Duke Ellington had a restless imagination. He joined instruments to create sounds yet unconceived. He dipped into the exotic East for inspiration and imported rhythms and tone shadings from around the world. He heard music where others heard street sounds.
Late in his career, having conquered the jazz idiom, Ellington turned his attention to the classical repertoire. His first project was a big-band version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.”
Ellington sought out Tchaikovsky to request permission, and the Russian composer was so pleased with the results he championed it until he died.
“It’s fantastic,” said conductor/ arranger Bill Drury, who will conduct the Northwest premiere of Ellington’s “Nutcracker” at Saturday’s Spokane Jazz Orchestra holiday concert.
“It’s better than Tchaikovsky’s, in my humble opinion,” he said, laughing.
Dan Keberle, musical director of the SJO, said the piece is familiar but new.
“Part of what makes it so interesting is that we all have heard most of it as scored and composed by Tchaikovsky, so all nine movements become like redecorations of our favorite rooms in our favorite home.”
Ellington even rearranged the song titles, displaying his wry, hipster’s wit in the process: Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Piper” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” becomes “Sugar Rum Cherry” and “Russian Dance” is made over as “The Volga Vonty.”
Drury’s is a familiar name among local jazz fans. A self-taught musician, he graduated with a degree in political science from Gonzaga University. He played sax and clarinet with the SJO and with Bob Curnow’s New Repertory Jazz Ensemble.
He left Spokane three years ago for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he began preparation for a career in conducting. That career is now in full bloom, as Drury has engaged a string of important East Coast and European conducting dates, including the premiere of a new John Zorn piece.
But the Hillyard native has returned home, with his Ellington score tucked under his arm, to lead the SJO Saturday.
“Years ago, in the Bob Curnow orchestra, we did the ‘Harlem Suite,”’ he said. “It was the first time I was introduced to later Ellington.”
When Drury landed in Boston, he went looking for Ellington arrangements and found a copy of the “Nutcracker” through an Ellington scholar.
“It always sort of stuck in the back of my mind,” Drury said, to stage the piece in Spokane. But earlier attempts bore no fruit. This year, Keberle and Jazz Society president Chris Moyer made sure the piece would happen.
The program will open under Keberle’s direction with a set of Stan Kenton Christmas carols and other jazz standards.
xxxx SPOKANE JAZZ ORCHESTRA: “THE DUKE ELLINGTON ‘NUTCRACKER”’ Location and time: The Met, Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $16