Duke Ellington's 'Nutcracker Suite' returns to ESU

Special guests are Edward Ellington, the Duke's grandson, and vocalist Nancy Reed

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  • The 16-piece Water Gap Jazz Orchestra (Photo provided)

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.”

— Whether or not you know the story of “The Nutcracker," 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.

East Stroudsburg University and The Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection will present the “Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite” at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Cecilia Cohen Recital Hall at the Fine & Performing Arts Center on the ESU campus.

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.

A local coffee shop owner told jazz program coordinator Matt Vashlishan that he didn't like big band music, with one exception: the “Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite" album. Vashlishan took that idea and ran with it, setting up a concert with the Water Gap Jazz Orchestra, the group formed by the late Phil Woods, alto sax legend.

Reed not only agreed to perform but suggested a perfect narration partner" “How about an Ellington?,” she asked.

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.

'Sugar Rum Cherry'Over lunch at the Sycamore Grill in Delaware Water Gap recently, Edward Ellington regaled the table with tales of traveling with his grandfather’s band, which his father, Mercer Ellington, took over after Duke’s death in 1974. While Edward played guitar with the band for a number of years, he said he never got a chance to play well because he was saddled with the grueling job of road manager, lugging equipment and baggage on and off the stage and chartered buses. The band traveled the world, often on a tight schedule and playing every night.

“The band never made money,” he says. “Ellington made his money off the music.”

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 says it's 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 said. “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.”

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," said Vashlishan.

All proceeds from ticket sales go to the musicians and to support the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at ESU. Tickets may purchased at esufoundation.org/Nutcracker2018.

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