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David Berger and the Sultans of Swing: The Harlem Nutcracker

Budd Kopman By

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It is that time of year again, and David Berger's adaptation and extension of Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn's Harlem Nutcracker suite is one swinging way to enjoy music of this season.

This release is a reissue of the original. The short story is that Berger, an expert on Ellington and a top notch transcriber, was asked to write ninety more minutes of music for a new show put together by the Donald Byrd Dance Foundation. The show toured for four seasons, from 1996-99, and was a huge hit.

So here we have music by a Russian master composer, Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky, being reworked by two American master jazz composers, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and then transcribed and extended by a modern jazz master, David Berger. Ellington himself was quite aware that he had to take Russian music and rituals and turn them in distinctly American forms, and Berger kept Ellington closely in mind when working on the new music.

Berger's group, the Sultans of Swing, is extremely sharp and captures the mood, swing and feel of the Ellington band when playing the five pieces by Ellington and Strayhorn. The soloists and ensembles do not try to mimic the original band or become a shadow of it—instead, they exude the élan and surety of the Ellington band we all know and love.

The other nine pieces are compositions by Berger which run the gamut from scorching swingers to soothing ballads. The task at hand was to write music that fit the show, made good use of Tchaikovsky and blended well with the originals. In this task he succeeded, and the disc is a joy to listen to from many angles.

It is for good reason that the Sultans of Swing are firmly ensconced at Birdland in New York City on Tuesdays until further notice. Simply put, they bring joy to the room with their top-notch playing of both Ellingtonia and Bergermania.

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

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: trumpet; Brian Pareschi: trumpet; Marcus Belgrave: trumpet; Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Britt Woodman:trombone; Art Baron: trombone; 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.

Title: The Harlem Nutcracker | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Such Sweet Thunder


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