Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Tom D'Antoni: OMN'S 11th Anniversary Coffeeshop Conversations #269

Tom D'Antoni solo on the occasion of OMN's eleventh anniversary

 Because OMN just turned eleven last week. I thought I’d take a break on Coffeeshop Conversations from talking to folks in the music industry and talk to myself….and you.
I helped found OMN in 2009, Later, I’ll tell you why in case you’ve never heard that story before.
What else are we going to talk about besides of course the future?
I dunno.
Let’s just find out.
Oh, and by the way, next week we’ll be talking with Ticket Tomato’s Amy Maxwell, no stranger to the podcast, about the future of concerts. And the following week to percussionist and actor Caton Lyles.
Our eternal thanks to Keith Schreiner and Derek Sims, recording as Jazztronica for our theme music, called Ghost Jazz.


Oregon, the band: 40 years of worldwide excellence / November 3, 2009

By Jack Berry //

Oregon is longer lived than the Modern Jazz Quartet, and is moving close to the 45 years of the Guarneri Quartet. And those two examples of longevity were not chosen arbitrarily, as we shall see. At the Aladdin Theater on Thursday, October 13.

Thesis StatementFor hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, “Oregon” is not a place, it’s a sound. The value of this representation needs to be acknowledged by keepers of the state’s image.

There is a certain embarrassment about writing about Oregon for this new journal, Oregon Music News. The need to call attention to a musical ensemble that is approaching its 40th year of concretizing and recording seems, at best, awkward. There is a hard core of Oregon fanatics here (a wildly enthusiastic but very small crowd at the Aladdin on April 13, 2009), but its fame is decidedly elsewhere.

Oregon is longer lived than the Modern Jazz Quartet, and is moving close to the 45 years of the Guarneri Quartet. And those two examples of longevity were not chosen arbitrarily, as we shall see.

Oregon has gotten huge notice in New York, the capitals of Western and Eastern Europe, New York, South America, Asia, and Australia. It is all over YouTube, has been the subject of a doctoral dissertation, has produced 27 uniformly acclaimed albums, and its music accompanied an Apollo mission to the moon, where craters are named after two of its songs, “Icarus” and “Ghost Beads.” Yet it has barely made a dent in Oregon, the place. As far as local attention is concerned, Oregon may just as well have been named Alviso.

True, two of the founders, Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, have Oregon connections, the former was raised and educated in Bend and Eugene respectively. The latter was born, raised and still resides in Portland. They were in the jazz tradition, initially devoted to the music of Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro.

But the other two, Colin Walcott and Paul McCandless, were certainly not from the mainstream of jazz. Walcott, a student of orchestral percussion and ethnomusicology, parlayed his uncanny ability to solve practical problems (driving Ravi Shankar to the airport during a shutdown of the Los Angeles freeway system) into musical study with both Shankar and his drummer, one Allah Rahka.

The primary instruments of the other, McCandless, are double reed, oboe and English horn,that are rarely heard outside classical orchestras. If a single word was required to convey a sense of the Oregon sound, the “yearning” of his oboe would have to suffice. Here is an indication of the mystification this admixture has created (from that doctoral dissertation by John W. White).

Critics have described their music in a number of ways: jazz chamber music, classical chamber music incorporating Indian and African elements, classical music with a jazz energy, a fusion-jazz quartet, acoustic fusion, world music, surreal global synthesis, an eclectic mix evoking similarities with avant-garde conservatory music, and even as an acoustic, improvisation confluence of classical motifs, ethnic percussion, and environments performed amidst a Renaissance air.

To which bin in the music store did you go when you wanted to hear that? And this is the standard explanation of the group’s low profile hereabouts, the impossibility of classification. Sui Generis is a tricky pitch - less difficult in the more musically sophistical venues of Europe.

There have actually been two Oregons, during and after Collin Walcott.

Walcott, by all accounts, was an all-around marvel. From blue blood stock, he scorned pretense with studied crudeness (farts and nose picking for any aloof aristocrat). The stories about his mastery of extra-musical difficulty are legion. Everyone wanted to tour with Collin because no obstacle - border crossings, currency exchange, language confusion, transportation snafus, or nationalistic enmity - could not be gracefully surmounted. Musically, while he was generally associated with the tabla drums and sitar, the Northern Indian coloration of Oregon’s sound, he could, according to Moore, play virtually anything. While Oregon is too singular to be strictly classified as a “World Music” phenomenon, Walcott’s work with Don Cherry and Jim Pepper, among others, firmly established him as a force in that realm. His going away, in a 1984 car wreck, was devastating. Pepper, according to drummer John Betsch, spewed when he heard the news.

