your neighborhood, it’s a good bet that at least one production of “The Nutcracker Suite” ballet will be taking place. It’s produced by the finest ballet companies — as in the American Ballet Theater — as well as your local dance school. The “Sleeping Beauty” ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1890 with the now famous music score composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was a master orchestrator, assigning his distinctive melodies to exactly the right instrument. If Russia can claim Tchaikovsky as one of its premier composers, America certainly can put Duke Ellington on the same pedestal.
Ellington, composer of approximately two thousand compositions, rarely arranged music that was not of his own creation. Fortunately for holiday listeners, he teamed with co-composer Billy Strayhorn for an intriguing version of “The Nutcracker Suite” performed by The Ellington Orchestra and recorded on a 1960 LP titled “Three Suites.”
Ellington and Strayhorn managed to make Tchaikovsky swing. Their take on each movement of the suite retained the flavor of the dance and added swinging ensemble parts and sparkling solos. The Duke was an equally skilled orchestrator, but he wrote for individuals rather than specific instruments. Veteran members Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton and Laurence Brown shine throughout the recasting of this holiday classic.
Ellington did not lack for a sense of humor, reflected in his tweaked titles. Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Pipes” was renamed “Toot Toot Tootsie Toot” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” became “Sugar Rum Cherry.”
A search on the Internet will yield multiple versions of the Ellington/ Strayhorn/ Tchaikovsky collaboration, including live performances by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I highly recommend purchasing the CD. It will provide pleasurable holiday listening, and will surely inspire delight for those who have not heard it before.
Seasonal music plays a significant role in end-of-the-year gigs for musicians. You can read my previous musing from 2009 entitled Christmas Time is Here.