Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Strayhorn's "Nutcracker": "Sweetpea" comes back into the spotlight in UIndy centennial celebration

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn at work.
Duke Ellington freely acknowledged the help he received from Billy Strayhorn. But the great bandleader had a genius for being the center of attention even while letting the public know how much he valued his closest associates, of whom the composer-arranger was the most crucial.

Strayhorn (1915-1967) gave Ellington his theme song, "Take the 'A' Train," with which the University of Indianapolis Collaborative Jazz Orchestra opened a concert Monday night focusing mainly on the two men's recasting of Tchaikovsky's first "Nutcracker" Suite.

Thus, a seasonal theme blended nicely with the centennial salute before a near-capacity crowd in UIndy's Ransburg Auditorium. Freddie Mendoza, the director of jazz studies, masterminded the celebration.

As helpful as Ellington's professional adoption of him was to his creativity, Strayhorn had showed his gifts well before joining forces with Ellington.

Sufficient evidence of that lies in "Lush Life," a complicated song both musically and lyrically, which Strayhorn wrote as a teenager.  The UIndy Jazz Combo — consisting of pianist James Loughery, bassist Mike Fox, and drummer Giuana Neville accompanying singer Megan Ramp — made a sterling effort to sound on top of this roller coaster of a song, whose sprawling form is probably unique. The program notes said "Lush Life" defeated another centennial birthday boy, Frank Sinatra, who mastered everything else he lent his voice to.

Strayhorn displayed precociousness more in the music than in the lyric, whose conspicuous reliance on feminine rhymes shows him not in the same league as Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin.  The world-weary attitude of the text is unusual for a songwriter of such tender years, however.

The concert opened with two other Strayhorn classics that covered his expressive range after he hit his stride with Ellington. "Take the 'A' Train" found the band, comprising students, alumni and local professionals, ready for action. Each section sounded fine, with the reeds especially solid, as they also proved to be in the one-clarinet, four-saxes blend of "Chelsea Bridge."

After intermission, all that appetite-whetting music set up the atmosphere for the "Nutrcracker" Suite. Atmosphere was in place visually from the start. Giant snowflakes were projected on the side and back walls. Two monumental soldier nutcrackers flanked the stage.

Mendoza's trombone was heard near the end.
The Overture set the tone, swinging handsomely. Its music was to return in a Mendoza-appended feature providing a rousing conclusion, with round-robin solos from the 18-member ensemble. The director capped the series by bringing his trombone into play for the first time of the evening, the band riffing back into the tune in a manner calculated to stir the soul.

Up to then, there was wince-inducing difficulty only in "Toot Toot Tootie Toot," a droll setting of "Dance of the Reed Pipes (Mirlitons)." The reeds didn't have the jiving hocket style down pat, but it's among the score's major challenges, after all. On the whole, I liked the vigor and moodiness that was applied to Strayhorn's interpretation of Tchaikovsky. Through the high level of ensemble cohesiveness, Mendoza's preparation of the music was firmly displayed. No surprise, as this was the 15th time he's conducted it — the first time at UIndy.

The solos were properly delivered in the style of Ellington's outstanding sidemen. I want to single out the old pro trombonist Rich Dole's channeling of Lawrence Brown (especially on "Chelsea Bridge") and the work of two students in particular: Amanda Gardier's Johnny Hodges sound in "Arabesque Cookie" (Arabian Dance) and Evan Drybread's approximation of Paul Gonsalves in "Peanut Brittle Brigade" (March). The special character of Ellington's best players can hardly be duplicated, but the effort was consistent. It's not easy to get the wry Ray Nance humor into even a well-played trumpet solo, for instance.

Some nits to pick now: The program could have been more scrupulously proofread: Mendoza's predecessor, Harry Miedema, didn't deserve to have his name misspelled. And the most inventive of the movements, "Dance of the Floreadors" (Waltz of the Flowers), was omitted from the list on the main page, though it was described in the notes.

Furthermore, the university's guest, Strayhorn nephew Larry Strayhorn, could have been more concise and focused in his remarks from the stage. And when he turned to Shawn Goodman and quizzed her on the name of Ellington's "bass,"  I thought, "Why Aaron Bell? Is this a trivia quiz?" After an awkward pause, it was clear that Strayhorn was asking her to supply the name of Harry Carney, who indeed was the icon of the baritone saxophone, the instrument Goodman was playing.