This week’s album in the spotlight is one of those albums where I had heard some of the music on it and knew that I had to have it. If you’ve been following along with my series of favorite albums, you’ll know that I’ve gleaned a bit of my musical knowledge from my time in my school’s Jazz Ensembles. Thus it will not come as any surprise that my origins with Duke Ellington’s Three Suites are listening sessions in the band room. 😉
It was in one of these sessions that an interesting version of Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker Suite was played, having been re-arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, played by Duke’s orchestra. While there are, as the title suggests, three suites on the album, the one that, at least for me, always sticks in my mind is the Nutcracker. That isn’t to say that the other two suites – the Peer Gynt Suite and an original suite called “Suite Thursday” aren’t worth listening to, it is just that the familiarity most of us have with the Nutcracker Suite will lend itself to being stuck in your mind.
When you first put the album in and hit play, you’re treated to the Nutcracker’s Overture; it is a great way to introduce the concept of the album and slowly transition from the “traditional” style of Tchaikovsky into a jazz style, fully taking you into swing by time you’re halfway through the track. Next is the “Dance of the Reed-Pipes”, retitled “Toot Toot Tootie Toot”; again, it’s performed beautifully in the swing style.
The same can be said about the whole album, but for me, the next couple of tracks are definitely my favorites on the album. The first is “Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)” – this has everything from driving sounds, to ranges all over the map – from the lowest of lows with the baritone sax to the trumpets stretching their chops as far as possible. It is truly amazing, if you ask me.
However, the greatness doesn’t stop there. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy then comes on, as Sugar Rum Cherry. Quite honestly, this is the track that made me fall in love with this album. It departs very slightly from the theme of the album while, and this is something true about these suites, maintaining the original sound that you are familiar with. This is another of those tracks that, for me, lets me go deep into my mind and relax for a few moments.
The next track, Entr’acte, can quickly lull you out of the relaxation and get you moving around as it is a fast-flowing piece of music that you will have a hard time if you don’t start to move to the beat even a little bit. At its heart is a bit of retrospective on what you’ve already heard, but with yet another different take. We then move to the Russian and Chinese Dances (Volga Volty and Chinoiserie respectively), again keeping the essence of the music, but adding the jazz spirit to it. Of special note is the section in Chinoiserie where the clarinet and sax trade staccato notes in the middle and at the end of the piece; it is a great piece of coordination which should be recognized.
Up next is the Waltz of the Flowers, represented as Danse of the Floreadores. What Ellington & Strayhorn did here was take the piece and turn it into something that, if it hadn’t been done originally by Tchaikovsky, might confuse you for being something that possibly Count Basie or some of his contemporaries would have thought up on their own. The last piece from the Nutcracker Suite is Arabesque Cookie (Arabic Dance). According to the liner notes, Paul Gonsalves took lessons on the bamboo flute so that he could play it for this track especially. He leads it off with what might be thought of as a quite exotic sound, yet one which is completely agreeable with the ears.
From here we move into the Peer Gynt Suite, No. 1 & 2. Even if you have not heard of this particular suite in the past, you will recognize at least a couple of the tracks from it. The first one is “Morning Mood”, which has the flowing sounds you might hear in the background of “rise and shine” on a random TV station (not to say that I’ve actually heard it, but that it would definitely fit). The other track that should be recognizable is In the Hall of the Mountain King – even if it isn’t completely recognized, it might wind up jogging your memory, or just get you moving again.
Really, for me, I’m not totally familiar with the rest of the album, as I tend to get caught in the Nutcracker Suite and lose myself, or I’ll listen to one of the Peer Gynt pieces – Anitra’s Death.
It just so happens that I had played the song for the jazz ensemble when it was part of the Essentially Ellington program a few years ago. Although it was a challenge to play (considering that it started with a 3-count followed immediately by a staccato note), I’ve always liked playing and listening to the track.
Why you should listen to it
If you’re a fan of classical music, you will greatly appreciate how Duke sticks to the soul of the music, making sure that the original statements are made, just in a different way. If you’re a jazz fan, then why haven’t you listened to this album already? It’s one that you should 😉
If you’re a fan of “Oh, I like a little bit of everything, really” (and that’s definitely OK – to be honest, I’ve gotten to become that way over the last couple of years thanks to the deepening of the array of music I’ve been exposed to), then you definitely listen to at least the Nutcracker tracks and if you like those, try out the rest. 😉
Over to you
I know I asked this question of y’all a couple of weeks ago, but what is an album that is on the must-listen list on your iPod, Winamp, or CD player? What is it about that particular album that makes you want to listen to it again and again and again?