Today’s holiday album that doesn’t suck is…well, not really a holiday album. This 1960 recording of Ellington and his orchestra collects three big band arrangements of well-known suites, classical and otherwise: Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suite, Ellington’s own “Suite Thursday,” and the reason for this disc’s inclusion in my holiday “must listen” pile, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”
What Ellington and his band do to this chestnut has to be heard to be believed. Who knew that Piotr Illych could swing this hard? (Well, maybe Piotr Illych did. He was a pretty wacky cat.) The suite takes on new life and color in Duke’s able hands. The orchestration is superb, with melody lines jumping from instrument to instrument and big satisfyingly crunchy chords filling out the corners of the familiar Nutcracker melodies. But the real story is in Duke’s rhythmic innovations around the edges of the melodies. The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” here recast as “Sugar Rum Cherry,” is played as a slow slinky swinger. The Russian Dance (“Volga Vouty”) is almost funky as a slow burner. And the faster numbers rock out, with the March (“Peanut Butter Brigage”), Entr’act, and Arabesque Dance (“Arabesque Cookie”) swinging so hard that even the most seasoned swing dancer would break a sweat on the ballroom floor.
After years of my sister’s ballet class dancing the Nutcracker, I never thought of the music as a holiday must listen, but this recording changed my mind. Duke and his band turn it into a modern holiday classic.