Jazz finds its footing in free movement -- an established beat, a strong chord progression, then a high squealing trumpet or a moaning saxophone that drops down the scale and wanders away across countries of color, tone and melody. The music builds itself from expression, improvisation, diversity of invention. But one thing seems definite and not subject to interpretation: Duke Ellington is to jazz what the Beatles were to rock or Bach was to baroque. He's the man, the big dog, the duke of boogie, the king of swing, the main chord in the ever-evolving history of jazz. At the Met on Saturday, THE SPOKANE JAZZ ORCHESTRA, guest conducted by Gunther Schuller, will take an evening to dive into the music of the Duke.
"Ellington is the Mozart or Beethoven of jazz composition," says Dan Keberle, music director for the Spokane Jazz Orchestra. "His band is a standard sound, and his music is difficult to play because it's so unique. Anytime you do a concert of Ellington's music, it's such a kaleidoscope of styles and sounds. Every piece is a treasure."
Shifting away from the familiar Ellington standards like "Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady" to more obscure pieces like "Cocoa" and "Tiger Rag," the repertoire for the night also provides entry into the holiday season with a performance of Ellington's arrangement of the famous Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. In place of the "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy," you'll get "Sugar Rum Cherry" and "Toot Toot Tootie Toot" instead of "Dance of the Reed Pipes."
"The whole piece really swings," says Schuller, who will travel from his home in Boston to lead the SJO for the remaining three shows of the season. "When Ellington re-instrumentated the movements, the rhythm was turned into a very happy jazz swing with the colors of a jazz orchestra through subtle transformations of the original classical music. He really was a genius equal to Brahms or Beethoven."
Ellington isn't the only big name on the program. Schuller himself has carved a well-known niche as a contemporary composer, conductor and world-renowned authority on jazz music. Notable international orchestras have performed his work, and his vast and deep knowledge landed him the position of primary editor for the Groves Dictionary of Jazz -- the definitive musical reference guide.
"Gunther Schuller is one of the foremost musicologists of the world," says Keberle. "He was a personal friend of Ellington and many of the guys in his band. Duke's music is very difficult to transcribe, and Schuller is one of the primary transcribers of his music, so he has a great deal of wisdom and knowledge about Ellington and music in general, whether it's classical or jazz."
How did Spokane snag a guy like this to set the beat on stage? Schuller's relationship with the classical music scene in the Inland Northwest goes back to the early '80s, when he began guest conducting for the Spokane Symphony. Over the years, he has acted as artistic director for the Festival in Sandpoint, directed the Bach Festival in Spokane, and most recently organized a jazz violin summit at the Met that brought together four major jazz violinists of the world.
"He's a wonderful conductor," says Keberle. "He has all this energy, and he knows how to communicate to an audience. Rehearsals with him are fascinating. We'll be working on something, and then he'll go off with stories and anecdotes about the original Ellington band. He really is the closest thing to having Duke Ellington there in the room with you."
In swinging motion since 1974, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra is comprised of a group of professional musicians from the greater Spokane area. The players come from a variety of backgrounds and come together regularly to collaborate on cool rhythms and warm sounds.
"Everyone in the orchestra is committed to jazz as an art form," says Keberle. "The musicians have spent most of their lives developing their personal craft with jazz, and they believe it has something to offer to the American public -- it's extremely expressive, creative, interesting and a lot of fun."
"The SJO can spread the word about jazz in the Northwest and bring people who are listening to Britney Spears back to the jazz form," says Schuller. "It's an endangered species of music. It has a loyal audience, but it's diminished from the old days when every kid was dancing to jazz. Now most Americans listen to rock and pop and hip-hop, but those faithful jazz audiences will be there and they'll never give up on the Duke. They'll always want to hear Ellington. It's music that's eternal -- it will never die. It's just that great."
The Spokane Jazz Orchestra with guest conductor Gunther Schuller presents "Especially and Exquisitely Ellington" at the Met on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $19.50/17.50/16.50. Call 325-SEAT.
CASEFILE: The Hellrods -- by Mike Corrigan
THE HELLRODS play original, old-school punk rock like few other bands in town. They take their cue from punk's archetypes -- the Ramones and the Minutemen, for instance -- rather than from those who would dilute the genre's anti-establishment essence with gory rock excess and the tawdry, frivolous trappings of stardom (oh yes, thank you Blink-182). Their repertoire is loaded with stripped down, succinct 1-2-3-4 anthems about staking an individual claim in an American Dream saturated with corporate-sponsored junk culture schmaltz. But they are like most of their Spokane music scene brethren in at least one significant way: local audiences, in large part, ignore them.
"In Spokane, it's hard to get people to support you," says Hellrods' guitarist/vocalist Tyler Arnold. "Audiences here seem to be star-struck. We've played with bands like Zeke, John Doe, Vice Squad and UK Subs and stuff like that. Even when we played with them, people wouldn't come to the show until 15 minutes before the headliner went on."
The band has better luck when they gig more than 300 miles away from their home base.
"Compared to Spokane, Seattle is just amazing. People over there are actually interested in hearing your music."
The Hellrods have been performing around town -- in one form or another -- for about three years. Tyler is the only surviving member of the original incarnation (original moniker: Hot Rod to Hell) and has presided over a dizzying number of lineup changes. But he balks slightly at the suggestion that the Hellrods is his band.
"I've stuck with it the longest," he admits. "But, you know, it's everybody's band."
Bassist Jack Dunsmore and drummer Joel Bisterfeldt complete the trio. Arnold and Dunsmore write most of the band's songs.
"We just want to get our ideas out there," says Arnold, describing the band's philosophy. "Basically, we think everyone should live their own life and not follow what others do. And that includes not accepting mainstream music as your only option."
Which brings us back to Blink-182, et al.
"The fan base for that stuff is all 12-year old kids," Arnold says. "The music itself doesn't seem to have much of a point at all. So as far as modern punk that you might hear on the radio, well, I wouldn't even call it punk. It's pop. You know, just sped-up Hanson, really."
The band recorded a CD last May. The songs on Fast, Furious and Hated are accelerated and aggressive. Arnold and Dunsmore's vocals are muscular and direct. Yet melody creeps in, refreshingly, almost unexpectedly.
"It's nothing too fancy," Arnold says. "We recorded it in four hours, mixed it in three. I think we paid $250 bucks for the whole thing. We just wanted to get something out there."
The band's future holds the promise of another brief but productive stint in the studio (within the next couple months) and more Northwest mini-tours in the spring. And as long as the songs keep coming, Arnold says the Hellrods will be out there, kicking against the pricks in the name of all that's good and holy about punk rock.
"Yeah, pretty much. We don't plan on giving up anytime soon. We've been at it for three years now and it's been frustrating. But then, we have a blast, really."
The Hellrods play with the Creeps and Eugene Iowa at Mootsy's on Friday, Nov. 30, at 9:30 pm. Cover: $4. Call: 838-1517.