Nutmegging This Up

Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – The Nutcracker Suite (1960)

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Here’s the band, full of Duke’s heavy hitters:

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Columbia six-eye mono, with a “DEMONSTRATION RECORD – NOT FOR SALE” stamp in silver.  Matrix on each side ends with “1C”

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This is music that I fell in love with in high school, thanks to my jazz ensemble director who built up a small library of CDs to lend out to students.  He understood that a big part of being successful in learning to play jazz was to experience a lot of jazz – to hear it, think about it, try to live inside it.  This was 1998-2002, right as the mp3 and file sharing sites like Napster were coming about.  This kind of music wasn’t floating around out there on the internet, but luckily CD burners had come around by then and my teacher’s library of jazz soon helped to begin my own.

When it was released on CD, Columbia lumped this suite with Ellington’s take on Edvard Greig’s “Peer Gynt” as well as Billy Strayhorn’s brilliant “Suite Thursday”.  After I made my way through the CD a few times, this version of the Nutcracker become my favorite, and eventually my only essential, Christmas music.

I’m sure it’s daunting to take on the work of a giant like Pytor Ilych Tchaikovsky, but what’s bizarre to me is that in my mind the composer’s shadow looms large over his work, and for Tchaikovsky that’s not a particularly happy tale.  But in Ellington’s re-imagining, the vivid warmth of the saxophones in the opening of the Overture, and the punchiness of the brass in “Peanut Brittle Brigade” bring a joy to the music that is rare amongst the Russian composer’s canon of works.

In mono, on a record that is in stellar shape (although perhaps a little dirty…a little more crackle than you’d hope or expect from looking at this particular copy), the orchestra sounds more vivid than ever, as tight as they do on CD of course, but with more warmth.  Particularly Ellington’s piano interjections on side one of the LP are just masterful.  People hear this music so much in their lifetime without really thinking much of it, and I guarantee that hearing this arrangement will blow most people’s doors off.

The timing of my delving into this music on a vinyl record is perhaps interesting to some.  By now most will have heard about the awful attack on elementary school students and staff at a school here in Connecticut.  I kept my social media voice silent yesterday and today because most of what’s floating around out there are just worthless platitudes.  Nevertheless, I will tell you that, after spending extra hours at work the last two weeks, where I teach elementary school band about an hour from Newtown and was preparing for and having my Winter concerts, I spent the beginning of my first free weekend in a while dancing to “Peanut Brittle Brigade” with my 9-month old daughter while she smiled and smiled.  Special stuff.

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One comment on “Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – The Nutcracker Suite (1960)

  1. felixstrange
    December 20, 2012

    Very nice! This is an Ellington LP I was not aware of. I will have to keep my eye out for it. Generally, I tend to avoid jazz arrangements of classical works, but hey, it worked for Concierto de Aranjuez, right?

    So sorry to hear about your proximity to the madness in Newtown. I can empathize: I have a two-year old daughter and a few days before, another madman shot up the mall with an AR-15 not too far from our house in Portland. Fortunately, his gun jammed and only two people were killed.

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This entry was posted on December 16, 2012 by .
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