In 1962, Duke Ellington and arranger Billy Strayhorn collaborated to do a jazz version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The original version was for big band and features nine movements. The titles have been slightly modified — for instance, the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ becomes ‘Sugar Rum Cherry’ — but the melodies remain relatively easy to identify (even if, at times, Tchaikovsky’s melodies don’t readily swing).
Last night I heard a performance of this piece in St. Petersburg, Florida at the Palladium Theater, a ‘historic site’ by Florida standards (it was built in 1925). While I wouldn’t describe the Tampa Bay region as musically saturated, one of the major advantages of living here is the opportunity to hear lots of jazz — and high quality performances of jazz, no less. This concert was no exception. The group was led by guitarist Nate Najar and featured Mike McCarthy on saxophone, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Chuck Redd on vibraphone, Robert Redd on piano, John Lamb on bass and Stephen Bucholtz on drums. John Lamb actually played with the Ellington Orchestra in the 1960s and added a great deal to the performance.
The first half was arrangements of Christmas music, such as ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘O Tannenbaum,’ for the ensemble. I especially enjoyed Najar’s solo performance of ‘Silent Night,’ which captured the mood of this carol well. These numbers gave the opportunity for all of the performers to shine and started off the concert with a joyous tone.
In the second half, we heard all nine numbers of the Ellington Nutcracker as arranged by Najar. Here John Lamb really got to show off and did a great job of creating sounds out of the bass that showed range and versitility (two words I don’t often associate with the bass). The ‘Peanut Brittle Brigade,’ an arrangement of the ever-popular ‘March,’ featured Chuck Redd with an extensive vibe solo. ‘Danse of the Floreadores’ replaced ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’ turning the piece from a graceful triple waltz into a bopping duple dance. The final number ‘Arabesque Cookie,’ was an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Arabian Dance.’ Hints of Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ emerged here with a similar muted drum sound and parallel motion at the wrong (or more aptly, exotic) interval. All in all, it was a very fascinating version of the piece and a fabulous performance.