"The Nutcracker" is a holiday staple and, as many musical and dance companies around the United States and Europe will tell you, thank Heaven for it. The musicians and performers may eventually lose their sanity from repeat performances, but the ballet is a money-maker as sure as holiday sales generate commercial profits for retailers. Besides, someone is inevitably hearing it for the first time, and childreneven some adultsseem to enjoy it.
This year, the season starts early with The Pan American Nutcracker Suite. The many people who did not know that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn had done a jazz take on the music in 1960, need not worry. It is never too late to learn. And once they do, there will be some context in which to place Joe McCarthy and Vince Norman's 2022 return to the original source, performed by the New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band. Ellington and his orchestra swung the thing like madwhat a pleasant surprisemuch more successfully than, say, Billy May did with his forays into classical music. Anyone going there again has to match Ray Nance, Jimmy Hamilton, Sam Woodyard and the rest for solo space, which must be intimidating, not to mention Ellington and Strayhorn's distinctive riffs, licks, and signature harmonies.
So how does the Afro Bop Alliance Big Band do? Well, just fine. Terrific, really.
This is not a rehash or an update. McCarthy goes Afro-Latin, and as the drummer, he moves it. Right off the bat, there is a thoroughly modern solo on trumpet by Alex Norris on the "Overture." How hip is the "March?" Anyone finding themself grinning with pleasure will surely not be alone. Originality and excitement aplenty, with solos by Luis Perdomo and Ben Kono. Nothing stuffy or mannered here. "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is a cha-cha, really, and the interaction of the trombone and trumpet sections is nothing if not a rollicking introduction into solos by Frank Basile, Ryan Keberle, and Alejandro Aviles. It is not easy to describe the overall effect of a Latin groove on Tchaikovsky, but it works, and unselfconsciously, too. "The Waltz of the Flowers" is a Venezuela joropo with Vinny Valentino and Ben Kono featured. The playing is joyfully tight.
The only problem with this performance is that it leaves one hanging, wishing for more. There are probably people who think nothing could induce them to listen to any version of "The Nutcracker." For sure, this is very much worth a holiday screening. Yes, many people have a Christmas album, but this one is distinctive, different, and delightful. And a worthy successor to Ellington and Strayhorn.
Overture; March; Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; Trepak; Arabian Dance; Chinese Dance; Dance of the Reed Flutes; Waltz of the Flowers.
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