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Cool Yule 

by Michael Bowen and Mike Corrigan


Charlotte Carruthers wants to sing more than just "Jingle Bells." She's in search of new jazz material. That's why, in the second half of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra's "Holiday in Jazz" concert on Saturday night at the Met, Carruthers may warm up with traditional tunes like "Greensleeves" and "O Christmas Tree" -- but then she'll swing into a new "Santa Claus Medley" that blends "quotes from three or four songs including 'Sing, Sing, Sing.' And it has a Gene Krupa-style drum solo," she says.


Carruthers will also perform three of her own arrangements: "Glory to the Newborn King," "Cool Yule" and "A Christmas Love Song."


"'Cool Yule' was actually written by Steve Allen, who was kind of a Renaissance man," says Carruthers, referring to the comedian and talk show host, also a composer, who died four years ago. She didn't locate the original sheet music -- "it's kind of hard to find [holiday jazz] charts, nobody gets rich writing them," she says -- "so I just transcribed if off a recording. Louis Armstrong did it in the '50s, so it was written before then. It has a lot of those hep, jive words: 'She's the gonest of the girls and boys,' stuff like that. It has an almost tongue-in-cheek jazz sound.


"With arrangements, you're kind of tied to what's on paper," says Carruthers, though even then the element of improvisation can make an appearance. "That's the beauty and the fear inherent in jazz," she says.


"Ironically, I tried this funky arrangement of 'The Little Drummer Boy' last year, and we got off-beat, and I don't know if it was me -- it probably was -- but I ended up feeling like 'Boy, I really screwed that one up' -- and of course that was the one that everyone came up afterwards and said 'Oh, I loved that -- that was awesome,'" she laughs.


Charlotte has a sentimental attachment to another song she'll perform ("Chestnuts roasting ...") -- and it's because of her father Arnie. As a jazz musician, Arnie Carruthers was on the road a lot, but he was always home on Christmas Eve. "And every year, Dad would sing 'The Christmas Song' to us at the piano," Charlotte recalls. "Those are such warm memories for me."


Charlotte Carruthers also pays tribute to the kinds of memories that the Spokane Jazz Orchestra has been creating over the years. "They're not a bunch of wheezers who stumble through the same old Glenn Miller charts and do 'In the Mood' again," she says. "Three-quarters of the charts on their new CD [It's About Time] were written by members of the band -- and they're really good charts.


"So I'm spoiled. For me, it's such a cool thing to stand in front of all that power. It's humbling."


It must have been pretty humbling when Duke Ellington and his composing partner, Billy Strayhorn, sat down to assemble a jazzy Nutcracker Suite based on the music of a great orchestrator like Tchaikovsky.


For the fifth time in the last decade, the SJO will perform the nine-movement, 35-minute Ellington Nutcracker as part of its holiday concert -- this time as the first half of Saturday night's program.


SJO Musical Director Dan Keberle still can't make up his mind about what portions of the Suite are send-ups as opposed to tributes. "This is an amazing piece with a lot of humor," he says. "We all know these melodies, but Ellington takes those things and makes them sound pretty boisterous."


The contrast between the serious and the playful, between classical and jazz elements, runs all through Ellington's score, says Keberle: "You'll get a clarinet solo, almost classical-sounding, swallowed up by a muted trombone. I don't think he was looking at Tchaikovsky's score at all. He just wrote it so it would swing."


As he has worked on the score over the years while preparing to conduct it with the SJO, Keberle's perspective on The Nutcracker Suite has changed: "When I hear it now, I almost think he was more making fun of Tchaikovsky," Keberle says. "But then there all the sections that sound like serious pieces."


As an example, Keberle cites "The opening theme -- the overture, when you hear it, you just think, that's a great swinging tune. If you didn't know the Tchaikovsky, you'd say, 'That's a great jazz song.'"


In addition, even though Ellington playfully refashions the Russian composer's "Arabian Dance" into an "Arabesque Cookie," it has serious elements, too. As Keberle says, "It doesn't have a swing beat -- kind of a jungle beat, and you can just see the camels walking across the desert. But technically it's very difficult, very tough for the clarinet, with high, sustained notes way up, above high C.


"Other sections swing hard," Keberle says, referring to the more playful parts of the score. The second movement, entitled "Toot Toot Tootie Toot," "starts with the clarinets going 'beep, beep.' Then there's this barrage of wah-wah mutes that really swings. For the saxes, it's technically very difficult -- there are all these 32nd notes, very fast."


The Nutcracker Suite can be deceiving that way. Even though some sections have whimsical titles like "Peanut Brittle Brigade" -- and while Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" gets retitled "Sugar Rum Cherry" and the "Russian Dance" gets re-envisioned as "The Vodka Voody" -- Ellington and Strayhorn still had their serious purposes. "The sax section has a lot of work," says Keberle. "This is probably the most difficult score we've worked on for them."


Saturday's concert, in other words, isn't just a walk in the park for the musicians. Holiday jazz may sound playful, but it involves a lot of hard, serious work.





It's Not Calculus -- The Derivitives. Yes, the name is spelled incorrectly. But don't get on my case -- get on theirs. The Derivitives are a band from Spokane, after all, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem. Also, I happen to know for a fact that all four of the members will be in the same place at the same time this Friday night at the Blvd., playing a show with Seattle band Via Ventura. So go get 'em.


Need more from the Derivitives' dossier before plotting any such action? All right, then. The Derivitives are a rock 'n' roll unit from Spokane featuring Terry Burn (guitar), Seth Swift (vocals), Chris Henderson (guitar) and Jeff Maahs (drums). In just under two years since they formed, the band has released a bunch of CD-bound tunage including the Unpaid Overtime EP and albums entitled The Derivitives and Doug's Basement. The band's latest foray into the studio (a summertime stint at Black Coffee Recording) has produced the four-song "Dead Mouse" maxi-single -- a frenzied, and strangely claustrophobic reintroduction to the band's sound and a sample of a forthcoming album. What we have here is good old, high-test garage rock with a wicked blues vein running through it. Echoes of Northwest giants that have gone before (the Sonics, the Wailers) are evident in the band's lo-fi, medium-amped, high-energy approach on songs like the title track, "Five Shirts To Hang" and "The Freya Shuffle." The fractured ballad, "Molly on the Bathroom Wall," bucks the raucous trend -- and rounds out the quad -- with a loping rhythm, a fuzzy wah lead and vocals that hiccup like Buddy Holly on an all-night bender.


The band was delivered unto the world in February 2003 at various open-mike nights when Burn, Swift and Henderson were given the chance to hone their sonics and work out any lingering performance issues in front of audiences with tempered expectations. Anything goes. And anything went. And the Derivitives built a following. Maahs (who first appeared playing mandolin on The Derivitives) joined up full time as the band's drummer in September 2003.


Ah, but broad impact on the local scene was not immediately forthcoming. The band, in fact, recently dropped off the radar screen.


"Due to the intermittent loss of our drummer to a wide range of afflictions," reports Henderson, "we've been on hiatus."


But now they're back. With songs of infatuation, frustration and amazement written on downtime, during the lulls in their day job existence: lunch breaks, late nights, sick days.


Say, now that's a new one: "Hey boss, I'm not gonna be in today. I've got a song to write." -- Mike Corrigan





Publication date: 12/02/04
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