Igor Butman Orchestra Sheherazade’s Tales Butman Music 74008 4 stars

John McDonough,
May 2012

Among the peace dividends that arrived with the end of the Cold War was Russian bandleader and tenor saxophonist Igor Butman. He has since traveled with top American players, and his fine orchestra partners with arranger Nick Levinovsky for a link-up with Rimsky-Korsakov. Levinovsky’s transposition of Korsakov’s Sheherazade from Russian classical to American swing at first recalls Billy Strayhorn’s remaking of The Nutcracker for Duke Ellington. But such jazz-classical cross-dressing may well have begun with an earlier piece by Korsakov, whose “Song Of India” hit pay dirt for Paul Whiteman and Tommy Dorsey. Levinovsky’s is not the first to have transplanted Sheherazade into big band soil. Sonny Dunham did a nice job of Anglicizing the suite into a nutshell in 1945. But Levinovsky deals with all four parts. His vocabulary is generally straightahead big band swing—nothing edgy or experimental and with a smart balance between brass and reeds. Tempos are medium fast most of the way, and it all works well. Part one is the most concise and fully composed with no solos. Part two introduces a cameo by soprano Kathy Jenkins, who solos and joins in the sections. She sets the royal ambience of the caliph’s court before the 20th century gets things moving. Butman solos with authority on tenor, then guitarist Peter Bernstein. Part three begins on a note of menace before retreating into a long string of solos, including guest Sean Jones, who tosses about 24-karet sparkle. Levinovsky draws on other Russian folk material for the preceding pieces. “Dark Eyes” is a little disappointing. Too many long-winded fanfares turn the piece into a waiting room with too much ornate furniture.