Tag Archives: Gustavo Cruz

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.

JazzArts’ Mostly Merry Holiday Edition Spans Continents and Holidays

Review: Jazz Room Holiday Edition with Roxy Coss, Corey Wilkes and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

By Perry Tannenbaum

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President and CEO Lonnie Davis and artistic director Ocie Davis have been delivering JazzArts programming and monthly Jazz Room concerts for over 10 years – and Holiday Editions from their first year onwards. Previous Jazz Room Holiday Editions were staged at Booth Playhouse or McGlohon Theater to accommodate larger Yuletide audiences, but the 11th Edition had to be unique, virtually streamed over Facebook and YouTube, sourced from multiple locations in the US and abroad. Hosting garrulously in a seasonal Santa cap and a garish fal-la-lah jacket, Curtis Davenport certainly established a festive tone. Yet all wasn’t merry on the playlist from nine different ensembles – and all wasn’t Christmas, since time was set aside for a Chanukah segment.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 8.14.19 PM

Leading off from New Orleans was Matt Lemmler, whom we had last seen at the Stage Door in an August 2019 jazz tribute to Stevie Wonder. For that Jazz Room event, Lemmler had fronted a 10-piece band from the keyboard. This time, clad in full Santa attire, Lemmler launched into Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charly Brown Christmas without even a trio, accompanied only by Don Caro, a rather interesting and unique drummer. Lemmler didn’t toy much with the beloved 1965 soundtrack album, improvising only a little, but his follow-up vocal on Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the same album, certainly changed the flavor. A small band of cute little cartoon kiddies sang on the original vinyl from the CBS Special, but Lemmler’s style evoked the late Dr. John, though there wasn’t the same signature rasp in his voice.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 8.16.10 PM

The next group was homegrown and JazzArts-bred, namely the JazzArts All-Star Youth Ensemble playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Hollnd Maajors seemed to anchor the quartet from the electric keyboard, but it was Olivia Ratliff who had center stage and the spotlight, playing electric bass and singing the vocal. Tenor saxophonist Gustavo Cruz was consistently fine on both his solos. Majors also took two brief solos, impressing me more when he switched off his piano mode and went with his organ sound. Since this webcast also doubled as a fundraiser, Davenport aptly pointed out that educational programs working with musicians and combos such as these were a prime destination for contributions to JazzArts.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 9.14.33 PM

Davenport was most effusive when he introduced the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and rightfully so. The New Orleans institution not only brought the largest ensemble to the party, they also boasted the most impressive video production in their down-home setting, easily MTV quality. As tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen sang “Please Come Home for Christmas,” there were close-ups of the brass, Ronell Johnson on the trombone and Branden Lewis on the trumpet, enriching the texture. Side shots of the rhythm section showed us drummer Walter Harris in the foreground, bassist Ben Jaffe near the middle of our screens, and pianist Kyle Roussel in the distance with his back toward us. Yet there were also closeups of Roussel in the final cut, and shots of hands were near enough to render his wristwatch larger than life-size on my computer monitor. Maedgen’s vocal was as recognizably New Orleans as Lemmler’s had been but in a bluesier vein.

While I couldn’t begrudge JazzArts for saving the second Preservation Hall selection for the finale of the program, it was a bit cruel to have Robyn Springer follow in their wake with such spare backup. Lovell Bradford was listless and quiet at the electric keyboard and Ocie Davis, armed with a bell shaker in one hand and a brush in the other, hardly helped Springer to even smolder, let alone burst into flame, as she sang the coquettish “Santa Baby.” A more robust backup could have added some edge to Springer’s savvy rendition the lyric before she finally heated up toward the end. There was a welcome flourish of scatting the vocalist before her fadeout, sprinkled with Bradford’s holiday coda.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.32.10 PM

Springer recorded her spot at Wonderworld West End Studios, the same local spot as the JazzArts All-Stars, so the interval with the Preservation Hall combo gave the Holiday Edition a more credible continuity. No exits, no entrances, and no new setups were necessary to sustain the flow. Our next excursion was to Chicago, where we reverted to a duo performance with a less claustrophobic camera placement than we’d seen for Lemmler. We could see the full height of bassist Junius Paul as he accompanied Corey Wilkes, playing muted trumpet on “Winter Wonderland.” Without much texture to the arrangement, Wilkes’ straightforward unveiling of the melody was a bit bland, but he opened up impressively with multiple choruses of dazzling variations on the theme. Discreetly, the trumpeter exited from the screen – well, almost – while Paul demonstrated that he also had formidable improvising skills.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.49.15 PM