What now? The band didn’t fold but it groped. It performed with Indian drummer Trilok Gurtu and as a trio. I must admit to losing some interest during this period but there was a coming together in 1996, when drummer Mark Walker joined the group to record “Northwest Passages”, another nod to Oregon, the place.

While Walker plays a standard, albeit supplemented, drum kit, he achieves some of the eastern flavor of Walcott’s rhythmic complexity, often drumming with his hands. Somewhat slight in appearance, Walker is an explosive drummer, adding major heft to a sound that can become somewhat rarefied. When I heard Oregon at the Peter Britt Music Festival in 2002, there was a new sense of joyful completion.

That performance, in Jacksonville, included a stirring composition by Ralph Towner called “The Templars,” that galvanized the Peter Britt Festival Orchestra. You can hear it on the album Oregon made with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra in Russia, released in 2000, a new millennium. Oregon has also performed with the St. Paul, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Freiberg, and Stuttgart Orchestras. The Oregon Symphony might prick up an ear.

Because this is the Oregon Music News, something should be said about Towner and Moore’s early activities here. I first wrote about them for The Oregonian in the late 1960s. They appeared regularly at the Benson Hotel, sometimes with the legendary Terri Spencer (about whom, more in these pages later). There is a reel to reel tape from the Bob Thompson collection (ditto) of Towner playing bossa nova at the Hindquarters in Lake Oswego. After earning a degree in composition from the University of Oregon in 1963, Towner studied classical guitar in Vienna with Karl Schiet. And he was all over the piano, sounding more like Oscar Peterson than Bill Evans.

Moore, while a student at Milwaukie High School, was a “Young Oregonian,” a traveling Moorevaudeville show the paper sponsored in the 1950s. The “Young Oregonians” played at high school assemblies all over the state and one of Moore’s traveling companions was Jim Pepper, whose “Witchi-Tai-To” is virtually the only song Oregon performs that was not composed by one of its members. And they play it to a fare-thee-well.

When the Portland Trailblazers won the NBA title in 1977, Don Zavin produced and Mike McLeod shot and edited a documentary, “Fast Break,” about the event. It was a moment when Portland and the entire state felt like something close to total community. Oregon provided the music for this celebration.. The sight and sound of Bill Walton pumping his bike along the Oregon coast to Towner’s “Waterwheel” is pure legacy video. Coincidentally, as this article is being published, “Fast Break” was recently screened at the Clinton Street Theater.

Towner, a tirelessly productive composer, contributes much of Oregon’s book, including “Icarus,” “Tide Pool,” “Aurora,” “Yellow Bell,” “Waterwheel,” “Dance to the Morning Sky,” “Beneath An Evening Sky,” “Doff” (my favorite) and, more recently, the ravishing “Green & Golden.” In addition to piano and classical guitar, he plays 12-string-guitar (another matter entirely) and recently, a synth guitar. Known proudly as an entirely acoustic ensemble in its early years, Oregon surprised its followers when he introduced a Prophet synthesizer into the mix in the 1980s. This generator of extra-terrestrial sound, in his hands, enables the group to sound on occasion like a huge orchestra.

The group, according to Towner, has employed more than 50 instruments, which do not have to be mastered to provide tonal effects. He began as a Dixieland trumpet player and, in addition to all the strings, has played the French horn with Oregon. Moore doubles on violin and McCandless plays nearly everything one can toot. An embouchure that accommodates both double and single reeds is quite a mouth and his adoption of alto saxophone, coupled with Walker’s drumming, has bumped up the jazz feel of recent Oregon

One of the ends to which this aural carnival is employed is comedy. Much of the impetus for this seems to come from Moore, whose “Pepe Linque,” is a looping romp in which a walloping bass figure initiates an open, sustained shout. “Buzz Box,” “Impending Bloom,” and “Crocodile Romancing,” are not for the long of face. A group that regularly traffics in the sublime can also drop something hilarious into your lap if the proceedings become to reverential.

Prior to the group’s most recent European tour, which has just ended, I spent a couple of hours with Moore in the studio where he teaches bass students from Portland State University. As an indication of the passion of the European fans, he showed me a home made (but very professionally) boxed set of Oregon performances taped off the radio by a fan. State radio in Europe often sponsors and broadcasts musical events. The sound quality was excellent.

