in performance: origin jazz series all-stars play duke ellington’s “the nutcracker suite”

One could go on for days citing the innovations Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn brought to all levels of jazz music, from their compositional ingenuity to the incredible instrumental dynamics that distinguished their works in performance. But it took their re-imagining of “The Nutcracker Suite,” performed by the Origin Jazz Series All-Stars on Saturday evening at Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, to place it all in rich, revealing and, yes, seasonal perspective.

The tune that best typified the fun was “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” a rewired version of “March of the Tin Soldiers.” The title (along with all the new names affixed to the Ellington/Strayhorn takes on Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic) was a hint at the level of animation this music aimed for. In place of the warm, peppered orchestration that served as a processional opening to the piece, what was unleashed at the Lyric was a blast of merry horns and winds that set the mood to swing. The subsequent gliding ensemble passages, executed by strings in the ballet version, became  a fluid run of saxophones that made the piece sound like it was an Ellington original all along.

That the 15 members of the Origin Jazz Series All-Stars executed the romp under the direction of Matthew Pivec with just a single afternoon rehearsal was rather remarkable. Several of the artists came from neighboring states. Many had never played together before. Still, there was a joyous cohesion to this performance that made the unit sound like a solid, well-traveled troupe.

So versed, in fact, was the All-Stars’ execution of this crafty revision that it became easy to approach the Ellington/Strayhorn music on its own terms. Nearly every piece bore enough of Tchaikovsky’s original melody to provide the audience with at least a signpost of familiarity. But how those melodies were warped and elongated in terms of temperament and tempo yielded the program’s biggest thrills.

“Dance of the Reed Pipes” (incredulously retitled “Toot Toot Tootie Toot”) and especially “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (“Sugar Rum Cherry”) redrew the melodies with a sense of wobbly, woozy swing, as though Tchaikovsky’s characters had perhaps stayed a touch too late at the Cotton Club one evening.

But the most insightful reimagining was saved for last when the “Arabian Dance” (which boasted my favorite redubbed title, “Arabesque Cookie”) took on a dreamlike state that was initially Eastern in design, much as Tchaikovsky’s original work was, before bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff and drummer Paul Deatherage, set a slinky, rolling groove in motion that shifted the music’s dance strategies completely to American soil.

Numerous soloists provided consistently engaging colors to the music, including clarinetist Meghan Pund, baritone/bass saxophonist Cara Thomas and especially Knoxville tenor saxophonist Will Boyd. Team these strong talents with the sense of invention Ellington and Strayhorn surrounded this music with and the general community spirit that sat at the heart of the program and you had a holiday greeting of honest artistic cheer.

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