We returned to the local studio, where Israeli-born guitarist Amos Hoffman (now based in Columbia, SC) supplied us with our Chanukah interlude, “Cad Katan,” backed by Davis and bassist Sam Edwards. You can more easily check out this song, commemorating the “Little Jug” of oil that lasted eight days at the Holy Temple when the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem in 160 (the Chanukah miracle), by spelling it “Kad Katan” in a Google or Spotify search box. Hoffman’s first pass through the melody was very much at the deliberate pace of most recordings, with perhaps a reggae lilt layered on. Each successive chorus markedly quickened the pace, triggered by Davis at the drums, truly swinging by the time we reached the outchorus. Over the course of this instrumental, Davis switched from mallets to drumsticks to kickstart Hoffman’s fleet repeat, switching yet again to brushes when he shared a chorus with Edwards, trading fours as the bassist unsheathed his bow. These exploits were nearly as eye-catching as the handless Caro’s had been behind Lemmler. One of Caro’s arms proved capable of grasping a stick, but the other needed the assistance of an elastic armband. Switching from one kind of drumstick to another was itself a feat.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.39.08 PM

Our trip overseas to watch Sasha Masakowski sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was arguably the most claustrophobic of the evening – and certainly the most poignant. Accompanied only by guitarist Per Møllehøj in the corner of a Copenhagen garret, Masakowski sang a reduced arrangement by her father, renowned New Orleans guitarist Steve Masakowski, that appears on the newly-released Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Live at Snug Harbor New Orleans) album by the Masakowski Family. Sasha is anything but a belter. She sang so sweetly, making this “Merry Christmas” especially forlorn each time she reached the final eight bars and their pandemic-pertinent lyric, “Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow.” Given his own solo, Møllehøj underscored the intimacy and solemnity of Masakowski’s performance. Showcasing Jason Marsalis as its most recognizable guest artist, the Masakowski Family album manages to cover two other songs performed at the Holiday Edition, making it a worthy gift.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.56.15 PM

“Christmas Time Is Here” was the first of these covers and “The Christmas Song,” presented at Wonderworld West End by Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues, was the second. Immortalized with his bassline in the “Sanford and Son Theme Song,” Arnold is doubly unorthodox as a bluesman. He plays his bass left-handed and, even more outré, his instrument is handmade with a gasoline can – like the gas-can guitar he learned to build and play when he was growing up on a sharecropper’s farm in South Carolina. You wouldn’t expect the 78-year-old’s rendition of the Mel Tormé standard to sound like Nat Cole’s, but Arnold was not far from the weathered timbre and expressiveness of Tony Bennett to my ears – and Austin Brashier’s brief solo reaffirmed that Holiday Edition was blessed with more than a couple of fine guitarists.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.58.19 PM

Roxy Coss’s most recent Quintet album was one of the best in 2019 to my ears, and the tenor saxophonist was able to gather a fine quartet into her cramped New York dwelling – with a video camera or two, a grand piano, and the grand pianist from her quintet, Miki Yamanaka. Coss put a little more mustard on her opening chorus of “Let It Snow” than we heard on the plainer expositions by Lemmler and Hoffman, handing off the bridge to Yamanaka to add color to the arrangement, and both women swung their solos heartily when the real blowing began. The gals gave a guy a piece of the action, taking turns in trading fours with drummer Jimmy Macbride before taking back control for the last chorus. It was arranged like the opening statement, except for Yamanaka getting the last word and adding a Count Basie-like coda to her exit.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 9.13.08 PM

With the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s encore came an extra treat, 88-year-old clarinet icon Charlie Gabriel performing the valedictory vocal, “We Wish You All.” This Christmas song is unknown in the annals of Google, Spotify, and AllMusic, listed simply in the closing credits as performed by the band without specifying a composer. Could have been a world premiere for all we knew, sung with youthful gusto by Gabriel and very much in the vein of that quintessential New Orleans native, Louis Armstrong. Nor was there anything as newfangled as a solo during the half-chorus between Gabriel’s gorgeous vocals: Johnson on the trombone, Maedgen on tenor sax, and Lewis on a muted trumpet all jammed together. Big finish, of course, in classic Dixieland style.