THE SWINGIN’ NUTCRACKER / TCHAIKOVSKY-ROGERS: Like Nutty Overture. A Nutty Marche. Blue Reeds. The Swingin’ Plum Fairy. Snowball Waltz. Six Pak. Flowers of the Cats. Dance Expresso. Pass the Duke. China Where? Overture for Shorty / Big Band: Shorty Rogers, fl-hn/arr/cond; Conte Candoli, Jimmy Zito, Johnny Audino, Ray Triscari, tpt; Frank Rosolino, George Roberts, Harry Betts, Kenneth Shroyer, tb; Art Pepper, a-sax; Bill Holman, Bill Perkins, Bud Shank, Richie Kamuca, t-sax; Chuck Gentry, bar-sax; Lou Levy, Pete Jolly, pno; Joe Mondragon, bs; Frank Capp, Mel Lewis, dm. *Sax Quintet: Bill Hood, a-sax; Holman, Kamuca, Perkins, Harold Land, t-sax (same rhythm section; Zito or Audino play tpt) / RCA Victor LSP-2110, briefly available on CD, available for free streaming on YouTube
Milton “Shorty” Rogers was one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers of his time, a man who was up there with the very best: Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, Tadd Dameron, George Russell and Marty Paich, to name just a few. He recorded for several different jazz labels under his own name and as a sideman, but once he came to RCA Victor in 1954 he pretty much stayed there for seven years despite the occasional LP for M-G-M or other labels.
But in May of 1960, he and a splendid band assembled personally by him recorded a grand project, his own jazz version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Interestingly, back in New York at the Columbia studios, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn began recording their own version of the Nutcracker suite on the very day (May 26, 1960) that Rogers finished his project. Whether or not the two major labels caught wind of the other’s project and spurred their top jazz talent to come up with a competing version, and whose was actually finished first, is a matter of conjecture. Yet there is no question that Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker sold in the millions of copies over the years while Shorty Rogers’ version soon disappeared from the record shelves, never to be reissued on LP and only once on CD (also now out of print).
The reason is clear when comparing the two different jazz versions of the holiday classic. Even though Ellington and Strayhorn did a fine job of producing swinging jazz versions of different tunes from the Nutcracker, each and every selection on their album was recognizable by lay listeners who only had a familiarity with the suite. Rogers’ version is far more complex and complicated, a jazz arranger’s tour-de-force of almost staggering proportions. The Ellington-Strayhorn version held listeners’ interests because they could recognize the tunes. Rogers’ version alienated lay listeners because half the time they couldn’t.
Part of this is due to the material used. Rogers selected one piece from the complete ballet not normally excerpted, the Pas de Deux, and in several of the others he changed the rhythms, tempo and harmony to such an extent that even some sophisticated listeners who did know the entire ballet were left scratching their heads.
I think Shorty knew he was in trouble because he uncharacteristically introduces the album himself, saying that “I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it.” That, in itself, should have been a warming that Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.
The first two selections, titled Like Nutty Overture and A Nutty Marche, are fairly recognizable despite Rogers’ rewriting, though they are not as easy to recognize as they were in Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s version. Where he began to lose his listeners was in Blue Reeds (Reed Flute Blues). This is an adaptation of the Dance of the Mirlitons, a piece sometimes but not always excerpted from the complete ballet. Here, it is thoroughly disguised by means of displaced rhythms and saxophone scoring which changes the harmony of the original.
The first clue that Rogers is intent on throwing the listener off the track is The Swingin’ Plum Fairy. Here the melody is played first by the solo bass, straight, so it is recognizable, but Shorty again reharmonizes it, adding sax section punctuations and again displacing the beat. If you were to start listening to this about 1:45 in, you’d probably be lost. This is followed by Snowball (Waltz of the Snowplakes), another section not normally excerpted. This is a rather amorphous melody even in the Tchaikovsky original, a piece not normally recognized out of context anyway. Rogers brings it uptempo, sets it in 4 instead of 3, and immediately begins improvising on the melody. I doubt if 50 purchasers of this album recognized it at first listen. I don’t think I would without looking at the title on the back cover of the album.
Six Pak (Trepak) – What was a kazatsky in the Tchaikovsky original is transformed here into a fast-paced piece in 8/8, divided up as 3-3-2 in each bar at the outset, then 6/4 for the principal melody. The muted trumpet does play the original tune, however, so there is something to hang on to. Once past that, however, Tchaikovsky is abandoned for some Latin-inspired jazz interspersed with the full band swinging in 4.
Flowers of the Cats (Waltz of the Flowers) – More easily recognizable despite the switch from waltz tempo to a swinging 4, but again with broken rhythms in the piano and brass under-figures. Once past the theme statement, and again you’ll be lost in the maze of orchestration. Shorty takes a great flugelhorn solo on this one, however.
Dance Espresso (Coffee, a.k.a. Arabian Dance) – A solo bass intro, interspersed with the rhythm section, leads into a permutation of the original theme played by the sax quintet. A muted trumpet, either Jimmy Zito or Johnny Audino, plays an improvisation based on the original theme but not the theme itself. It’s not until 1:35 in that the sax section plays the theme in a somewhat recognizable form.
Pass the Duke (Pas de Deux) – Again, not one of the more easily recognized melodies from the ballet; it’s a fairly simple tune in a slow Adagio tempo with the harp playing constant, fast triplets behind the lower strings (mostly low violins, violas with a cello thrown in for color). Shorty ramps the tempo up, way up, to produce a high-pressure swinger. If you can recognize the original melody without being told what it is, you’re ahead of me. It was only by seeing the title and trying to recall the original (which at first wouldn’t come to my mind, though eventually it did) that I was able to dope it out, but this was guaranteed to baffle 95% of record buyers in 1960.
China Where? (Tea Dance) – This one is so completely rewritten that NO classical listener will recognize Tchaikovsky’s original melody in it. I seriously doubt that anyone would even think of Tchaikovsky when listening at all. Not once is the original melody played; Rogers has transformed it from the get-go and reharmonized it completely.
Overture for Shorty (Overture in Miniature) –This one is recognizable from the melody played by the sax quintet after the intro, but it’s more like a bone thrown to a starving dog in musical terms, because after one chorus they’re off to the races and Tchaikovsky is left behind.
No wonder Shorty felt the need to return at the end of the album and say, “This is Shorty again. Thanks for listening.” I don’t know what the total sales of this LP were, but I’m willing to bet they were underwhelming, because this was Rogers’ last recording for RCA. Three years later, after a couple of other LPs for other labels, he was working full-time in Hollywood as an arranger-composer, mostly for TV and film soundtracks, where he was to stay for the next 20 years. (He also wrote arrangements for The Monkees, among them Daydream Believer.)
Ironically, it was the Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker that came in for some heavy criticism from jazz reviewers, who thought it too simplistic for Duke and Billy, but it sold pretty well on full-priced Columbia and, when it was reissued in the 1970s on the Odyssey label, sales really took off. It is now considered a jazz Christmas classic; one of our local ballet companies here in Cincinnati even did a new choreography of it back in the early 2000s. It is considered a perennial jazz Christmas favorite on FM radio stations while Shorty Rogers’ version isn’t even available any more on CD.
But you can listen to it on YouTube (in mono rather than stereo, but very good mono) and judge for yourself.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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