By Laurelle Walsh
Under the direction of an ambitious Liberty Bell High School senior, the new 12-member Methow Valley Jazz Choir will present a program of music from the big band and jazz eras in three concerts: April 8 at Methow Valley United Methodist Church, April 12 in the Liberty Bell High School Commons and April 19 at The Merc Playhouse in Twisp.
Concerts begin at 7 p.m. each evening, and admission is by donation.
Director Erik Ellis began thinking about starting a jazz choir in the Methow last summer, after moving here from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with his family. He had auditioned for the jazz choir at his previous school, the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, but moved before he had a chance to sing with them, he said.
Ellis said when he discovered there was no such choir in his new town, he asked himself, “How can I incorporate this into my new community?”
He joined the Cascadia Chorale last fall as the group began preparing for its holiday concert, and met other singers who expressed interest in his project, Ellis said. Other local singers “were recommended for their blend,” he said, and the Methow Valley Jazz Choir was born. They began rehearsing together in January.
The 12 singers are sopranos Kaliope Creighton, Patricia Watson, Jennifer Simmons and Jennifer Edwards; altos Lotty Ekblad, Olivia Ekblad and Kelsey Baldwin; tenors Dana Stromberger and Janet Mehus; and basses Lon Sander, Mike Ferris and Rob Brooks. The choir is accompanied by Nancy Acheson on piano.
The program is titled “Slow Boat to Methow,” and includes standards that will be familiar to many, including “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Java Jive,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “Slow Boat to China.” Ellis selected the songs himself, inspired in part by pieces performed by the jazz choir at his former school, while “others are those I just heard and decided they would be great to do.”
Ellis’s personal favorite is a World War II swing tune, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” that was written to “just chase away those wartime blues,” he said. He has directed his singers to incorporate the head shaking, finger wagging and toe tapping choreography of the Andrews Sisters, who made it a hit song during the war.
In another piece — “The Telephone Song,” by Rosana Eckert — choir members pick up shakers, triangles, castanets, bells and blocks to accompany their vocals with complex, syncopated percussion.
Ellis is an involved and lively director at the podium, and did not hesitate to give his singers tips on emotion and tempo at a recent rehearsal. He remarked, “It is a little unnerving to be teaching people who are far more experienced than I am. But it’s fun!”
This is Ellis’s first foray into choir direction, though he credits his former choir director, Krista Brand, with teaching him the basics. In addition, Ellis has studied piano and sung in a variety of choirs over the last four years.
Ellis recently competed at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, where he sang “The Girl from Ipanema,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Come Fly With Me.” He plans to major in music education at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho starting in the fall.