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Saxophone Superman 

by Mike Corrigan


CHRIS MOYER wears so many hats that most of us, under similar weight, would buckle, succumbing finally to various spinal injuries. Yet Moyer seems to thrive. The Spokane musician is a woodwind instrumentalist, accomplished on saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and piccolo. In addition, he is the arranger, composer and leader of the Christopher Moyer Orchestra, whose repertoire runs the gamut from the Big Band era to contemporary compositions from Moyer and pop artists such as Billy Joel and Chicago. He's also a member of Topflite, a popular local a cappella vocal quartet. He produced an album of his own compositions and arrangements last year and is the catalyst for this Saturday night's event at the Met featuring both musical groups in concert.


And that's when he's not rehearsing with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra or the Spokane Symphony (he's a member of both). A classic overachiever? Maybe. A local music dynamo significantly enriching the arts scene in his hometown? You better believe it.


Moyer's own notoriety aside for the moment, the roster of his band reads like a Who's Who of distinguished Spokane musicians (many of whom regularly appear in this newspaper's music listings). The 17-piece orchestra features artists from a variety of disciplines and includes members of the Spokane Symphony, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra, Stagecoast West and Jazz Dialog. Led by saxophonist Moyer, the horn section consists of Richard Hubbard, Pat Shook, Craig Landron, Dan Carlson on saxes, Brian Ploeger, Andy Plamondon, Keith Lamotte, Craig Volosing on trumpets, and Dave Stultz, Todd Nordling, Bill Foster and Scott Engle on trombones. The band is rounded out with the addition of keyboardist Nick Schauer, guitarist Doug Folkins, bassist Tom Schager, drummer Jaye Nordling and percussionist Mark Norton.


What's it like writing for and directing such a talented and relatively large group of musicians?


"Composing is a real challenge," Moyer says. "But it's not so much whether it's for 17 pieces or for a solo piano as it is getting the substance of a piece, which usually comes from some slice of life, an experience or a perspective. That was something that I didn't get in tune as much with when I was younger as I do now. The mechanics -- or what you might call the vocabulary -- had to come without having to worry about it. Putting together a piece, like any other form of artistry, is a real expression of yourself. And when it works, it is just grand."


Moyer is a Spokane native who has worked in the area as a musician since the first time he sat in with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra more than 20 years ago.


"I started my senior year in high school with them as a regular member," he says. "But I first subbed with them when I was about 16. That was very young for the orchestra."


He's been with the SJO ever since (and he has been an on-call saxophone player for the Spokane Symphony since 1989). It was through his association with the SJO, in fact, that Moyer says he first caught the bug to add to the dialog of jazz and compose his own music.


"I actually did a little of writing in college, but I really started creating an outlet for it about five years ago. I decided I had written enough, and I wanted to put together my own group and do performing and recording."


And that he did, with the creation of the Christopher Moyer Orchestra in early 2001. Moyer and the band recorded their first album together, called (appropriately enough) The First Time, which demonstrated not only his music but also his talent as an arranger and bandleader. The CD was recorded in the historic Fox Theatre and released at a concert in the Fox in late May of 2001 as a benefit for the theatre's restoration project.


"A lot of what you will hear on Saturday night will be original compositions -- some selections from the CD and some new things as well. Since the album was released, of course, I've written a lot more material and would like to showcase some of that at the show this year."


Joining the orchestra will be Moyer's vocal group, Topflite. The other guys in the quartet are Rick Richard, Shawn Wright and Jaye Nordling. Originally a barbershop quartet, the group (first formed in 1991) has evolved its repertoire to embrace a variety of styles, including '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, Big Band jazz, holiday favorites and modern pop.


"This particular foursome has been together since 1996," says Moyer. "We'll be doing some tunes in front of the big band. They're all covers, but it's some really good stuff from our repertoire."


Topflite is no newcomer to the Met stage. Neither is Moyer's orchestra. This performance will, however, mark the first time both performing groups have combined forces for a single show.


"We're really excited about that and being able to present a lot of the different facets of a big band, Moyer says. "That kind of music has evolved and what big band is today and what I do with it is very contemporary."


