Pasadena Jazz Institute Orchestra: The Nutcracker Swings

Jim Santella By

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Pasadena Jazz Institute Orchestra
Pasadena, California
December 18, 2004

Music and dance came to Pasadena to bolster the holiday season with echoes of Ellington and Tchaikovsky - together. From the suite of variations that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn arranged over 40 years ago, the Pasadena Jazz Institute Orchestra set the auditorium swinging. Released by Columbia in 1960, The Nutcracker Suite features swinging movements from Tchaikovsky's original work with revised titles that reflect the Ellington Orchestra's personal interpretation of jazz. The legacy of Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown brought an original sound to this well-loved music.

"Toot Toot Tootie Toot," "Peanut Brittle Brigade," "Sugar Rum Cherry," "The Volga Vouty," "Chinoiserie," "Danse of the Floreadores" and "Arabesque Cookie" featured ensemble and solo participation behind a lovely display of modern dance by the Lula Washington Dance Theater. The Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, traditional African, and modern dances combined with superb ballet moves to help interpret Ellington's intention. The result was a swinging affair with a story to tell amid the teamwork of many. The dancers expressed visually what the band was expressing musically.

The Pasadena Jazz Institute Orchestra, a 17-piece big band made up of Los Angeles area jazz veterans, was led by guest conductor John Clayton, Jr. His son, Gerald, an established jazz pianist in his own right, provided integral interludes to accompany the dancers. Clarinetist Evan Christopher, alto saxophonist Rickey Woodard, and trombonist Jim McMillen brought back memories of Hamilton, Hodges and Brown, respectively, as the band swung heartily and each soloist left his trademark imprint. The orchestra's authentic treatment of the score made the evening a true delight.

Fifteen-year-old jazz singer Renee Olstead opened the program with a set of Christmas songs that included "Rockin' 'Round the Christmas Tree," "Blue Christmas," "Santa Baby," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Zat You Santa Claus?" The cute, bubbly redhead who plays Lauren Miller on CBS-TV's Still Standing sitcom Monday nights, has a powerful voice and excellent musical control. Her developing style, however, lends itself more toward pop and country music. Still, she did favor jazz and swing sufficiently to show evidence of a promising jazz vocal career if she so chooses. The orchestra supported her amicably, with notable solo spots by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart and saxophonists Danny House, on tenor, and Louis Van Taylor III, on baritone. To close the first set, veteran jazz vocalist and blues belter Barbara Morrison made a Christmas cameo appearance and brought her contagious smiles to everyone in the house. It was a night to remember, and a holiday occasion that keeps on giving throughout the new year.

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