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Classical Jazz Quartet: The Nutcracker

Wendy Robinson

Classical Jazz Quartet

The Nutcracker

Label: Vertical Jazz

The Classical Jazz Quartet is a versatile concept group that brings together the talents of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter, percussionist Stefon Harrison on vibraphone and marimba, and Lewis Nash on drums. The group has released an eight-song CD based on Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker". The result is a playful and appealing interpretation of one of the world's most famous pieces of classical music, as arranged by Bob Belden.

Tchaikovsky's classical score and the famous fairy tale associated with that music are apt material for this particular spin. In this version, arranger Belden envisions the Nutcracker as a hip prince taking his dream girl to the coolest jazz club in town. The music captures that scenario, creating an aural illustration of the timeless tale.

The "Swinging Nut" is the first piece on the CD. The song starts with a saucy high hat and tiptoeing bass line that creeps up on you. It's a subtle swing and your toes start tapping. You know this beat. Are you in a cabaret? A tinkling and familiar melody begins. You know this tune, but you've never heard it quite like this. Before you know it, your fingers are snapping. This is good stuff. The track is skillfully composed and executed, fueling anticipation for the rest of the CD.

"Marche Touche" is the second composition, an energetic, Latin-flavored piece that calls for (and gets) precision and fire from the quartet. This song casts pianists Kenny Barron and percussionist Stefon Harris into the roles of dueling musicians, carrying out a fairy tale battle with their instruments. The "Marche" builds the excitement for just one of the many moods inspired by this music.

The "Groove of the Sugar Plum Fairy" puts a funky spin on a confectionary composition, while remaining true to its original capricious spirit. "Oriental Rhythm" remains upbeat and lighthearted, yet undeniably jazzy. My personal favorite is "Bedouin Dreams", a compellingly beautiful composition featuring gorgeous work by Barron and Carter. But all of the songs on this CD are complex and dynamic, offering endless discoveries of new sounds and feelings.

There are several other notable songs and moments, and the individual musicians are each showcased accordingly. Thanks to skillful sound production, careful ears will pick up a hint of Stefon Harris vocalizing along with his phones. Harris joyfully accompanies his instrument's ascensions, leaps and other progressions. Musician Kenny Baron well understands his power to direct the mood with his piano, and offers an array of deep-feeling chords throughout the CD. Ron Carter's bass playing is at once disciplined and liberated, within an arrangement that allows a sensitive personality to shine through. Drummer Lewis Nash plays with precision and energy, driving Belden's arrangement forward to its conclusion.

It is not difficult to pick out the melodies which fans of the Tchaikovsky all know and love well. The challenge of this version is to follow its whimsical lines into unexpected places; places that perhaps you never expected to go precisely because you do know the score so well. This collection of music does what any good jazz interpretation should do -- exploring the flip sides and hidden corners of composition left out of the original.

This jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky is truly on point. In the liner notes, arranger Bob Belden proclaims this CD as music to be enjoyed throughout the year. He's right. The Nutcracker's not just for Christmas anymore.

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