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SEABROOK – For years, musicians of every flavor have produced holiday albums. This worthy tradition continues in the present era, with artists such as Michael Bublé, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Puppini Sisters and Mannheim Steamroller all producing CD’s swinging back and forth between traditional Christmas and more contemporary jazz-oriented holiday sounds.
We are fortunate to have many local venues and musicians bringing classic Christmas albums to life!
“The Nutcracker” is one of the great Christmas ballets. Innovative Washington-born jazz artist Duke Ellington put a jazz spin on this music in an album he created for Columbia Records in 1960, reimagining Tchaikovsky’s symphonic ballet suite in jazz.
The audience at one of Washington’s premier jazz clubs, Blues Alley, recently had an opportunity to hear this work played live, with the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra presenting Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” to a captivated audience.
The attendees, most of whom were born years and decades after Ellington’s recording was first released, clearly enjoyed the upbeat swing version in reeds, brass and rhythm of the “Nutcracker Overture,” “Waltz of the Flowers,” and the exotic Russian, Chinese and Arabian dances. Mr. Felton, trombonist, and leader of the orchestra informed the audience that Ellington had modified some of the titles; for instance, the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” became appropriately for a jazz club the “Sugar Rum Cherry!” Perhaps best received by the Blues Alley audience was “Arabian Dance,” or rather “Arabesque Cookie” in the Ellington idiom, which effortlessly blended the bluesy Ellington sound with the romantic longing for the exotic embodied by Tchaikovsky.
Mr. Felten is also the band’s singer, and when his orchestra moved beyond the Ellington/Tchaikovsky repertoire, he provided a smooth vocal on a Glenn Miller Orchestra piece which he said was being performed for the first time since Miller played it in the early forties, the war-time “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (the melody is entirely different from the still-popular Christmas song of this title).
The addition of this and other 1940s compositions added a welcome touch of historical resonance to the show.
Another holiday jazz album of note is “A Merry Christmas!” first released by Stan Kenton and His Orchestra in 1961. Kenton first played the traditional carols, followed by his own upbeat progressive jazz versions. A show based on the album is now performed annually by the Washington-area Capitol Bones (as in trombones) Big Band, a group of area musicians dedicated to celebrating the brassy sound which bandleader, pianist and arranger Stan Kenton created. The Bones have also created new charts of more secular Christmas songs, played in the unique Kenton style.
During the recent performance, the Capitol Bones appeared at Washington’s Union Stage, which is actually more of a club. Led by trombonist Matt Niess, they played traditional carols from the classic album such as “Good King Wenceslas,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” starting with slow, concert-style arrangements, and then increasing speed and drive, often to a stunning crescendo. The many brass voices create a lush, rich sound, somewhat reminiscent of the brass section in a symphony orchestra.
Yet even as the Bones made no bones about their pitch-perfect emulation of Kenton covers and style, they have also created new arrangements in the Kenton style which pay tribute to other Christmas albums and holiday television specials.
Particularly useful was the swinging “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” from Dr. Seuss’ “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” Another memorable piece was a duet by trumpeters Craig Fraedrich and Graham Breedlove of “My Favorite Things,” recalling a version of this song on “The Christmas Album” of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The pièce de résistance of the evening was “Big Bad Drummin’ Dude,” a Matt Niess-penned “mashup” of “The Little Drummer Boy” and Kenton’s very non-Christmas jazz staple “Intermission Riff.”
The extended drum solo by Todd Harrison gave new life to both pieces.
A guest vocalist also appeared; Darden Purcell, director of jazz studies at George Mason University, performed (despite the winter weather) “Too Darn Hot,” scat singing now and then along the way, as well as a soulful rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Her students were organized into a singing quartet à la the Modernaires performing “Winter Wonderland.”
The Bones’ Kenton tribute band also played “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” including a beautiful and mellow mellophone solo by Gil Hoffer. It allows us to introduce our final album-based entry, the soundtrack of the famed “Peanuts” Christmas Special with its legendary score by Vince Guaraldi. Unexpectedly, the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor here in Prince George’s County does not feature a live musical tribute, but rather ice sculpture depicting characters from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Children and adults alike will delight in seeing Charlie Brown in colorful ice holding his iconic dilapidated Christmas tree, iced Snoopy with his doghouse of red-colored ice decorated with commercial Christmas lights, and Linus in ice explaining (via the soundtrack recording) the true meaning of Christmas from the second chapter of Luke. All the while, one hears in the various ice chambers displaying these recreations the Vince Guaraldi jazz soundtrack of “O Tannenbaum,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” (Adventurous children will also love an ice slide, though this goes at a fast clip!)
Readers are encouraged to see and hear their favorite Christmas albums performed live. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on ice runs through Jan.1. While the single performance of the Capitol Bones’ “Stan Kenton Christmas” has passed, most pieces they played (both original Kenton and new) are available on an in-studio CD recording. Although its performance of “Duke Ellington’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’” has also come and gone, the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra frequently performs in the Washington, D.C., area.