I recently had the pleasure of visiting Washington D.C. at the Blues Alley to hear the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra’s annual tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington’s take on the “Nutcracker Suite” of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Jazz renditions of popular Christmas tunes such as “Let It Snow,” “Happy Holidays” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (the last of these sung by Eric and female guest vocalist Darden Purcell) are only the appetizer to the main “Nutcracker” course on Felten’s menu.
Felten serves up every morsel of Ellington’s delicious “Nutcracker” program. Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic performed in Duke’s style, with altered titles by Ellington to match, often reflecting childhood sweets such as cookies (“Arabesque Cookie” for the “Arabian Dance”) and peanut brittle (the “Nutcracker Brigade”). Occasionally there are sweet things for adults, as the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” transforms into “Sugar Rum Cherry.”
Yet it is not just the transformed titles but the jazz stylistics which make this perhaps the season’s most unique annual take on “The Nutcracker” in the district, as muted trumpets, wailing saxes, and pounding drum beats distinguish this work. Perhaps this is destined, for Ellington was a native Washingtonian. The liner notes to the original Ellington recording whimsically claim: “Duke Ellington and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky met in Las Vegas while Duke’s band was setting attendance records at the Riviera Hotel.” An elfish Felten improvises that Ellington proposed a jazz version of the suite to Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky said “Cool!” (in keeping with our candy and dessert theme, we think he said, “Sweet!), and the rest is history.
The program starts as a loyal pastiche of the original Ellington “Nutcracker” record album, with instrumental sections and soloists playing the original arrangements note by note in the “Nutcracker Overture” and “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” alternately known as “Dance of the Reed-Pipes.” Yet jazz master Felten and the brilliant musicians in his 16-piece jazz orchestra realize that to play this music in true Ellington spirit, one must not only follow the written notes. Instead, one must improvise extensively in the time-honored tradition of jazz. As Nietzsche says in another context, “If you would follow me, follow yourself!”
“As you peruse the cocktail menu at Blues Alley and look for drinks of vodka and rum,” the “Vodka Vouty” and aforementioned “Sugar Rum Cherry” delight from the bandstand, and it is perhaps here where outstanding improvised solos are heard in the mix. Lest one think that the music of Tchaikovsky and Ellington are worlds apart, both music masters favored sounds representing exotic, far-away places. The “Arabian Dance,” originally flavored by Tchaikovsky in Near Eastern tonal color, is imbued in Ellington’s version with Latin rhythms (Ellington was one of the first to introduce Cuban and other Latin American sounds to a jazz orchestra). The orchestra plays as Felten shakes a tambourine.
Musical desserts are topped off by artistic desserts, for the Felten aggregation goes outside the Ellington band book, at one point playing (and again augmenting with rhythmic originality) noted arranger Billy May’s “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo.” (Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” consists of nine pieces running a total of 30-minutes or so, meaning that a band which plays this work must perform additional pieces for a full program.)
We have spoken little of the fascinating Felten himself: low-key in personality, Felten is yet engagingly passionate about the jazz music to which his band is devoted. Also, he is something of an educator. In Blues Alley, chock-full of an atmosphere which recalls the jazz clubs of bygone days, Felten spills forth true and entertaining anecdotes about Ellington and other jazz musicians. When playing “O Christmas Tree” in a Count Basie-style arrangement, Felten explains, “Count Basie was the polar opposite of Duke Ellington in the swing era,” noting that both represent key but rather different aspects of that era.
The multitalented Felten is not merely a bandleader but a writer as well. His writings often celebrate the same retro America as his arranging, vocalizing and trombone playing (all three Felten talents are heard on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”). One of his books, “How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well,” won a James Beard award for its entertaining anecdotes which revolve around cocktails. Felten also penned a piece in “National Geographic Traveler” on his experiences recreating a cross-country road trip taken by his parents in 1936.
The Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra’s annual recreation of Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” has come and gone for the season. Nevertheless, one need not wait an entire year to hear this program again, for Felten’s four Blues Alley appearances this December were recorded to appear at some point in 2020 on compact disc and also to appear on vinyl, Felten quips, “for hipsters!”
In addition to his “Nutcracker” performances, Felten also holds an annual Independence Day-themed show at Blues Alley, in which he features non-holiday swing music from Duke Ellington and other jazz bands of the 1930s and 1940s. We recommend a Felten outing with its sweet holiday serving of the Ellington/Tchaikovsky “Nutcracker,” but the music of this professional jazz orchestra is appetizing and delectable at any time of year.