What do Shorty Rogers, Larry Clinton, Les Brown, Hal Mooney, Duke Ellington, Herbie Fields, the Nutty Squirrels and Gene Krupa have in common? All recorded a jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Of the bunch, Rogers's The Swingin' Nutcracker is probably the hippest and most fun to hear. It still jumps like caramel popcorn on a hot skillet.
The album was recorded for RCA in three sessions—one with a sax quintet and two with a big band.
Overture for Shorty, Nutty Marche, Dance Espresso and The Swinging' Plumb Fairy were handled on May 3, 1960 by the reed quintet, featuring Shorty Rogers (flhrn); Richie Kamuca, Harold Land and Bill Perkins (ts); Bill Hood and Bill Holman (bar); Pete Jolly (p); Joe Mondragon (b) and Frank Capp (d).
Flowers for the Cats, Blue Reeds, Pass the Duke and Six Pak were recorded by the big band on May 17. The powerhouse band included Shorty Rogers (tp,flhrn); John Audino, Conte Candoli, Ray Triscari and Jimmy Zito (tp); Harry Betts, Frank Rosolino, George Roberts and Ken Shroyer (tb); Art Pepper (as); Bud Shank (as,fl); Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins and Bill Holman (ts); Chuck Gentry (bar); Pete Jolly (p); Joe Mondragon (b) and Mel Lewis (d).
On Snowball, China, Where? and Like Nutty Overture, the big band wraps up the album on May 26, with two changes—Lou Levy (p) replaces Pete Jolly, and Jimmy Giuffre (cl) is added on Snowball. All of the song titles are whimsical plays on the ballet's original Tchaikovsky titles.
All of the arrangements are by Rogers. The most remarkable aspect about the score is how boldly it re-imagines the original. The Swingin'Nutcracker is contemporary from an American perspective without patronizing the European original. It's a purely West Coast Nutcracker with a 1960 TV theme-song sound. Nearly 60 years after its recording, the music still sounds fresh and sassy. I only wish Rogers had given West Side Story the same West Coast makeover.
Shorty Rogers died in 1994.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Shorty Rogers's The Swingin' Nutcracker here.