Once upon a time, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn sat down together to do a swinging jazz version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's beloved holiday ballet, "The Nutcracker." Well, actually, they were both sitting down, at their respective pianos, but separated by many, many miles. They sent their musical ideas on how to proceed back and forth over telephone lines, both verbally and by playing their ideas, piano version, for each other. It was surely one of the more remarkable musical arranging collaborations in music history! Fortunately these two were of the type who could finish each others\' sentences, musically speaking. The original recording was released on Columbia Records around 1960; all the selections were arranged with the Ellington Orchestra\'s remarkable virtuoso players in mind. Then a peculiar thing happened. All the copies of the score for the Duke/Billy version vanished.
In the late 1970s, Mr. David Berger painstakingly sat down and transcribed the recorded version onto paper. He even added some sections of his own, but New England Jazz Ensemble has here recorded only the Duke/Billy core material, with their snappy re-titlings of original movements ("Sugar Rum Cherry," "The Volga Vouty," etc.). This was a daunting task, due to the intricacy of the charts, but fortunately NEJE consists of 16 of the finest musicians in New England. (Technically, only 15 are employed in the "Nutcracker" section of the CD.) Rather than slavishly imitate the original recording, we encouraged our players to add their own improvisational touches to their solos. We believe this is only the second recording, after Duke's original, to be undertaken. NEJE is proud to be in such rarefied company. NEJE performs this suite in concert annually in collaboration with Hartford Conservatory and other troupes that provide modern dance interpretations of the ballet.
The album is rounded out with some unusual approaches to other holiday standard fare, all concocted to provide you a swingin', cookin' Christmas...and the Ellington/Strayhorn material, we might humbly add, merits listening in ANY season!
Scott Yanow review from All Music:
Fans of both modern big bands and Christmas melodies will enjoy this set, which is reminiscent of similar projects by Tom Kubis and Rob McConnell. The majority of the first seven songs have arrangements by trumpeter Jeff Holmes. These charts are generally a little witty and have quotes from other Christmas tunes. The soloists are excellent if not overly distinctive and the music is both boppish and swinging. The final nine selections are transcribed from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn adaptation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker suite. While the ensembles are very similar to those played by Ellington's orchestra, the solos are fresh and different, in the tradition without copying the past. Overall, A Cookin' Christmas makes for a pleasing set that can be easily enjoyed all year round.
Jack Bowers review (All About Jazz 2004):
So why, you may ask, is Bowers reviewing a Christmas album in February? That’s a perceptive question, the answer to which is really quite simple: big band albums as impressive as this one by the superb New England Jazz Ensemble should be listened to and applauded not only during the holiday season but every day of the year.
The first half of the enterprise is devoted to well-known if not wholly traditional Christmas fare, the second to selections from Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s swing-centered adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet (transcribed by David Berger), and music director Walt Gwardyak’s ensemble is completely at ease in either mode. The opening theme, “We Wish You a Cookin’ Christmas,” is a potpourri of seasonal favorites (including “Good King Wenceslas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Carol of the Bells”) arranged by trumpeter Jeff Holmes. Holmes also arranged “Jolly Ole St. Nick,” which embodies fragments of “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells,” and plays the leading trumpet role on Gwardyak’s lush arrangement of Bob Wells / Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.”
“Rudolph” next reappears in a funky new wardrobe (thanks again to Gwardyak’s glistening arrangement), followed by “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty the Snowman,” each rigorously designed by Holmes, and a medley of “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” deftly sewn together by John Mastroianni.
The Nutcracker selections, lovingly reassembled by Berger from an Ellington/Strayhorn score that had vanished without a trace (he did so by listening to the original Ellington recording), feature authentic ensemble passages interspersed with more up-to-date improvisations by various members of the orchestra. Tenor George Sovak is showcased on two of them (“Sugar Rum Cherry,” “The Volga Vouty”) and shares the spotlight with Mastroianni’s clarinet on “Chinoiserie.”
Others heard from include Gwardyak, trombonists Peter McEachern and Tim Atherton, tenor Larry Dvorin, trumpeters Phil Person and Steve Fitzko, baritone Lisa LaDone, alto Bob DePalma and bassist Steve Bulmer. Earlier, DePalma is featured on “St. Nick,” Mastroianni (alto) and Person on “Rudolph,” Mastroianni (soprano) and Dave Sporny (euphonium) on “Wonderland,” Sporny (trombone) and McEachern on “Frosty.”
As I said, albums like this one aren’t just for Christmas anymore but are suitable for cookin’ in anyone’s kitchenz (or den)—no matter what the season, and for no special reason.
Review from Jazz Review by Bill Falconer:
Christmas is joyous, colorful and full of surprises. So is this CD and that's why I'm reviewing it in March when it first came my way. This Connecticut-based big band has all the ingredients: expert musicians, strong brass, warm reeds, a dynamic rhythm and clean articulation. However, what sets it apart from the usual carol swingers are the arrangements, mostly by lead trumpeter Jeff Holmes. They are creative, intelligent, often witty and take full advantage of the colors of this remarkable orchestra.
The title track opens with a traditional brass chorale approach to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Then that tune is sent on a merry ride, accompanied by - if you listen closely - Wenceslas, Rudolph, Deck the Halls, and Felice Navidad. "Jolly Old St. Nick" includes a Deck the Hall intro and a hint of Jingle Bells. Jeff Holmes' vibrant trumpet and the flutes provide a beautiful version of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." "Frosty"showcases the bones while "Rudolph" is the funkiest ever. George Sovak on tenor treats the Guaraldi tune "Christmas Time Is Here" with the sensitivity it deserves as it segues into "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
The quality of writing on this CD is as good as it gets. The best example is "Winter Wonderland." Holmes' impressionistic chart and the inspired work of Dave Sporny on euphonium and John Mastroianni on soprano create a thing of beauty from this rather mundane Christmas tune.
Often on Christmas, a special present is saved for the last. In this case it's a half hour presentation of the light and lively Ellington/Strayhorn orchestration of the Nutcracker Suite, originally recorded in 1960. For this gift, special thanks are due David Berger. Ellington scholar Berger has spent his career searching for Duke's scores, and transcribing the many that do not exist. Those number over 350, including the Sacred Music - and the Nutcracker. Interviewed in the seventies, cornetist Ruby Braff said of the Nutcracker:"He put it to an Ellington sound, and I think if Tschaikovsky were alive and heard that, he'd love it. He'd say: "What is that wonderful thing? That's beautiful." Well, the New England Jazz Ensemble has freshened up those sugar rum cherries and arabesque cookies especially with those innovative solos that are definitely of today. And if Duke were alive, he'd say: That's beautiful."
Less than 300 shopping days until Christmas! Shop early this year if only for yourself. You'll be well-rewarded by "A Cookin' Christmas."
Saxophones: John Mastroianni, Bob DePalma, Geroge Sovak, Larry Dvorin & Lisa LaDone
Trumpets: Jeff Holmes, Steve Fitzko, Phil Person & Ken Roe
Trombones: Tim Atherton, Dave Sporny, Peter McEachern & Dave Wampler
Piano: Walt Gwardyak
Bass: Steve Bulmer
Drums: Jon Mele