Through his other associations, Moyer is able to explore other avenues of expression.


"Jazz in its essence is a lot of interpretation and improvisation, but there is also composition and adding to the dialog. I enjoy doing repertoire with some of the other groups I play with, but this is my opportunity to be contemporary, and by that I mean the stuff that comes out of me."


But to be able to translate what's inside, says Moyer, you've first got to do a little homework. And learn the language. "You must have an understanding of the existing vocabulary in order to add to that dialog."





We secular music lovers at times just don't get it, but the fact of the matter is contemporary Christian music is big in this country. It's big business, too, and as such, a big influence on popular music in general. It certainly seems to be rather huge in Spokane, where fully one-half of the major national artists scheduled to perform over the next two months are faith-based --more than half if you count Creed.


But STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN is no bandwagon-jumper or Johnny-come-lately to the Christian music gravy train. His take on modern gospel (sort of a cross between '70s-style light rock and orchestrated pop) has been helping to define the genre since the mid-1980s. He performs at the Opera House Friday night.


A Paducah, Ky., native, Chapman was first introduced to music by way of his father, who owned a local music store. While hanging out in that rich environment, he picked up several instruments but concentrated on guitar and piano. After finishing high school, he entered the pre-med program at Indiana's Anderson College. But the lure of a career in music soon caused him to drop out. He moved to Nashville, started writing songs and took a performing job at Opryland USA (sort of a good ol' boy theme park).


His journey to success clicked into high gear when one of his songs was recorded by the Imperials (he would write many more tunes for other prominent gospel and country stars). In 1987, he signed with a major Christian label, Sparrow, and released his first album, entitled First Hand. The albums, the hits and the acclaim began to pile up. By 1989, Chapman was one of the top artists in the contemporary Christian field on the strength of such personal and deeply spiritual songs as "His Strength Is Perfect," "Hiding Place" and "My Redeemer Is Faithful and True." That year, he won Gospel Music Association awards for Song of the Year and Best Songwriter. The next year, his third album, More to This Life, earned him a whopping 10 GMA nominations (he walked away with five awards). For the Sake of the Call (1990), with its five No. 1 singles, solidified his hold on the Christian charts' top slots.


As he moved through the '90s and into the new millennium, and as a new breed of Christian performer began to dominate the charts, Chapman altered his approach somewhat. He allowed for more secular themes in his writing and incorporated more contemporary pop elements into his sound (on his latest album, Declaration, he utilizes electronic sounds from his son's Game Boy). The music must change, I suppose. But the message within Chapman's music, at least, always seems to remain steady.





Having the respect of your peers is great. Receiving high marks from one of the most prestigious music schools in the country is a wonderful thing indeed. Guitarist and songwriter DAN SCHWARTZ has both. While those accolades may impress academics and give his fans something added to gush about, to the average music lover out for a night of live entertainment, it means squat. Schwartz knows this. And it shows in the warm brilliance of each of his performances. With the seemingly minimal tools of the six-string and the human voice, Schwartz creates broad melodic vistas with the devotion and passion of a man performing as if his reputation was on the line every single night. He makes a return visit to the Shop Thursday to celebrate the release of his third independently produced album, entitled (simply enough) Dan Schwartz. It's his first new song collection in five years.


The musical influences that first inspired Schwartz were all over the map -- everything from the Grand Ole Opry to Tower of Power to Devo. But when he narrowed his sights a tad, he found himself at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee under the tutelage of finger-style master educator John Stopes. Though now widely recognized as a finger-style master in his own right, Schwartz is (true to his early years) by no means a purist -- as evidenced by his eclectic recorded output, which touches on jazz, funk, pop, R & amp;B and world music.


Such diversity is not widely encouraged within a recording industry that prides itself on narrow marketing and clearly defined labels. That's why this Minneapolis-based artist is so pleased with his place as an independent artist on the music business fringe.


"The beauty of recording for my own label is simply allowing a record like this to exist," he says of his self-titled new album. "Having freedom, I was able to create exactly what I wanted -- a wild album that travels a great distance from beginning to end."
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