July 2004

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In a rare New York appearance at Iridium, the folk-jazz chamber quartet Oregon played to a fairly small audience (June 6th) but seemed to have a grand time. Gone are the beards, the long hair, the mutton chops. Reedist Paul McCandless, who used to look like a Jethro Tull member, now looks more like a soccer dad. But his work on oboe, English horn and soprano sax remains stirring and unique. Bassist Glen Moore laid firm foundations, meshing beautifully with drummer/percussionist Mark Walker, who follows Trilok Gurtu and Arto Tuncboyaciyan in filling the sizable shoes of the late Collin Walcott. But guitarist Ralph Towner, the group’s main composer, was the most riveting presence. Playing nylon-string and “frame” guitars as well as piano and synths (alas, no 12-string), Towner brought depth and rigor to every number. Highlights included “Joyful Departure” (played solo by Towner on his 1997 disc Ana), a new Towner piece called “If” (in a challenging two-plus-three feel), a dark 11/8 piece called “Distant Hills” (from 2002’s Live at Yoshi’s) and a jazzier vehicle called “The Glide” (from 1983’s Crossing). There are aspects of Oregon’s sound that some find lightweight, but their grittier moments are plenty, and their onstage vibe is entirely unpretentious.

At the Jazz Standard (June 9), Joe Locke’s 4 Walls of Freedom took the stage under circumstances not unlike Oregon’s. The band rarely plays in New York; the turnout for the early set on their second night was less than huge. And like Oregon, Locke’s group has had to recuperate from the loss of a cherished member, tenor sax giant Bob Berg. The Scottish horn man Tommy Smith, with a big, husky sound and enviable multiphonic control, has risen to the occasion, both live and on the band’s new Sirocco album, Dear Life. Bassist Ed Howard knows how to enhance the subtlest details of every arrangement. LA-based drummer Gary Novak, the session and fusion whiz, gives Locke’s music a highly memorable kick in the pants. That leaves Locke himself, certainly one of the great vibraphonists but also one of the most exciting improvisers on today’s scene, period. His over-the-top mannerisms are not for show; they flow genuinely from the dynamics of the music, rendering every Locke performance richly unpredictable. His fleet, notey runs and complex chordal passages dovetail with an ease and economy that is altogether rare. Not every composition in this band’s book is a knockout, but the playing couldn’t be stronger.

~ David Adler


June 12th, opening night for Oscar Peterson’s 7-night residency at Birdland, was an emotional evening for the pianist and a sold-out crowd anxious to hear one of jazz’ living legends. Peterson brought his quartet featuring two veterans, longtime bass associate Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Alvin Queen, as well as frequent collaborator, Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. After the opening standing ovation, the near octogenarian slowly worked his way to the piano bench, proceeded with a swinging treatment of “Falling in Love with Love” and, similar to the following set, followed the Rodgers and Hart standard with a sentimental treatment of “Night Time”. Though the latter set was more encouraging and up-tempo, a recurring introspective quality marked the first. A stroke in ‘93 has expectedly made Peterson a softer player with only slight use of his left hand for general jabs of notes and less flashy embellishments. With an obvious swing undercurrent, his spacious and delicate treatments of slower tempo numbers were hymn-like, as Bill Evans and the music of Debussy and Chopin have replaced what was customarily associated with the Tatum-esque player. Though the pianist’s right hand didn’t quite hit every note intended in his runs (the end of the second set did close with a smoking rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”), Peterson remains a formidable player.

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