Sometimes I think that the endless loop of Christmas songs at the HEB at Wurzbach and I-10 gets stuck and begins repeating the same phrase over and over, like a stuck record. Poor Ella just can't seem to get to the next phrase, and when she does she ends up stuck there.
It's a Christmas carol nightmare, yet no one else seems to notice. Is it just me? I think not. After all, we've been listening to these bottomless pits of carols for over 6 weeks now. However, in all fairness this is some great music and it is ingrained in our souls; there are also some very cool arrangements, but still... enough is enough!
That is why I started digging into the alternative Christmas stuff I've collected over the years. One selection is actually not very new at all, but is rather a fresh and brassy recasting of Stan Kenton's virtuosic arrangements of carols, which are reinvigorated by the Boston Brass and Friends.
My hands-on memory of the original Kenton charts goes back to about 1972 at UT Austin. Glen Daum was directing the UT Jazz Ensemble back then and decided to record some of the Kenton arrangements for broadcast. Right now I can't recall whether this was for television or radio, but I do remember clearly that Kenton was famous for expanding the traditional big band to include 4 French horns.
The writing was challenging as could be, with the high horns soaring into the stratosphere with loud and extended phrases. It was in the midst of one of these passages that I blacked out for a moment. I think I kept going -- and I certainly didn't fall out of my chair -- but when we finished up that chart my friend Celeste McClellan, who was playing 2nd horn on that session, leaned over and asked: "Are you still with us?"
Another non-stop seasonal favorite is Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. In truth it is a great score, but that's not what most musicians and listeners are calling it come Christmas, or the week after. I played a portion of the well-worn suite the other night on my Latin American program, Itinerarios.
The phone rang and it was one of my most loyal listeners: "I don't know what I hate the most this time of year, Christmas carols or the Nutcracker." I know this listener well enough that I could exchange a few good natured "Bah, humbugs!" with him and let it go at that.
Fact is, there are a couple of antidotes to excessive Nutcrackers. Duke Ellington's arrangement is quite different, almost too different if you are looking for something a bit more literal. If that's the case, check out the Spike Jones arrangement. Yes, it's somewhat blasphemous yet still good for a laugh, or two. If you are truly open minded, you'll also recognize the genius of the arrangement.