Whether you know the story of “The Nutcracker” or not, you certainly know the music, and at this time of year the child in everyone can embrace that message of magical wonderment: only those who believe can see.
And if you like music, you’ll also believe what you can hear when East Stroudsburg University and The Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection present the “Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite” on Saturday, Dec. 8.
Performing the big band arrangement of the classic will be the 16-piece Water Gap Jazz Orchestra, with narration by two special guests: noted jazz vocalist Nancy Reed and Edward Kennedy Ellington II, Duke’s grandson.
This is the second year for the concert at ESU. Jazz program coordinator Matt Vashlishan suggested staging a local performance during the holiday season, setting up a concert with the Water Gap Jazz Orchestra, the group originally formed by the late jazz sax player Phil Woods.
Looking for local luminaries to tell the Nutcracker story between the nine movements, Vashlishan approached Reed, who not only agreed to perform, but suggested a perfect narration partner.
“How about an Ellington?,” she asked, noting that she had performed with Duke’s namesake and grandson, whose Duke Ellington Legacy band has played at the Celebration of the Arts festival and at the Deer Head Inn, both in Delaware Water Gap.
And so, the holiday collaboration was formed and continues with this year’s performance, which Vashlishan will again conduct.
The Duke Ellington “Nutcracker” was written in 1960 when Duke and Billy Strayhorn, his long-time collaborator, put their distinctive big band sound on Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet music. The Ellington Orchestra recording was a hit when released, then fell into relative obscurity. But since the score was published in 2010, orchestras are taking it up for Christmas performances.
Simply put, the Ellington “Nutcracker” takes the familiar music and jazzes it up in lively and difficult-to-play ways. “Dance of the Reed-Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot.” The toy soldier “March” becomes “Peanut Brittle Brigade.” And “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” becomes “Sugar Rum Cherry.”
Vashlishan describes it as a very difficult piece for the ensemble to play, with each part virtuosic.
“There are a lot of disconnected tempos,” Edward Ellington notes. “He used every instrument.”
“Originally it takes about 35 minutes to perform,” Vashlishan says. “I extend a few sections to allow for improvisation, which makes it a bit longer. We are also performing one or two extra pieces. We always feature Nancy for a tune.”
He also notes that jazz luminary Dan Block will be joining the group on clarinet and tenor sax again this year. “Combined with Jay Rattman (a young wind virtuoso who grew up in Stroudsburg) it is a clarinet tour de force that is very much needed for this music, and a special treat to hear.”
The concert, on Saturday, December 8, begins at 7 p.m. at the Cecilia Cohen Recital Hall at the Fine & Performing Arts Center on campus. All proceeds from ticket sales go to the musicians and to support the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at ESU. Tickets can be purchased, by visiting esufoundation.org/Nutcracker2018.