Classical CD Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite; ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN-TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite (1960) – Harmonie Ensemble/New York/ Steven Richman; with Lew Tabackin, tenor sax/Lew Soloff, trumpet/ Bill Easley, clar./ Victor Lewis, drums/ George Cables, piano – Harmonia mundi

A pair of terrific Christmas-season classical/jazz discs.

Published on December 7, 2013

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite; ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN-TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite (1960) – Harmonie Ensemble/New York/ Steven Richman; with Lew Tabackin, tenor sax/Lew Soloff, trumpet/ Bill Easley, clar./ Victor Lewis, drums/ George Cables, piano – Harmonia mundi

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite; ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN-TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite (1960) – Harmonie Ensemble/New York/ Steven Richman; with Lew Tabackin, tenor sax/Lew Soloff, trumpet/ Bill Easley, clar./ Victor Lewis, drums/ George Cables, piano – Harmonia mundi HMU 907493, 54:17 *****:

What a wonderful idea conductor Steven Richman had to put these two holiday classics together on the same CD – first time it’s been done. As the note booklet writer states, there‘s not many other works that are two kinds of classics simultaneously. In the ‘20s and ‘30s it was the fashion for big bands to occasionally do one number which was a jazzed-up version of a classical favorite. But those were nearly all just half-hearted “swinging the classics,” and in 1960 Ellington and Strayhorn sat down to create not just an adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet but something that really was original and swung like mad. They succeeded marvelously, yet the suite was never played as a whole during the rest of Ellington’s life. (Although some bands have done it during the holidays since, such as the performance a couple years ago at the Portland Jazz Festival.)

Steven Richman has done previous albums that mixed jazz and classics, including Gershwin, Grofe and the Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain, so this one was right up his alley. He got the idea after Art Baron, a trombonist who had played in the Ellington Orchestra, played for him the Ellington jazz arrangement of The Nutcracker.  The music had not been recorded since the original LP in 1960.

The Tchaikovsky original is a fine performance by Richman’s skilled ensemble of about 60 musicians. It fully competes with recordings by leading symphony orchestras. The symphonic jazz version is quite different, involving only about 14 players, including the leading names in jazz mentioned above. The jazz ensemble comes thru with plenty of pep and detail, the solos by clarinetist Bill Easley and tenorman Lew Tabackin especially attractive. My favorite track of Ellington’s creation is “Sugar Rum Cherry” – his delightfully exotic cocktail version of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”  Then there is the Russian hoot “The Volga Vouty” (Russian Dance), and Ellington changes the “Waltz of the Flowers” from waltz time to 4/4 because he doesn’t like waltzes, calling it “Danse of the Floreadores.” The sonics are fine on both suites and this makes a perfect holiday pairing.

TrackList:

TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a +

Overture 3:15

March 2:26

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy 1:39

Trépak (Russian Dance) 1:16

Arabian Dance 3:34

Chinese Dance 1:08

Dance of the Mirlitons (Reed Flutes) 2:22

Waltz of the Flowers 6:40

ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN-TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite =

Overture 3:23

10 Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed-Pipes) 2:31

11 Peanut Brittle Brigade (March) 4:52

12 Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) 3:06

13 Entr’acte 1:59

14 The Volga Vouty (Russian Dance) 2:56

15 Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance) 2:57

16 Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers) 4:10

17 Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance) 5:53


The Depue Brothers Band – When It’s Christmas Time – Beat the Drum Entertainment, 55:08 *****:

This came in a bit late for our holiday music feature but although by the title it sound it sounds like a brassy big band, it’s actually an octet of string players and vocalist, plus another eight guest musicians on cello, harp, piano, horn and guitars. The four Depue Brothers had been playing Christmas programs together since they could hold violins, and this time they invited in a bunch of musician friends. The results  here—using a variety of styles and some original pieces among the 14 tracks—is a marvel.

There’s a song from The Charlie Brown program, of course, and an original on “The Fat Man” (Santa Claus).  The tracks cover, pop, rock, country, jazz and classical. In addition to the strings, there’s also some mandolin, banjo, vibes and some great vocals. The arrangements of classics such as “good King Wenceslas” and “Winter Wonderland” are original and pleasant. Most enjoyable.

TrackList:

1. Sleigh Ride 2:56
2. Pat-a-Pan 2:52
3. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 4:38
4. Medley of Carols 5:41
5. Linus and Lucy 4:11
6. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring 3:22
7. When Its Christmas Time 3:52
8. Ding Dong Merrily On High 1:11
9. Good King Wencelas 5:48
10. The Christmas Song 4:29
11. The Fat Man 4:21
12. Winter Wonderland 3:32
13. Oh Holy Night 3:54
14. Ave Maria 4:17

—John Sunier




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