Jan 15 2013
It’s been over four decades since the Oregon ensemble first formed. Over that time, the World Jazz subgenre has evolved both in terms of sound and also how it’s viewed as a concept. Generally speaking, the World Jazz subgenre tag began getting used in the transition years from the 60s to the 70s, and referred to the use of various ethnic musics and instruments in a jazz setting. Tablas and sitars accompanied sax and trumpet, African and Brazilian rhythms were utilized with swing rhythms, and so on. The term World Jazz, though a relatively new concept in the States, was a very U.S.-centric term, and pretty much lumped an entire planet of indigenous musics into one World category. Considering that Jazz is original to the U.S., and genre tags are meant only as basic categorizing tools, the World Jazz tag is an understandable result. But it’s important to keep in mind that what bears as World Jazz in one part of the planet can sound dramatically different from how it sounds elsewhere, especially as the expression of Jazz has changed over the years, too. It all sounds different from each other and from back then.
Back then, Oregon began as a quartet of Collin Walcott, Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless, and Glen Moore. Their music had strong Folk and Indian music elements, and was more likely to induce daydreams than foot tapping. Following the tragic death of Walcott, the group went through a series of personnel changes in the quartet’s percussion seat.. Along with that, their sound also changed. This was a result of not just different musicians bringing different influences to the table, but also the ripples of changes that the tides of time bring about in music forms. The 1980s saw more fusion voicings of Jazz, and Oregon reflected that in their music. Much of the original edge was gone from their music. Oregon had found a new way to express the beauty in their music’s identity. It wasn’t a sea change or anything, but the difference between their sound from one decade to the next is apparent.
The new millenium saw some consistency return to the Oregon line-up. The current quartet has now been performing together for awhile. Their sound has returned home, though changed, as is oft to happen with time and experience. Recent recordings have a bit of the old edgy improvisation, some sharp teeth to go along with a softer gentler fusion sound. It’s a lovely thing.
For someone like myself, who has been listening to the group for a couple decades and who owns most of their recorded music, their newest release Family Tree has a comforting effect… a sense of nostalgia and happy memories of music from my/their past, but also by way of the assurance that, in the end, after all the changes and passing of time, I can still be greeted with new beautiful music from “old friends.”
Your album personnel: Paul McCandless (oboe, bass clarinet, soprano sax, flute, horns), Ralph Towner (classical guitar, piano, synthesizer), Glen Moore (double bass), and Mark Walker (drums, drum synthesizer, percussion).
The album opens with a couple up-tempo pieces. The rapid chatter of percussion on “Bibo Babo” gives it an impression of speed, and negates any need for the rest of the quartet to help in getting the heart rate up, allowing them to take their time soloing over the top. Meanwhile, second track “Tern” has the quartet galloping alongside together, offering one brisk section after the other.
Third track “The Hexagram” reigns things in a bit, and returns the quartet to the particular strain of serenity more commonly associated with them. The flutter and soar pattern of McCandless on soprano sax is front and center, but it’s the combination of Towner’s classical guitar and Walker’s percussion that gives the song its lazy afternoon ease. It leads into “Creeper,” which attains a bit more rapid gait, but the addition of bass clarinet pretty much guarantees that no one will get left in dust. Moore has a pleasantly resonant section on bass, part of a series of solos each member takes with group support.
The two-song combo of “Jurassic” and “Family Tree” is totally old-school Oregon. On “Jurassic,” cymbal washes, eerie percussion, bass arco, and an ominous bass clarinet… and yet so inviting and warm. This leads immediately into the title-track, which starts with an elegant turn on piano by Towner, and then the entrance of soprano sax… inquisitive, moody, and blithe. These are the types of songs that get me nostalgic for the Oregon of the past. It’s heartwarming to hear them come together, with a different line-up and a different decade, and yet still giving voice to the music of their past.
On the other hand, “Moot” presents something a bit different. It starts out with a thrilling bit of bass arco, then moves into a Middle-East inspired piece. Moore glides on bass in the background, and remains the strongman throughout the song. It’s not a complete overhaul by any means, but it does reflect both the change of influences the artists bring to the table, as well as the trend in Jazz to explore the fusion of U.S. style Jazz with Middle-East music. It’s a nice development, and interesting to hear these veterans tackle it.
The album ends on a strange note. First is “Max Alert,” a minute long interlude full of dissonance and the clash of alien sounds. This leads right into the fusion-heavy “Carnival Express,” a syrupy tune with too large an infusion of pop music. Individually, these two are the only weak spots on the album, and combined together, it kills the nice flow that had been building up to this point. Had they ended the album with “Julian,” a lighthearted buoyant tune that precedes the “Max Alert”/”Carnival Express” combo, the album would’ve been stronger for it.
That criticism aside, Oregon fans will likely find more than enough music here to put a smile on their faces. It did mine. It’s been a rewarding experience to hear Oregon’s new iteration in the new century.
Released on the Cam Jazz label.
You can stream, and purchase, the entire album on the Cam Jazz site.