February 22, 2007
Ask any artist who has performed there and they'll tell you that Montreal audiences are something special. Nowhere was this more evident than on Thursday, February 22, 2007, when the stylistically genre-busting group Oregon made its first visit to the Canadian jazz mecca in over 15 years. When the 37-year-old group took to the stage at Montreal's The Spectrum, the applause, hoots and hollers were so loud and persistent that it was nearly five minutes before the group was able to settle into its first tune, the relaxed and pastoral "If, from Prime (Cam Jazz, 2005).
Few groups have had as stable a line-up as Oregon for so many years. Guitarist/keyboardist Ralph Towner, bassist Glen Moore and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless have been playing with each other for the majority of their adult lives, first coming together with original sitarist/percussionist Collin Walcott in saxophonist Paul Winter's late-'60s group Consort. Walcott died tragically in a car accident while the group was on tour in Europe in 1984, and though the group worked both with and without a percussionist in the immediately ensuing years, Mark Walker has now been filling the percussion chair for over a decade. He's long past being the new kid on the block and is now an integral part of the chemistry that has made Oregon special from the very start.
When Oregon first emerged, its disregard for musical boundaries was fresh and unparalleled. Playing world music before the term was even coined, Oregon created a new amalgam of classical and jazz forms that blended in folk musics from around the world with a distinctive harmonic language. From the very beginning the group traversed a broad musical spectrum with detailed composition at one end and free improvisation at the other. A deep simpatico often made free improvisation sound like anything but unstructured extemporization. In its early days the group was completely acoustic, combining Towner's unique pianistic approach on twelve-string and classical guitars with Walcott's sitar and handmade percussion, McCandless' oboe, English horn and bass clarinet and Moore's warm bass.
Some things have changed while others have stayed the same. In the early '80s Towner began to bring synthesizers into the fold, altering and expanding the group's textural possibilities. These days, along with the grand piano provided by the venue, he travels with a classical guitar, a keyboard synth and an unusual- looking frame guitar that allows him to work with more expansive textures on the six-stringed instrument. McCandless' arsenal of woodwinds has grown to include all manner of wood and tin flutes, soprano and sopranino saxophones and, recently, tenor. Unlike Walcott, Walker has a traditional drum kit, but he also has an array of hand percussion, and can often be heard combining the two in ways that sound multi- tracked on record but, in performance, are surprisingly revealed as real-time executions by a player whose rhythmic facility is so advanced that he can keep time on a shaker with one hand while executing press rolls on a snare with the other.
Oregon's two-hour set was a balanced mix of older, well-known tunes, compositions from recent albums, and a couple of new pieces from their forthcoming Cam Jazz release, 1,000 Kilometers. Towner's "Distant Hills (first heard on Oregon's 1973 Vanguard album of the same name) received a sonic update and new parts, with his synth keyboard carrying the sequencer-generated arpeggiated changes, freeing the versatile instrumentalist to improvise on classical guitar. Towner's approach to the classical guitar remains one of the most distinctive in modern jazz, an almost call-and-response dialog during which he regularly jumps from a melodic phrase in the instrument's upper range to an equally lyrical one at the lower end. His unmistakable voicings are one of the defining characteristics of the Oregon sound.
Towner's unique approach and dominance on guitar can, at times, overshadow his strengths as a pianist. When "The Glide was originally released on Crossing (ECM, 1985), it was the first hint that, while Oregon was anything but a mainstream group, it could swing with the best of them, but in its own way. In performance Towner's spare accompaniment and soloing suggest clear roots in Bill Evans, but equally a personally evolved, individual style that remains compelling in its construction.