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Aardvark Jazz Orchestra brings ‘Nutcracker’ to life

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is pictured in a performance last April at MIT dedicated to the victims of the Marathon bombings.
The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is pictured in a performance last April at MIT dedicated to the victims of the Marathon bombings.KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

"Nutcracker" frenzy is upon us. Boston Ballet is in the midst of its popular run of the Tchaikovsky ballet, as is José Mateo Ballet Theatre. Sections of the piece can be heard in the multi-genre mix of Tony Williams's "Urban Nutcracker." And for its sixth season you can witness the bawdy pastiche "Slutcracker." We can also expect to hear the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and other popular nuggets from the piece in TV commercials and pumped through supermarket sound systems as Christmas approaches.

This weekend we also have a chance to hear another popular adaptation of the Tchaikovsky standard — the arrangement by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, performed by Boston's Aardvark Jazz Orchestra at Emmanuel Church, in a benefit performance for the Pine Street Inn. Coincidentally, the Harmonia Mundi label recently released "The Nutcracker Suites," by conductor Steven Richman and his Harmonie Ensemble/New York, a back-to-back recording of both Tchaikovsky's concert-version suite and the Ellington-Strayhorn adaptation, and the first recording of the latter since the Ellington orchestra's Columbia release in 1960.


For Aardvark, the piece — which they are performing for the first time — is a natural. Ellington has always been a core part of the band's repertoire. And they've performed a compilation from the three versions of Ellington's "Sacred Concert" roughly a couple of dozen times. In fact, composer and Aardvark music director Mark Harvey says, "After my stuff, Ellington is the most amount of repertory we have. Just because you learn so much from him. I look at it as our classical music. If you really want to go to school and learn, to me that's where you go."

The Ellington-Strayhorn "Nutcracker" is held in high esteem both by classical fans and jazz aficionados. In his notes to the Harmonia Mundi release, jazz historian Will Friedwald writes about the tradition of "symphonic jazz," and "swinging the classics," from Paul Whiteman's 1920 arrangement of Amilcare Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" to Benny Goodman's performances of Ravel's "Bolero" and Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."


Friedwald writes that the Ellington-Strayhorn "Nutcracker" is one of the few such adaptations where "the 'update' actually gives the original a run for its money."

That's not an overstatement. It's taken a while, but it's now typical to include Ellington among the first rank of American composers in any genre — along with the likes of Gershwin, Copland, and Ives. And his symbiotic relationship with the conservatory-trained Strayhorn (who is actually author of some of the Ellington Orchestra's biggest hits, including its theme song, "Take the 'A' Train") made him particularly suited to take on a composer of Tchaikovsky's stature.

Strayhorn himself (16 years Ellington's junior) was an adept student of "the Ellington Effect." That effect was best described in an oft-quoted remark by the composer-conductor and jazz pianist Andre Previn, most recently in Terry Teachout's biography, "Duke": "Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, 'Oh, yes, that's done like this.' But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is!"

"Ellington and Strayhorn score across sections," Harvey explains. Rather than, say, giving an individual theme to a particular "block" section of brass or reeds, they'll assign it to a trombone, trumpet, and clarinet, enhancing those mesmerizing, ambiguous harmonies that so beguiled Previn.


What that means as applied to Tchaikovsky is that "the score is really tough," says Harvey. One particularly beautiful moment comes during the "Arabian Dance" section (retitled by Ellington "Arabesque Cookie"), where clarinet and bass clarinet harmonize separated by a span of three octaves. And, even though all the sections are scored in 4/4 (including "Waltz of the Flowers," retitled by Ellington "Danse of the Floreadores"), the rhythmic phrasing, says Harvey, "is very complex. Which makes it great when you finally get it!"

Mark Harvey (rear center, with trumpet), composer and music director of the  Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, says of Ellington among the band’s repertoire:  “I look at it as our classical music.”
Mark Harvey (rear center, with trumpet), composer and music director of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, says of Ellington among the band’s repertoire: “I look at it as our classical music.”KATE MATSON/file

Aardvark began rehearsing the Ellington-Strayhorn "Nutcracker" early in its fall season in order to be ready for the orchestra's annual Christmas concert (Aardvark's 41st). "It turns out that a lot of [the band members] shared my enthusiasm," says Harvey. "They said things like, 'I always wanted to play this.' So it was like kids in a candy shop."

The Aardvark Christmas program will also include a selection of traditional carols, arranged by Harvey and sung by the band's wonderful baritone, Jerry Edwards. But the heart of the show will be the Ellington-Strayhorn "Nutcracker."

Harvey marvels at the tinkering of the two jazz composers with the classical original. "They'll change things just slightly, so you'll think, 'Oh, that's that theme. But it's so much hipper! At least for those of us who are jazz people. . . . On the other hand, the more I listen to the Tchaikovsky, I think, That's pretty good stuff!"



Live jazz dries up for a bit between Christmas and New Year's and then it explodes with too many choices. The venerable soul-jazz outfit Pieces of a Dream warms up Scullers for early Sunday shows Dec. 29 and then return on New Year's Eve, joined by Boston singer Wanetta Jackson. . . . Guitarist Dwight Ritcher and singer Nicole Nelson, better known as Dwight & Nicole, ring in the new year at the Regattabar with their blend of blues, jazz, and R&B. . . . Among the jazzier offerings at First Night Boston are the Donald Harrison Quintet at Berklee Performance Center (an NPR "Toast of the Nation" live broadcast, with WGBH's Eric Jackson as host), the Makanda Project at St. Paul's Cathedral, and the Blind Boys of Alabama with Anaïs Mitchell at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. . . . Looking a bit further into 2014, the all-star indie-jazz collective quintet Sketches (featuring Matt Holman, Ziv Ravitz, and Jeremy Udden) comes to the Lily Pad on Jan. 10.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.