Latest ‘Nutcracker’ Adaptation Is ‘a Pan-Afro Reimagining’

Joe McCarthy joins such notables as Duke Ellington and Spike Jones, the latter of whom offered ‘apologies’ to Tchaikovsky in 1945, in refreshing the classic work.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Duke Ellington performs in the late 1960s, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Via Wikimedia Commons

Every year, Christmas comes with a price tag, and it has nothing to do with debit cards. This is the only time of year when we can count on hearing good music — something actually worth listening to — while walking around stores and most everywhere else, but the price to be paid is that it’s only Christmas music. I’m as jolly as the next bloke, but after four weeks of elves and reindeer I’m ready to upchuck my eggnog. 

There’s one aspect of traditional holiday music that hasn’t been beaten to death, though ballet aficionados may feel otherwise, and it’s Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” of 1892. This was the last major work by the great Russian composer, who died the following year at 53. He unveiled the instrumental “suite” version a few months before the ballet, and for the last 130 years both incarnations have been overwhelmingly popular.

The enjoyment of this classic work has been refreshed, so to speak, by a new adaptation of the suite by Joe McCarthy. Along with his ensemble, the rather lengthily titled New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band, the drummer, bandleader, and composer has just released what he calls “The Pan American Nutcracker Suite,” subtitled, “a Pan-Afro Reimagining of the Tchaikovsky Classic.” It’s a fresh and wonderful take on the beloved work, and it has inspired something of a deep dive into previous jazz incarnations of the suite. This is hardly an exhaustive listing, but it covers four very notable jazz “Nutcrackers” — though admittedly I have to stretch the definition of the word “jazz” to include the first.

Spike Jones and his City Slickers, “The Nutcracker Suite (With Apologies to Tchaikovsky)” (1945). 

This was an extremely ambitious undertaking for the maestro of mayhem, with the work reimagined for an expanded edition of the City Slickers, joined by a chorus with several unidentified vocal soloists. Bassist Country Wasburn is credited with the arrangements, and screenwriter Foster Carling wrote the libretto, which surely counts as the most significant attempt to put lyrics to the “Nutcracker” melodies.  

The finished work takes up six sides on 78s, for a total of 20 minutes, and covers a wide range of musical territory: The waltzes sound like a Disney princess movie, and the “Chinese Dance” makes use of politically incorrect stereotypes. Other sections are as gutsy and outrageous as we expect from Spike Jones. 

The minor key “Arab Dance” becomes a mystery story with creepy laughing, baying hounds, and a Sherlock Holmes reference. “The Russian Dance” becomes “they sit on their pants and dance” with a grunting Russian style basso and Jones’s trademark, utilizing sound effects in rhythm and rather raucously exaggerated dixieland. If you ask me, Pixar and DreamWorks are missing a good bet if they don’t use it as the soundtrack for an animated featurette. Still, it makes a pretty great cartoon, albeit in audio form, all by itself.

Shorty Rogers, “The Swingin’ Nutcracker” (1960). 

It was the bad luck of the Brooklyn-born, Coast-based arranger and trumpeter to conceive his version of the Tchaikovsky work at the exact moment that Duke Ellington was creating his; in fact, they both recorded parts of their respective works on May 26, 1960, in Los Angeles. Rogers’s “Nutcracker” is not only swingin’ but highly stylish, and sounds nothing like Ellington’s. 

Rogers features such prominent Angelino jazzmen as saxophonists Art Pepper and Jimmy Giuffre and drummer Mel Lewis — the latter prominent on “The Swingin’ Plum Fairy.” “Six Pack,” which is a play on “Trepak,” Tchaikovsky’s name for the “Russian Dance,” is a quasi-modal creation spotlighting the leader’s harmon muted trumpet, while “Flowers for the Cats” swings the “Waltz of the Flowers” melody in a straight ahead four. It’s understandable but regrettable that this album was overshadowed by the Ellington masterpiece, but it too is worthy of a place at the Holiday table. It’s also hard to resist Rogers’s beatnik-y subtitle for the work, “Like Nutty!”

Duke Ellington “The Nutcracker Suite.” 

This is the one to beat, the adaptation of the Tchaikovsky work by Ellington and his musical partner Billy Strayhorn (both were pictured on the album cover) that is almost universally regarded as the greatest jazz treatment of a classical milestone. Working with such colossal soloists as Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, and Paul Gonsalves — and that’s just the sax section — the two partners find the inner blues and swing at the heart of such iconic dances as “The Russian Dance” and “Chinese Dance,” rechristened “Volga Vouty” and “Chinoiserie.”

The Ellington treatment has been performed live many times over the decades, and it has also inspired two major spinoff projects. “The Harlem Nutcracker” (1996) was choreographer Donald Byrd’s epic vision of building an actual narrative ballet around the Ellington-Strayhorn material, expanded with additional arrangements of the Tchaikovsky score in a delightfully Dukish style by David Berger. “Nutcracker Suites” (2010) by conductor Steve Richman’s Harmonie Ensemble combines fresh, state-of-the-art performances of both the Tchaikovksy and Ellington versions in the same package. 

Joe McCarthy’s New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band, “The Pan American Nutcracker Suite” (2022). 

There is a “Spanish Dance (Chocolate)” in the “Nutcracker,” but it’s not generally included in the instrumental suite. Also, there have been Latin “Nutcrackers” — cascanueces — before, such as “Rumba De Fleur (Waltz of The Flowers),” by Chuy Reyes. However, this new album — launched last week with a show at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center — valiantly addresses the entire suite.  

The “Russian” and “Chinese” dances now sound more Havanese than anything else, even though the latter also incorporates traditional Asian percussion patterns, while the “Arab Dance” incorporates and expands upon Gil Evans’s famous arrangement of the melody for Claude Thornhill in 1946.  

There are surprises galore, like a wailing guitar solo by Vinny Valentino on “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” while “Waltz of the Flowers,” which features more guitar, makes the 3/4 feeling somehow compatible with South American time signatures and the underlying clave beat. In toto, it’s a mighty pleasant present to leave under someone’s tree, and not a very hard nut to crack.

Note: Mr. Friedwald will feature excerpts from these recordings and other variations on “The Nutcracker” on his radio show, “Sing! Sing! Sing!” KSDS San Diego, December 24, 1 p.m. EDT


Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for The New York Sun and other publications. The host of the radio show ‘Sing! Sing! Sing!’ on San Diego KSDS on Saturday mornings, he also is the author of 10 books. He has written more than 600 liner notes for compact discs, received 11 Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and in documentaries.

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