The celebrated ballet by Piotr Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker – became such a worldwide success in the composer’s lifetime that he [Tchaikovsky himself] made a selection of eight of the numbers from the ballet before the ballet’s December 1892 première, forming The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, intended for concert performance. The ballet [and the suite] has become so successful since then that it has been adapted and performed in a myriad of musical iterations, styles and dialects – from a 1960 version by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and later as a ballet set during the Harlem Renaissance by dance choreographer Donald Byrd [not the trumpeter] and performed as The Harlem Nutcracker in 1996.
The work has also become the mainstay of Christmastime entertainment and this makes it the ideal time for this wonderful version – The Pan American Nutcracker Suite – by Joe McCarthy’s New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band. What set Mr McCarthy’s version of the 8-part suite apart from any other version is that it is evocative and resonates with the sound of The Americas from the proverbial coast to coast and from north to south of the continent. But that’s not all. With characteristic aplomb the musicians of the New York Afro Bop Alliance ignite the music of The Suite by propelling it right out of the gate with a vibrant version of the “Overture”.
Among the credits of this recording is one that you have to pay attention to. It is the one listed on the back of the package that credits Mr McCarthy and his writing partner Vince Norman as having “composed and arranged” the work. It may take a bit of a leap of faith to come to terms with this credit when you read it. However, listening to the most popular movements of The Suite – “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, “Dance of the Reed Flutes” and especially “Waltz of the Flowers”, the latter of which morphs from a waltz to an ebullient joropo llanero, and is a work of pure genius – you realise that not only has the melodies of the various component movements been re-arranged, but there are so many parts that have been re-invented as well.
All of this redounds rather well not only for Mr McCarthy and Mr Norman, but also for the entire ensemble. Each musician shows himself to be a marvelous reader and idiomatic interpreter that brings to life the artistic vision of both Tchaikovsky, and Mr McCarthy and Mr Norman [who conducts the ensemble whilst Mr McCarthy leads the musical fireworks display. And what a fine display it is indeed. The performance is run through as if by a well-oiled machine bringing a liquid grace to Tchaikovsky’s timeless suite. Soli are short and with Mr McCarthy’s ability to drum so eloquently “in the pocket”, that each musical excursion returns the band right back into the perfect rhythm – be it a mambo, rumba or joropo without ever crash-landing as if on the musical runway.
A five-star performance from end to end, but then you’d expect nothing less of a band – with a super-constellation of stars such as pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Boris Kozlov, percussionist Samuel Torres, trombonist Ryan Kaberle, trumpeter Alex Norris and others – so masterfully led by Mr McCarthy…
Tracks – 1: Overture; 2: March; 3: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; 4: Trepak; 5: Arabian Dance; 6: Chinese Dance; 7: Dance of the Reed Flutes; 8: Dance of the Flowers
Musicians – Vince Norman: session conductor; Joe McCarthy: drums and bandleader; Boris Kozlov: bass; Luis Perdomo: piano; Samuel Torres: percussion; Vinny Valentino: guitar; Andrew Gould: lead alto saxophone; Alejandro Avilés; alto saxophone; Ben Kono: tenor saxophone; Luis Hernández: tenor saxophone; Frank Basile: baritone saxophone; Nick Marchione: lead trumpet; John Chudoba: trumpet; Brandon Lee: trumpet; Alex Norris: trumpet; Mark Patterson: lead trombone; Ryan Kaberle: trombone; John Yao: trombone; James Borowski: bass trombone
Released – 2022
Label – Angelface Records
Runtime – 38:19