The acclaimed Chicago Jazz Orchestra (CJO), under the exuberant direction of Jeff Lindberg, debuted what promises to be a new holiday music tradition in Chicago when it presented Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s entire Overture, Entr’acte and 7-song The Nutcracker Suite as Act One on Friday, December 22, 2017 at the Studebaker Theatre, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building. The concert, entitled Not So Silent Night, opened the CJO’s 2017-18 season, included an array of holiday classics arranged for big band as Act Two, and demonstrated the superb cohesiveness of this excellent ensemble.
The Nutcracker Suite is an album recorded by American composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington for Columbia in 1960 featuring jazz interpretations of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, 1892. Arranged by Ellington and his frequent collaborator, composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, both of whom obviously respected the underlying themes of the classic original, this version seems both new and fresh as well as in homage to the original masterpiece, itself crafted by a master orchestrator. The differences are in the order and title of the movements, in the using of massed winds and brass rather than massed strings, and in the addition of jazz beats, textures, and harmonies.
The sequence in the Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker (with the corresponding Tchaikovsky movements) runs:
- Toot Toot Tootie Toot (“Dance of the Mirlitons”)
- Peanut Brittle Brigade (“March”)
- Sugar Rum Cherry (“Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy”)
- The Volga Vouty (“Russian Dance”)
- Chinoiserie “(Chinese Dance”)
- Danse of the Floreadores (“Waltz of the Flowers”)
- Arabesque Cookie (“Arabian Dance”)
The Overture transforms the delicacy of the original to an easy stride, with some unusual syncopated counterpoint. Toot Toot Tootie Toot begins with highly original solo winds and percussion; when the Tchaikovsky theme appears, it does so with added dissonance and counterpoint. “The Sugar-Plum Fairy” transmuted into The Sugar Rum Cherry sports a suggestive saxophone solo while the Entr’acte resembles the Overture with additional solo displays. The Volga Vouty shows off colorful muting. Peanut Brittle Brigade is a driving big-band escapade with heaps of parallel chords emanating from the saxophones.
In Chinoiserie, there is another terrific orchestration of solo saxophones, plucked bass chords, and a fine percussive flavor. Danse of the Floreadores rocks Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” into a dazzling wind/brass exploration. In the finale, brass/reeds blow it out in extended phrases with a fabulous solo saxophone riff.
Some of the pieces seem to be use the original as a takeoff point, others actually seem like new renditions of Tchaikovsky, particularly Sugar Rum Cherry, Chinoiserie and Arabesque Cookie. Throughout, there were plenty of opportunities for unabashedly demonstrative and compelling solos.
Some notes about Act Two’s vibrant seasonal offerings:
– God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is a traditional melody dating back to the 16th century, and even mentioned by Charles Dickens’ in his 1843 novel “A Christmas Carol”- it’s performance infuriates Scrooge. As arranged by Oliver Nelson, featuring Don Trudell on organ, this was a very upbeat and modern arrangement.
– Lee Mendelson and Vince Guardi’s Christmas Time Is Here is a popular Christmas song written for the 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, one of the first animated Christmas specials produced for network TV in the United States. Because the song became a hit, it’s been repeatedly covered and is now a jazz standard.
– From the Creative World of Stan Kenton comes A Merry Christmas! is an album of Christmas music by the Stan Kenton Orchestra recorded in 1961. The Allmusic review by Matt Collar noted “A Merry Christmas is a polyphonic masterpiece that is at once progressive and traditional. …Featuring Kenton’s idiosyncratic style of arranging piercing trumpets over a wooly blanket of trombones and mellophones, this is beautiful, forward-thinking and angular music that addresses both complex classical harmony and Basie-style swing.” This arrangement was by Ralph Carmichael, and included the traditional carol Good King Wenceslas, We Three Kings by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. and O Holy Night, by Adolphe Adams.
– Little Drummer Boy, by Katherine Davis as arranged by Paul Ferguson, was a particularly syncopated, softly percussion-driven variation.
– Paul Ferguson, Artistic Director and lead trombone, Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, arranged Hannukah Medley, a duo of traditional pieces set to new swinging rhythms.
– Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne was written in Hollywood, California during a heat wave in 1945 “as Cahn and Styne imagined cooler conditions”. The song actually makes no mention of Christmas, but is played throughout the Christmas season and is often covered by various artists on Christmas-themed albums.
– Maynard Ferguson Orchestra’s Christmas for Moderns medley, arranged by Willie Maiden, was a great mix of songs, including The First Noel, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, John Francis Wade’s O Come, All Ye Faithful, Mel Torme’s Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, the ubiquitous Silent Night, and probably the most famous Christmas Song of all time, Jingle Bells.
James Lord Pierpont, composer, songwriter, arranger and organist is best known for writing and composing this piece in 1857, originally entitled “The One Horse Open Sleigh”, which has become synonymous with the holiday itself and is one of the most performed and most recognizable songs in the world.
Trumpeter Walter White, in town from Detroit for the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, participated in Act 2, and blew many fine virtuoso solos with the rest of the CJO. This was a very enjoyable concert for musicians and audience, and a fine heralding of the Holiday Season.
All images courtesy of The Chicago Jazz Orchestra