Tag Archives: David Lail

JazzArts Sweetens Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite With Jazzy Elzy Choreography

Review: Ellington’s Nutcracker at Booth Playhouse

By Perry Tannenbaum

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December 8, 2022, Charlotte, NC – While JFK was campaigning for the White House in 1960, Duke Ellington was out west, arguably having his sweetest year as a bandleader and composer, with an extended stay at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, a festival triumph at Monterey that yielded two albums, and three sweet suites that were released on additional Columbia albums. The Nutcracker Suite marked the first time Ellington and longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn had worked so extensively on adapting and arranging another composer’s music, and the pair did not wait for audience reaction to the Tchaikovsky foray before embarking on a similar project with Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites No. 1 and 2.

Perhaps sweetest of all was the duo’s original suite, Suite Thursday, inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel, Sweet Thursday, which was set in Monterey. Ellington had played with these homonyms before, wittily naming his 1957 Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder, but after the success of Nutcracker, the wordplay was over: Far East Suite, Latin American Suite, New Orleans Suite, and Togo Brava Suite were albums that announced themselves explicitly.

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Although Ellington’s embrace of classical music and form was obviously a commercial success, his Nutcracker never became the perennial evergreen that Peter Tchaikovsky’s ballet has – with helpful nudges from world-class choreographers and ballerinas. Yet it was still surprising to learn that the current run of Nutcracker Swing performances, presented at Booth Playhouse by JazzArts Charlotte, is an area premiere. One could only grow more puzzled by the delay when trumpeter and musical director Ashlin Parker began tearing into the Duke’s score with an able, self-assured 16-piece band. Very likely, JazzArts had also pondered the popularity gap between the ballet Nutcracker and the big band version, opting to fortify their version with jazzy choreography by the co-founder of the New Orleans Dance Theatre, Lula Elzy, delivered with flair by a sassy 12-member dance troupe.

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Even more lagniappe was added to the front end of this special JazzArts Holiday Edition, before intermission, with appearances by vocalist Dawn Anthony and a quartet of JazzArts All-Star Youth Ensemble musicians. Warm-up songs included a tasty mix of jazz standards, including Richard Rodgers’ “My Favorite Things” and Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” and a bouquet of holiday fare: vocals on “Someday at Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” a big-band “Christmas Time Is Here,” and Youth Ensemble instrumentals on “O Tannenbaum” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Ensemble’s tenor saxophonist, Gustavo Cruz, and bandmate bassist Lois Majors were nearly as well-received as Anthony’s high-energy singing, and the first appearance of the evening by the dancers made the instrumental from Vince Guaraldi’s Charly Brown Christmas even more endearing.

Parker and his bandmates had already proven their mettle before we reached the Ellington-Strayhorn orchestrations. As soloists, tenor saxophonist Elijah Freeman, altoist David Lail, and Tim Gordon, doubling on alto sax and clarinet, had also excelled. Yet the band’s work on Nutcracker Suite still eclipsed my rising expectations, reminding me why Ellington, before and during the big band era, stuck with Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra as the name of his group.

 

Ellington always believed that he wrote primarily for orchestra, but he launched his career and his band during the Jazz Age, so he kept the phonograph and the concert hall in mind when he wrote. That’s why most of the earliest jewels in Duke’s crown clocked in at approximately three minutes. The nine segments of Ellington’s Nutcracker barely exceed a half hour, but it’s a hardy concentrate, allowing the aforementioned soloists – and numerous others on the Booth Playhouse stage – to shine and shine again. Hearing this merry music swung live onstage, at sound levels that rose above 90 dB, was astonishing.

The quality of the choreography and the athleticism of the dancers will make it difficult for you to keep track of who is responsible for the instrumental excellence behind them – even when Lail stands up in his red cap and wildly wails. Henry’s work on clarinet is nearly as sensational, and Freeman remains rock solid on tenor. Parker’s rhythm section shines brighter after intermission, earning kudos for pianist Lovell Bradford, bassist Shannon Hoover, and drummer Kobie Watkins, particularly on the sinuous “Chinoiserie.” Elzy’s choreography lifted the excitement even higher, with costume changes for the women between their appearances.

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For the “Toot Toot Tootie Tout (Dance of the Reed Pipes)” segment, appropriately graced by Henry’s clarinet, they entered in cool turquoise dresses glittering with snowflakes, and for “Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy),” they sashayed in from the wings in hot red. The guys, in casual wear before the break, stuck with white shirts and black bowties afterwards, competing with the gals by executing higher leaps and more jivy steps. After they had been challenged by the women in “Sugar Rum” and “Entracte,” the men responded with their finest moves on “The Volga Vouty (Russian Dance).”

