Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Gets the Ellington Treatment

Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Society of OC

The Duke Ellington Orchestra

REVIEW: The Duke Ellington Orchestra keeps its transformed “The Nutcracker Suite” fresh and surprising, even 59 years after its debut.

An orchestra showed up on the Philharmonic Society’s subscription series Sunday night at Segerstrom Concert Hall to perform Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite — business as usual for December, you’d think. But this was no ordinary “Nutcracker” and no ordinary orchestra. This was Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s rarely heard transformation (“arrangement” is too mild a word) of Tchaikovsky’s classic and none other than the Duke Ellington Orchestra itself, still going strong after 80 some years. At least one listener was most pleasantly surprised by what he heard.

Ellington’s “Nutcracker” dates from 1960. The recording of it was one of the relatively scarce occasions where Strayhorn, Ellington’s longtime collaborator, received due credit. The album cover features a photo of Ellington and Strayhorn (though Strayhorn is a bit behind Ellington, in a deferential pose); above them are the words “Ellington, Strayhorn, Tchaikovsky.” The piece takes up the classic suite movement by movement, though in slightly different order, and adding the Entr’acte in the middle. The movement titles are playfully changed — “Sugar Rum Cherry” for “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Toot Toot Tootsie Toot” for “Dance of the Reed-Pipes,” etc.

If you’re thinking that the idea of a jazz “Nutcracker” sounds quaint and rather inane — I admit the thought crossed my mind as well — well, the result speaks for itself. Ellington and Strayhorn’s version is utterly original and inspired, its own thing. The Tchaikovsky is not merely “jazzified,” but deconstructed and reassembled into small Ellington tone poems. The meters and tempos change, the harmonies thicken, the melodies are diced, the orchestration spiced. There were moments when it was even hard to recognize the Tchaikovsky source.

What’s more, the movements are fashioned into viable big band pieces, not just clever covers. It was a delight to hear the improvised solos strut through Tchaikovsky’s harmonic progressions. Ellington and Strayhorn, justly famous for their orchestrations, pull out the stops here, adding a flute, clarinet and bass clarinet to the saxophone section, calling for the drummer to play with his bare hands at times, using mutes in the brass for varied color, and combining all in novel ways. The whole stands in the tradition of such concert works as Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” and Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” (both written for Woody Herman’s band) and deserves to be heard right alongside them.

The Ellington Orchestra sounded as strong as ever on this occasion. Always famous for the merits of its individual players as soloists, the current band is no exception, with player after player stepping up to the microphones and letting it rip. Baritone saxophonist Morgan Price, as agile as a deer, was one of my favorites, as was trumpeter James Zollar, who did a fine Cootie Williams imitation, but, really, they were all outstanding. Tenor saxophonist Shelley Carrol blazed like a wind-blown brush fire right through “Cotton Tail” at the end of the first half, and that’s when the concert really finally took off.

Led for many years by Duke’s son Mercer, then by Mercer’s son Paul, saxophonist Mark Gross steered the group on this occasion and acted as congenial host. The first half of the concert consisted of a hit parade — “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Sophisticated Lady, “Caravan,” and others — and seemed more dutiful than inspired at times (though various solos stood out). The seriously poor amplification system in Segerstrom had a lot to do with it.

What struck one about the repertoire here, most of it dating from the ’20s to ’40s, is how timeless, or shall I say “undated,” it sounded. Ellington supposedly didn’t like referring to his music as jazz, calling it “American music” instead, and it utterly lacks the ricky-ticky quality of so much other jazz of that era. You can enjoy it with modern ears. (A theory: Since Ellington’s music is based strongly on solo players and playing, it is continuously updated by the current crop of musicians playing it.)

The band was clearly having fun during the second half, clapping along in “22 Cent Stomp,” admiring each other’s work. In “Jack the Bear,” frisky bassist Hassan Shakur peppered his solos with amusing quotes, including themes to “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Pink Panther.”

After the poetry of the “Nutcracker,” the band offered two encores, a gloriously seductive and rapt “Mood Indigo” and a roof-raising “Rockin’ in Rhythm.”

A word on the sound system. Segerstrom Concert Hall was designed with acoustic performance in mind. Amplified performances there are problematic, and mostly unsuccessful. What is perhaps less obvious is that the Duke Ellington Orchestra developed as an acoustic ensemble and performed without amplification for years. (Look at photos of the band in Carnegie Hall. No microphones. Certainly, it wouldn’t have had any in the Cotton Club.) In brief, one can object to and debate over the balances and tone and distortion of the amplification system on Sunday night, but when it comes right down to it, it wasn’t even needed at all.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].