He also had stories to tell about the early years, work with the aberrant folk singer, Tim Hardin (which included a preposterous set at Woodstock) and an unusual venue for the band’s developmental process. Moore, Jeremy Steig, Towner and Walcott, would play night after night on the jazz show hosted by Bob Fass on WBAI in New York City. No smoke, no noisy drunks, the possibility of someone listening. Moore noted that flautist Steig, a running buddy of the early Oregon and son of artist William Steig, was also related to Wilhelm Reich and had an orgone box. They sometimes got ready to play with sessions in the box. (Could this be linked with the selection of the group’s name? Reich intentionally associated “orgone” with “orgasm” and speculation about the origins of our state’s name has neglected this possibility - “Where Rolls the Mighty Orgasm” - there’s some livability for you).

One of the reasons for my visit was to clarify a quote about Oregon by Aaron Copeland. I had mentioned it to a colleague at Oregon Public Broadcasting and he Googled “Oregon” and “Aaron Copland.” This turned up a portion of the doctoral dissertation on Oregon by White. Moore was, of course, well acquainted with White’s labor, which includes a truly stupefying effort to notate the formal elements, dynamics and textures, of a single collective improvisation. Fifteen pages are given over to an analysis of “Taos,” from the eponymously titled “Oregon” recording in 1980.

And this gets to the gist. Copeland had said something to the effect that Oregon improvises music of the sort avant-garde classical composers (Luciano Berio was specifically mentioned) were trying to write down. White paraphrased this quote and Moore said it seemed accurate to him and thought Copeland had added that Oregon accomplishes this all the time and, of course, it is always different.

Can musicians collectively improvise a realized construction of sound the equivalent of what our most brilliant contemporary composers, with manuscripts from the full legacy of Western Music at their disposal, assemble in their heads and on the piano and write down? The person who can answer that question is certainly not me but having reason to ask it is startling enough.

Moore said there is practical utility to the exercise in free playing that occurs during every Oregon concert. Everything about the band hinges on listening and reacting to what is heard. I’ve just listened to one of Oregon’s first albums, “Music from Another Present Era,” and it is brilliant, but it is the work of four people with interesting, far-flung ideas who have mastered their instruments. Eventually, the four became one and the usefulness of the ritual, according to Moore, is that it forces them to listen, to learn how each of them has changed since the last time they played together, to stay one. Listen to the free piece on the “In Performance at Carnegie Hall” recording in 1980, to grasp the standard they confront every time they start from scratch.

Staying together (with the sad exception of Walcott) and concertizing with ever new music for nearly 40 years is nearly as improbable as the sound of Oregon. The logistics are nearly as formidable as those of a much larger ensemble (a separate seat on the plane when Moore travels with his 1715 Klotz bass, three-hour sound checks). On a work tape for a fine story Tom D’Antoni did about the group for OPB’s “Art Beat,” the arduous setup process is documented and the alchemy of various tunings explored (the “A” string is the string of love, Moore announces while changing strings, and he talks ruefully about the difficulty of balancing musical and domestic love. It takes a very resourceful, self-reliant mate. Samantha, for instance, song writer and horse trainer who, Moore is proud to say, refers to herself as “a Swiss Army wife”. This concert, in 2001 at the Artichoke performing space in Portland, was a warm-up for the live recording at Yoshi’s, which concludes with a miraculous performance of “Witchi-Tai-To,” penny-whistled and oboed by McCandless.

The tour completed last month involved eleven concerts, including a session at the “Porgy and Bess Club” in Vienna, Austria. The venues are smaller, Moore noted, but the task remains the same, fresh music. This time there were new guitar and a piano pieces. Towner, who has been listening to a lot of Chopin, wrote something difficult for himself. It will be whipped into shape by February, when Oregon plays an engagement at Birdland in New York City and produce another album. Oregon’s current recording company is “CamJazz”out of Rome and its willingness to front the considerable expense suggests continuing viability. The various recording organizations have been important. Vanguard reached both new and traditional music listeners. The prominence and eclectic music of ECM transitioned Oregon from jazz clubs and into concert halls.

But while the recordings are precious, they are after the fact. The essential Oregon experience is an encounter with collective improvisation as it occurs. Here’s hoping for a pre-Birdland warm-up concert at the Aladdin or somewhere else in the place of Oregon. Give us another chance.

Birdland! Think of it. The legendary venue for performing Chopin.

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