Back in 1969, five years before Vince Guaraldi jazzed up Christmas music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn conceived of and superbly executed this delightfully good-humored jazz version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite."
Ellington and Strayhorn made up hip new names for Peter Ilich's originals, like "Sugar Rum Cherry" and "Toot Toot Tootie Toot" (Dance of the Reed-Pipes), but even without the novelty titles, you'd know The Duke was going for lightness and good humor.
The suite will be familiar to all, but the retelling as a jazz tale will be novel. The orchestra with Hodges, Carney, Gonzalves, Ray Nance and all the other great vets including drummer Sam Woodyard, swing their way easily through these rhythmically charged, nimbly struck arrangements.
My only criticism here are the short sides. Each is over too quickly.
The recording, produced in Los Angeles May through June of 1960 is clean, crisp and three dimensional, though the mix is more 3 track than stereo, with instruments panned fairly hard left and right with a prominent center fill and little to the its sides until you get to the hard left/right stuff.
Still, despite the somewhat dated staging, the recording quality itself is superb. The horns have a full, brassy swagger, the reeds plenty of buzzy warmth and Woodyard's drum kit is nicely developed with a juicy, woody rim shot that pops brilliantly and crisply chiming cymbals. Ellington's piano is also nicely recorded and there's an emphasis on close-miked percussion that helps make this an audiophile's delight.
A nice blend of direct, closely miked sound and chamber reverb produce a big, exciting picture you'll wrap your ears around with pleasure.
Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman's mastering and the quiet Pallas pressing make this reissue superior to the original, though if you have a clean one of those, you don't need this.
Though it was issued by Pure Pleasure last Spring, now's the time to remind you of this swinging Christmas record, perfect for right now!
I've been loving my original pressing for years. It's a record that comes out every Christmas. Get it and I guarantee it will become a tradition in your house every holiday season for years to come.