As gratifying as it is to see Duke Ellington receiving his due (and I recall many arguments with musicians back in the 70s about Ellington's being a "sloppy," "inferior" band compared to Kenton, Maynard, Basie), it appears that many listeners still don't "get it" when it comes to jazz' greatest Maestro. I notice that the top 8 best-selling Ellington albums are collections of his piano playing or "greatest hits" (Satin Doll, A Train, etc.). But Ellington's genius is best appreciated in his orchestral compositions, his balancing of the composer's intentions with his band members' inventions, and his ability to write for the performer of the instrument, not merely the instrument itself.
Take one brief movement of The Nutcracker Suite--the "Entr'act." Listen to it several times, and then just simply marvel. We hear the composer's orchestral textures, we hear the colorful voices of no less than 4 different soloists, we hear nuanced dynamics, and finally we experience a collaborative celebration as much a product of the individual parts as their sum meaning. And all of this occurs in approximately 60 seconds! Now compare what you've just heard to the formulaic, 3-section, 2-dimensional dyanamics that characterize virtually any other big band.
This collection is not only indispensable but an unbeatable value. The order of the 3 suites--Nutcracker, Peer Gynt, Suite Thursday--probably reflects their order of artistic merit. What's unfortunate about this edition is that consumers searching for Ellington's "Nutcracker" may not locate it due to the unlikely title, "Three Suites." But make no mistake about it. This Nutcracker is no novelty project, no mere "jazzing up" of the classics. Ellington comes at the piece as another jazz artist might approach a Gershwin or Cole Porter standard. The result is a "re-visioning" that exposes Ellington's inimitable genius without dismissing Tchaikowsky's.