A half century after Duke Ellington transformed "The Nutcracker" into a jazz suite, New York's Apollo Theater has channeled him in a production that reaches into opera and tap-dancing.
The Apollo, the legendary Harlem venue where a who's who of musical greats including Ellington have played, put on performances Saturday and Sunday that offered a jazz flavor to holiday celebrations.
Ellington, amid a revival of his career in 1960, recorded "The Nutcracker Suite" in a new interpretation of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's score to the 1892 Christmas-themed ballet which in recent decades has became a seasonal staple around the world.
With booming saxophone solos, Ellington's rendition -- arranged with Billy Strayhorn -- playfully evokes holiday cheer. Ellington, who entertained at a Harlem speakeasy during Prohibition, renamed the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" the "Sugar Rum Cherry."
David Berger, a composer who has studied Ellington, conducted the Apollo's version which stayed true to the Tchaikovsky original by bringing in ballet. Students from the Dance Theater of Harlem dressed in gold and then switched to red as they glided with floral wreaths on stage.
In addition to "The Nutcracker Suite," the Apollo put on a collection from Ellington's three "Sacred Concerts" -- in which the jazz pioneer sought to bring religious dimensions to his work.
The soprano Priscilla Baskerville, whose work with New York's Metropolitan Opera has included "La Boheme" and "Porgy and Bess," delighted the crowd with her voice's power on songs including "Heaven," which sweeps between operatic drama and bouncier jazz.
Ellington originally wrote the songs for Alice Babs, a Swedish songstress known for her three-octave range. Babs, originally a pop singer who represented Sweden at one of the first Eurovision competitions, died earlier this year at age 90.
In another highlight for the audience, the tap-dancer Jason Samuels Smith took to the stage for the Biblically inspired "David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might" as his shoes' music gradually merged into the orchestra's percussion.
The Broadway actor Norm Lewis employed his sturdy baritone for songs including "99 Percent," whose verses straddle singing and spoken word. And true to the music's Gospel influences, the jazz orchestra was backed by a choir from the Arts High School in nearby Newark, New Jersey.
The holiday concerts cap a busy year for the Apollo, which celebrated its 80th anniversary and has been expanding a Hollywood-style "Walk of Fame" for jazz greats.
Last month, the Apollo commemorated Bob Marley's famous 1979 concerts with a performance that featured some of reggae's most popular stars and a surprise appearance by the elusive R&B singer Lauryn Hill.