Hearing The Harlem Nutcracker for the first time is akin to opening a Christmas present, expecting another drab necktie, and finding instead a silver-plated Swiss watch or 24-carat diamond bracelet.
Composer / arranger / conductor David Berger has deftly assimilated and amplified Duke Ellington / Billy Strayhorn's luminous Nutcracker Suite, transposing Tchaikovsky's balletic themes into a contemporary framework that reharmonizes the holiday classic and places it in a thoroughly American environment. Five of the movements that comprise The Harlem Nutcracker (including the overture) are by Ellington / Strayhorn, the other nine by Berger (with lyrics to "Sing Out" by Isaiah Sheffer).
The music was written for a new production of The Nutcracker staged by the Donald Byrd Dance Foundation and was "designed to create specific dramatic moods and atmospheres through great ensemble power flavored with the personal contributions of individual soloists" - which it does quite well. Berger, a leading authority on the music of Ellington and the swing era, has transcribed more than 300 works by the Duke and Strayhorn and composed scores for television, Broadway shows, films and dance companies. In the Sultans of Swing, he has at his command an ensemble of seasoned pros who have performed with Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and many other swing-based orchestras. Each of them is a superior soloist, and almost everyone is given one or more chances to prove it.
Berger's charts, it should be noted, are keen and expressive, and don't suffer at all when compared to the Ellington / Strayhorn sections. If there's a difference it would seem to be that Tchaikovsky's familiar themes are more conspicuous in Duke and Billy's paraphrasings than they are in Berger's. In the finale, "Swingin' at Club Sweets," Berger "borrows" from Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" to create an appropriate groove. Besides the overture, Ellington / Strayhorn are responsible for "Dance of the Floreadores," "Peanut Brittle Brigade" and "Sugar Rum Cherry," which follow the first eight of Berger's nine compositions.
A synopsis of the ballet, which must be great fun to see as well as hear, is provided in the liner notes, and if the storyline is accurate (no reason to doubt it) the selections on the CD have been rearranged for programming purposes, but unless one is actually watching the ballet that's unimportant.
What is important, as bassist Chuck Israels observes in the liner notes, is that this is "great music, beautifully played by a well-integrated band with fine soloists... That this music succeeds so well is a tribute to [Berger], the players and the inextricable association of music and dance. This is an altogether outstanding accomplishment!" Thanks for the appraisal, Chuck; couldn't have said it better myself.
Track Listing: Overture; Attack of the Ghouls; Midnight Stroll; Snowflake Joys; Saturday Night Dance Party; Xmas Be de Place / Sing Out; You Take My Breath Away; Punch Bowl Espa?ol; Marquis Shuffle; Dance of the Floreadores; Peanut Brittle Brigade; Sugar Rum Cherry; Volga Vouty; Swingin' at Club Sweets (56:16).
Personnel: David Berger, conductor; Jerome Richardson, alto, soprano sax; Jerry Dodgion, alto sax, clarinet, flute; Bill Easley, tenor sax, clarinet; Mark Hynes, tenor sax; Jay Brandford, baritone sax; Bob Millikan, Brian Pareschi, Marcus Belgrave, Steven Bernstein, trumpet; Britt Woodman, Art Baron, Wayne Goodman, trombone; Isaac ben Ayala, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums; Aria Hendricks, vocals; Maeretha Stewart, Renay Peters, Diva Gray, Hilda Harris, Carline Ray, Althea Rogers, Kenny Williams, Joseph DeVaughn, choir.