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Changing the order from the sequence you can hear on Ellington’s Three Suites album, Parker and company followed with an epic performance of “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance),” the last and longest track. Here the men remained onstage after their triumphant “Volga” stint, surrounding the alluring alpha female, back in flaming red, while Lail blew his most memorable solo of the night. Out of its usual sequence, “Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance)” brought the full company of dancers back to the Booth stage for a rather startling cooldown, but energy built dramatically for the new finale, “Dance of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers),” – loud, flamboyant, and for my money, the most Ellingtonian chart of the evening. Sensory overload was so total that I lost track of all the fine instrumental solos behind the lively dancers.

Matt Lemmler and a 10-Piece Band Ignite a Stevie Wonder Sampler, Aided by Three Guest Vocalists

Review: Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Anyone who seriously follows the work of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists has likely realized that, for the last 30 years and more, the compositions of Stevie Wonder have become as much a part of his contemporaries’ songbooks as the works of George Gershwin were for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz covers of certain Wonder songs like “Sir Duke” or “All in Love Is Fair” are so ubiquitous that it came as no surprise that the latest Jazz Room concert presented by JazzArts Charlotte, Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder, should set out to explore the superstar’s songs for the length of a full concert at the Stage Door Theater. What did take me a little by surprise was that those songs – as well as “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” “Living for the City,” “Keep on Running,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – could all be omitted from Lemmler’s playlist without crashing the quality of his concert. Perhaps we all take the bounty of Wonder’s output for granted.

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Lemmler brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, leading a 10-piece band from the keyboard and deploying four vocalists to the singing chores, including his own tonsils. For his opening and closing tunes, Lemmler showcased his band, rotating his vocalists for the intervening eight songs. Beginning the set, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was the only purely instrumental offering penned by Wonder, readily identifiable in a fairly long ensemble arrangement before Lemmler soloed and we had our first sampling of David Lail’s zesty tenor sax. The ensemble continued to be a substantial part of the mix when the vocalists appeared. A plucked bass intro kicked off Lemmler’s arrangement of “Ribbon in the Sky,” followed by some pleasing back-and-forth between the brass and the piano before the vocalists took over. Lemmler took the first vocal and his first guest vocalist, Matt Kelley, took the second. “Ebony Eyes” drew an even more colorful arrangement as Lemmler layered on another vocalist, Robyn Springer, into his chart, limiting his own role to the piano and giving trumpeter Eleazar Shafer some solo space. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” spotlighted Kobie Watkins’ percussion, Dave Vergato’s bass, Darrel Payton’s muted trombone, and some nice section work from the saxes around the vocal.

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After Kelley returned with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and Springer had joined with him on a more satisfying “You and I,” punctuated by solos from Lemmler and Lail, I was expecting to pronounce that Springer had outsung Kelley on this night. But a couple of unexpected twists – and a whole new level – lay ahead as Lemmler introduced a third guest vocalist, Kevin “Mercury” Carter. Wait a second. Isn’t it a law that, after any vocalist you’ve introduced to your audience makes a second entrance, no new vocalists shall be introduced? Apparently not. Compounding the singularity of this moment, Lemmler was playing his first set in a three-night, six-performance engagement, and was apparently only fleetingly familiar with Mercury’s talents. He introduced him as “Mercedes Carter,” which really threw me, since I was totally unfamiliar with this singer. On the one hand, I’ve only heard of women named Mercedes; but on the other, despite a coordinated Afro-flavored outfit that was gender-ambiguous, Carter was sporting some serious facial hair.

So we seemed to be floating outside of binary territory when Carter lit into “Isn’t She Lovely,” scaling substantially into the treble clef after Lemmler’s vocal and Lail’s tenor with a smoothness that recalled Michael Jackson, the best vocal so far. But after a solid rendition of “Overjoyed,” Kelley returned and forced me to shuffle my vocal rankings once again as he absolutely torched a wondrous arrangement of “Part-Time Lover,” embellishing the wordless riffs on Wonder’s original recording to the point that they became a more freestyle scat. In between Carter’s two choruses, the last followed by a prolonged scat outro, there were exciting solos from Shafer and Payton, the latter unmuted this time on his trombone, and Lemmler’s best piano solo of this set.

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Off that high, Lemmler came down to earth with his own original dedicated to Stevie, “S’Wondersong,” yielding the instrumental spotlight to Lail, Watkins, and alto saxophonist Harvey Cummings. It’s a bit awkward for a 10-piece band to go through the ritual of vacating a stage and returning to do an encore after wild audience applause. Lemmler opted to skip those formalities and, after the perfunctory coaxing from the JazzArts Charlotte emcee to justify our presumed reward, it quickly became obvious that Lemmler’s Storyville medley was an integral part of the show. Not only did the medley give the leader/arranger a chance to extol his New Orleans roots, it carved out space for all of his band members to toss off a valedictory solo. It also brought Lemmler home to the places where his vocal style sounds most forceful and comfortable, “The House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.”