Tag Archives: Lois Majors

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 Crowns Summer at Victoria Yards With an Epic Triple-Tiered Concert

Reviews: Robyn Springer and Dreamroot

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the second year of the pandemic lumbers past the halfway mark and cultural life begins to migrate back indoors – along with our sacrificial schoolchildren – we can only wonder whether outdoor venues like Rivers Green in Charleston and Victoria Yards in Charlotte, pressed by necessity into emergency use, will ever be utilized again on the other side of our global nightmare. At first blush, Rivers Green might have seemed to hold more promise, nestled on a picturesque site behind the College of Charleston library. But with more flexible seating, picnic tables, and provisions for food trucks and restrooms surrounding concertgoers, the more urban Victoria Yards offers a more casual and welcoming experience – and a more sophisticated sound system.2021~Robyn Springer-01

All of these factors came into play as JazzArts presented a three-tiered event as its 2021 outdoor finale. The JazzArts Youth All-Stars warmed up for the Dreamroot quintet from Durham, who in turn made way for hometown vocalist Robyn Springer – with saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield leading a mini-set before her regal entrance. Nearly three hours long, with two generous intermissions, this robust program was in no hurry to send us home, as so many misguided live and online events have been over the past 17 months. Instead of cowering from COVID, JazzArts offered us extra helpings of escape and joy.

Covering such standards as “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “On Green Dolphin Street” while mixing in a couple of originals, Holland Majors was the dominant member of the Youth All-Stars trio – and its spokesman from the keyboard. Holland’s younger sister, Lois Majors, accompanied on the upright bass, making her most impactful contribution as composer of the first original. Upstage behind his drum kit, Samuel David shone brightest in the latter portion of the set, on “Green Dolphin Street” and the original blues that served as the closer. That as-yet-untitled tune was unexpectedly swift and hard-driving for a blues, climaxed by an extended exchange of four-bar volleys from the drummer and the keyboardist. Holland’s sound on the electronic piano was also more satisfying at this point, preferable to the saccharine timbre he often opted for in the early portions of the set.2021~Robyn Springer-07

Beginning with woodwind player Serena Wiley, who also sings and composes the band’s spoken word segments, Dreamroot is a richly gifted quintet, weaving between commercial and artistic aspirations rather than exploring their trailblazing potential. With less time to stretch out on her flute and tenor saxophone solos, Wiley wasn’t as impressive or technically advanced in her improvisations as Lynn Grissett on his honey-toned trumpet solos. While Grissett delivered the most satisfying individual playing, keyboardist Joe MacPhail frustrated me the most – with the sparsity of his output. After erupting into a spacey, cosmic solo and setting the tone in “Habits,” the second piece of the set, MacPhail only surfaced intermittently afterwards in the soloing.2021~Robyn Springer-15

Most of the tunes were unannounced, but I filled in gaps with Dreamroot’s 2020 recording, Phases, thanks to Spotify and Wiley’s poetry. Positive ID and spelling were obtained in this manner for three of the songs, “Momentum 7,” “Stridin’,” and “Good Morning Afternoon.” Among the instrumentals, Wiley announced “2AM” from the stage, a mellow ensemble akin to “Good Morning Afternoon” with its slow tempo and rich harmonies. The bopping penultimate tune was “Phase Is,” the closing piece on their similarly named album. Since that studio date, they’ve improved the arrangement and given drummer Theous Jones a much greater opportunity to shine.

With less of a footprint on the major streaming services, Springer was more of an enigma before she performed. Previous blips of her on our radar were both part of JazzArts presentations, a couple of songs as a guest artist in a Matt Lemmler tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2019 and a prerecorded “Santa Baby” (with notably less distinguished backup) in an online Holiday Edition last December. What Springer would program when she was the headliner seemed to be completely up for grabs, though the introductory set led by Crutchfield and a quartet that included two percussionists and an electric guitar presaged a smooth jazz flavor. Our host, Curtis Davenport, priming us to greet the headliner with a rousing ovation, conveyed to us that Ms. Springer intended to “sang,” which implied that there would be some heat involved.2021~Robyn Springer-27

Among the most familiar songs Springer and her bandmates covered were “Give Me the Night,” “Moondance,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Lovely Day,” “I Can’t Help It,” and “I Believe in Love,” all of which are over 40 years old. So it may have seemed odd to those in the crowd who reached puberty in the current millennium when Springer archly asked if it would be okay to sing an “old” song before launching into the more ancient “Fever,” in the revised version introduced by Miss Peggy Lee back in 1958. At this inopportune time, since the cat was already out of the proverbial bag, Springer hilariously insisted that it was the song and not she who was old. Sade’s “Keep Looking” soon followed, perhaps the youngest song in the set, released in 1988.2021~Robyn Springer-31

True to her word, Springer made each of these standards her own. Particularly savvy were the inclusions of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’” and “Fever,” each of which comes equipped with stanza breaks that provided Crutchfield and guitarist Joe Lindsay convenient spaces to blow. Part of an all-star Jazz at the Bechtler anniversary celebration just a couple of months before the pandemic struck, Crutchfield blazed most memorably in the interstices of “Moondance” and “Fever.” There was no shortage of voltage from the alto sax on “Knockin’,” but Lindsay, whom I’d never seen or heard of before, absolutely upstaged him on a searing solo that even left Springer gasping in wonderment when he was done. Both soloists excelled equally on “Lovely Day” and afterwards supplied the familiar backup vocals as Springer scatted and vamped to the finish.

Under the lights, everyone onstage was enjoying the show as much as the audience, though the temperature remained in the 80s well after the sun set. Crutchfield was particularly loose by the time we reached “Keep Looking.” As Springer’s vocal gradually built to a boil over Lindsay’s intensifying lines and the seething percussion of Shamon Scull and Corey Johnson, Crutchfield spiced the festivities with capricious snippets from Bizet’s Carmen.