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A cool Nutcracker at the Arden

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Dec 11, 2013 06:00 am

BIG HORN - Band Leader Craig Brenan, a trombonist and music faculty member at MacEwan, is bringing The Craig Brenan Big Band to the Arden Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 14. They are performing the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn version of the Nutcracker.
BIG HORN - Band Leader Craig Brenan, a trombonist and music faculty member at MacEwan, is bringing The Craig Brenan Big Band to the Arden Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 14. They are performing the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn version of the Nutcracker.
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Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite
The Craig Brenan Big Band
Saturday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Arden Theatre
5 St. Anne Street
Tickets: $35 plus facility fee. Call 780-459-1542 or purchase online at

Do you believe the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn Americanized version of The Nutcracker compares to Tchaikovsky’s original?

Big band leader Craig Brenan certainly does.

As proof, he’s assembled the high-stepping 15-piece Craig Brenan Big Band to perform the quintessential Christmas classic’s jazzy groove at the Arden Theatre on Dec. 14.

“The treatment is so powerful and Ellington as an arranger is so masterful it can stand on its own without reference to Tchaikovsky,” says Brenan, a trombonist and music faculty member at MacEwan University.

At Strayhorn’s suggestion, the American duo reworked Tchaikovsky’s 1892 masterpiece and released it to the world in 1960. Although the innovative pair substantially altered it, they didn’t just throw a jazz beat onto Tchaikovsky’s score.

Using the Russian composer’s elegant balletic melodies as a skeleton, Ellington and Strayhorn dressed it with jazz idioms that were popular from the ’30s – blues, rags, and some powerful swing riffs.

“These musicians were on the road 300 days a year. They were all virtuosos.”

Through the decades, some saw the groove-laden Nutcracker as a parody of the original. Others viewed the crossover as a brilliant arrangement. The consensus in the 21st century is that it was a tribute to an enduring legacy.

Even today the music keeps evolving.

“These musicians (Brenan Big Band) all have incredible technique. We play the exact solos, but we interpret it differently and make it for today. That’s why we’re different. The music recorded back then is different from today and it’s difficult to recreate the exact same sound.”

Brenan first heard the jazzy suite on CKUA at the age of 19.

“It was such powerful music, I went out and bought a record. For most jazz musicians it’s a very highly regarded album.”

The jazz rhythms effectively changed an orchestral balance. Tchaikovsky’s orchestration used a string section with winds and brass adding colour.

Instead in the Ellington-Strayhorn version, the backbone was the rhythm section with new and surprising combinations of reeds and brass.

In a nod to the new musical expression, even the names of movements were changed. For instance, Dance of the Reed-Pipes became Toot Toot Tootie Toot and the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy was reworked as Sugar Rum Cherry.

“It’s a self expression that provides jazz musicians with endless possibilities.”

Last year, Brenan pitched the idea of a Nutcracker performance at the Yardbird Suite.

“We had two very successful nights and we’ve been working it around the province.”

Brenan hopes the jazzy Nutcracker picks up in popularity and finds a spot among the Capital Region’s traditional seasonal shows.

Joining him is an ensemble of master musicians including Chris Andrew, Sergio Rodriguez, Allan Gilliland and Ray Baril.

The band’s first set will feature a variety of Christmas tunes along with some of Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Joni Mitchell’s works.

“The Nutcracker is art. It’s enjoyable listening and it has far-reaching appeal and we play to maximizing that appeal.”


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