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Duke Ellington's 'Nutcracker Suite' jazzes up the holidays

The jazz legend's visions of sugar plums and more can be heard in his reimagining of the holiday confection at The Jazz Loft and Madison Theatre.

The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook gets in

The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook gets in the holiday spirit with Duke Ellington-inspired "Nutcracker Suite" Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  Photo Credit: Peter Coco

In 1960, a record producer offered Duke Ellington the chance to do anything he wanted in exchange for signing with his label. He could never have imagined that the jazz great would come up with his own spin on Tchaikovsky's holiday chestnut “The Nutcracker Suite.”

Though both the recording exec and Ellington’s orchestra were dubious about the idea, the bandleader and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn made the classical composer’s score for the ballet about a toy soldier that turns into a prince decidedly their own. “March” got an up-tempo swing, flutes were swapped out for clarinets and even the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" got a new name — "Sugar Rum Cherry," a nod to the jazz legend’s speakeasy start.

“Duke Ellington was a massive storyteller, so Tchaikovsky’s work really stood out to him,” says Thomas Manuel, president and founder of The Jazz Loft. "Ellington composed over 2,000 works, but this was the only time he arranged someone else’s.” Manuel recounts the classic Christmas tale and directs the 16-member Jazz Loft Big Band in performances of Ellington’s interpretation of the popular suite Thursday through Saturday at jazz hot spot in Stony Brook.

Manuel and his band plan to put their own thumbprint on the musical tour de force, with sporadic moments given over to improvisation. “It’s a big, wide-open opportunity,” Manuel says. “Whoever wants to say something musically can. Sometimes its more reflective, and other times chaotic and energetic. They are both just as powerful.”

Interpretations of “The Nutcracker Suite” are also headlining a holiday tribute by the 20-piece Swingtime Big Band, led by artistic director Steve Shaiman, in its seventh seasonal appearance at Molloy College’s Madison Theatre on Sunday. Along with Ellington’s "Suite" treat, Swingtime offers up an earlier "Nutcracker" arrangement made famous by Les Brown and his Band of Renown.

While the Jazz Loft band adds vocalist Danny Bacher, performing seasonal favorites by Great American Songbook legends, to its program, Swingtime Big Band is augmenting its big, bold and brassy sound with two vocalists of its own. Roslyn Heights resident and professional singer Bobbie Ruth joins Zachary Alexander, a recent winner of Hoboken’s annual “Sinatra Idol” contest, in a salute to America’s most iconic crooners. What better way to swing in the holidays and spread some winter cheer than with these perfect playlists? “It’s what we grew up with,” says Manuel.

'Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite'

WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, The Jazz Loft, 275 Christian Ave., Stony Brook

INFO $30, $25 seniors, $20 students; 631-751-1895, thejazzloft.org

Swingtime Big Band: Swing in the Holidays

WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m. Sunday, Madison Theatre at Molloy College, 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre

INFO $35-$40; 516-323-4444, madisontheatreny.org


As the Long Island Baroque Ensemble makes evident with its 49th concert series, the Baroque — derived from the Portuguese word “barroco,” or “oddly shaped pearl” — hasn’t lost its luster. With its holiday-themed lineup titled “Joyful Jollity,” the group transports audiences back three centuries through a rich and varied repertoire, ranging from largely unknown works to those by such master composers as Bach and Vivaldi, all performed on replica instruments of the period. With selections spanning eras and cultures, the ensemble demonstrates the ubiquity and timelessness of the yuletide spirit.

WHAT Long Island Baroque Ensemble

WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Saturday, St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, 30 Brooksite Dr. Smithtown, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Christ Church Oyster Bay, 61 E. Main Street

INFO $30, $15 students, free ages 10 and younger; 212-222-5795, libaroque.org

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