Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington devoted major efforts over the last three decades of his life to pieces that were, if not entirely "classical" in inspiration, at least composed upon the canvas of Western concert music. The setting of the Nutcracker Suite that he composed with Billy Strayhorn has been among the most popular of these efforts, but it, like the Duke's other concert works, remains somewhat underappreciated. It is a bit startling that, as conductor Steven Richman observes in his booklet notes, that the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker has apparently never until now been paired with the Tchaikovsky version on a single album. Doing so pays a lot of dividends, even if the Tchaikovsky suite, played by New York's Harmonie Ensemble, is extremely unorthodox. The group is small and plays the work in a boxlike small hall; it gets the notes, but the familiar phrasing that has accumulated over a century and a quarter of glittering symphony orchestra versions is largely absent. But it is fascinating hearing these two works side by side, and the juxtaposition brings out how entirely original the Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement is. Even the packaging proclaims that Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble are reviving the art of "swinging the classics" here, but that's not quite what Ellington and Strayhorn were up to. Tchaikovsky's addictive tunes do not appear in the jazz version in the way Bach's do in, for example, the Modern Jazz Quartet's Bach recordings. Instead, Ellington and Strayhorn dissect Tchaikovsky's orchestration and refract it through jazz layers. (Compare the "Peanut Brittle Brigade" march with its Tchaikovskian original for a taste, and a fresh appreciation that Richman makes possible here.) Ellington and Strayhorn provide less a jazz version of Tchaikovsky than a jazz-cubist version, and this release provides an invaluable handbook to its understanding.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a|