The challenge facing any longstanding group is retaining its core qualities while remaining contemporary and vital as the years pass. Oregon may well be the longest-running group in jazz today, with three of its four members together since its inception in 1970. Its ability to combine detailed composition with near-telepathic free improvisation can still be heard on 1000 Kilometers, the group's 24th recording, but what's also immediately evident is a group that's by no means standing still.
Had original percussionist/sitarist Colin Walcott not died in a tragic accident in 1984, it's a near certainty that he'd still be playing with woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless, guitarist/keyboardist Ralph Towner and bassist Glen Moore today. Still, drummer/percussionist Mark Walker has been with the group for more than a decade, so it's time to stop considering him the new kid on the block. Opening 1000 Kilometers with his propulsive and Latinesque "Deep Six"Walker's first tune to be featured on an Oregon recordit's clear that he's an integral part of the group's current soundscape. It may be only possible to fully appreciate his remarkable ability to combine a conventional drum kit with an array of hand and electronic percussion when seen in performance, but it's become a new fundamental for the group, one of many factors that keeps Oregon from being caught in a stylistic time warp.
Towner remains the group's primary composer. New piecesthe Mediterranean-inflected "Catching Up," a beautiful guitar/reed duet with McCandless on the all-too-brief "From a Dream," and the elegantly pastoral title trackfind Towner's distinctive and recognizable harmonic voice and ability to write challenging yet unforced material intact. The dark-hued and somewhat ambiguous "Simone," first heard on Towner's Anthem (ECM, 2001), demonstrates how a solo guitar piece can be re-orchestrated for a group by breaking out its individual components.
As always, Moore is the dry humor beneath Oregon's normally serious veneer. "Back Pocket" is a light-hearted duet with Walker, where Moore's robust tone and imaginative ideas groove hard alongside a loosely played backbeat. "The Bactarian"one of Moore's most compelling piecesis bolero-like, a 23/8 pattern that blends Towner's synth pads and a simple melody to provide the grist for a strong solos from McCandless and Towner.
McCandless' energetic "Bayonne" shows just how well Oregon has integrated technology since first abandoning the all-acoustic approach of its early days on Oregon (ECM, 1983), featuring McCandless' most dramatic solo of the set.
No Oregon album would be complete without some free improvisation. "Free Imp" is spacious but angular, while "Restless Imp" demonstrates the same kind of magical spontaneous composition as "Buzzbox," from In Performance (Elektra, 1980).
With so many milestones in its discography it's difficult to assess any new Oregon album in comparative terms. Still, 1000 Kilometers easily stands alongside the group's best, and proves that, despite the appearance of being long in the tooth, Oregon still has plenty to say.
Personnel: Paul McCandless: oboe, english horn, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone; Ralph Towner: classical guitar, synth guitar, piano, keyboards; Glen Moore: double bass; Mark Walker: drums, percussion.