The inherently conservative quality of Christmas entertainment -- The Nutcracker and its ilk -- has always been, well, an indelibly hard nut to crack. It takes something as inimitably elegant as the silky touch of a Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn arrangement to ever make such fare swing more than your average marching band. But don't you think Tchaikovsky himself would've approved of such serendipity?
Here's your chance to decide for yourself: Creative Music Works Orchestra leader Lynn Baker and crew will take the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite -- or at least those movements chosen by the jazz composers for their dance-like character -- for a strut this weekend in a pair of holiday jazz concerts at the Houston Fine Arts Center.
Music for Christmas, featuring The Nutcracker Suite
Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Boulevard
Presented by Creative Music Works Orchestra
Arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
8 p.m. December 20-21, $10-$15
"They first reorchestrated the themes from a symphony-orchestra setting to the jazz-orchestra setting," Baker says of swing's most dynamic duo. "That, in itself, demands a rhythm section." Ooh-la-la! And it doesn't stop there. Ellington and Strayhorn not only messed with the rhythm, they also came up with racy new names for familiar Nutcracker themes: The ubiquitous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, for instance, reappears as Sugar Rum Cherry, and the Dance of the Reed Pipes as the swinging Toot Toot Tootie Toot. Add to that an occasional blast of spirited improvisation in the spirit of Johnny Hodges or Cootie Williams, and you're suddenly having a lot more fun.
No disrespect intended. "It's Ellington," Baker says. "And if you're true to the sound of his orchestra and understand those sensibilities, it's a joy." He adds, "It's a different kind of holiday fare. All the ballets and symphony orchestras have been making hay on The Nutcracker for some time. Now we're going to make hay on it with the jazz version."