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by Seth Colter Walls

August 24, 2013

Classical Remix: Duke Ellington

by Seth Colter Walls  |  August 24, 2013

Welcome to Rhapsody's Classical Remix Portal, which you can follow here. In every playlist, we present classical works in their original forms. Then, after each one is over, we give you an upstart musician's rethink.

Some of the Duke's pieces -- like “Harlem” and parts of “Black, Brown and Beige” -- have been orchestrated for use in the classical concert hall. But that's a post for another day. What we're focusing on here are Ellington's swinging, soulful and just plain exquisite re-renderings of classical staples.

On the 1960 Columbia album Three Suites, Ellington included his takes on two warhorses: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and selections from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suites 1 & 2. Ellington's programs don't run in the same order as the suites he's recomposing, but he hits the highlights, and makes them sing in new ways. You might think Trent Reznor recast Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" most memorably in the soundtrack for The Social Network — but just check Duke's version for another lesson in sonic updating. Likewise, in his version of the Nutcracker, Duke's orchestrating hand shines in his version of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" (titled "Sugar Rum Cherry").

Representing the old-school tradition, we've got the Berlin Philharmonic playing the respective composers' original versions. (Herbert von Karajan conducts the recording of Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, while Mstislav Rostropovich handles the orchestra during the Tchaikovsky). Either way you cut it, this music is pure comfort stuff in the best sense of the term -- ideal for a little relaxing, or else dancing.

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