Over the past 30 years the quartet Oregon have set the standard for acoustic chamber music that straddles the lines between jazz, New Age and classical. The members have all collaborated with orchestras on several occasions, dating back to the group’s original incubator, the Paul Winter Consort. Their compositions and personal approaches to improvisation tend to mesh nicely with the regimentation of large groups. This 2-disc set is perhaps the best documentation yet of how flexible the Oregon aesthetic can be.
Most of the tracks are beautiful, well-crafted pieces that echo the best of 20th century classical music. Hints of Debussy’s pastoral sensibilities, Mussorgsky’s bombast and Stravinsky’s mischief abound. Only one tune (disc 1, track 9) might be considered an established Oregon standard, and it receives a gorgeous treatment with the melody rendered by cellist Andrei Demin. Most of the selections were composed for prior orchestral endeavors; three tracks (disc 1, tracks 1, 3 and 4) were written specifically for the Moscow project; three others (disc 1, tracks 5 and 7; disc 2, track 4) are for the quartet without orchestral backing; and disc 1, track 8 is a witty, curmudgeonly solo feature for bassist Glen Moore. Of all the selections, only disc 1, track 3 is somewhat lacking; its meandering theme is better suited to a brief interlude than an eight-minute feature.
Unfortunately, Moore and percussionist Mark Walker tend to be lost within the orchestral settings. Moore delivers the initial thematic statement of disc 1, track 5 via his 285-year-old Klotz bass, fashioning meaty double-stops that are accented by Walker’s hand drums and eventually echoed by reedman Paul McCandless. Walker, the latest in Oregon’s revolving-door drum chair, may be the most versatile percussionist to grace the band since Collin Walcott’s untimely passing sixteen years ago. When audible, his presence adds much to the proceedings, as evidenced by his hot soloing on disc 2, track 5. Of course, McCandless and guitarist Ralph Towner remain in the firm forefront of each piece, and their performances are as flawless and petal-pretty as we’ve come to expect. McCandless alternates between oboe, English horn, soprano sax and bass clarinet, always selecting the proper horn and tone colors to match the composition. Towner’s astonishing guitar technique practically turns those six strings into a symphony of their own, issuing forth fleet melodies and chordal cascades with stony steadiness.
The Tchaikovsky Symphony is certainly up to the task of navigating this most unusual material as if born to the saddle. Conductor George Garanian handles this full platter with aplomb, imbuing the tunes with appropriate volume and tastefulness. Disc 2, track 3 is described in the liner notes as an “improvisation for conductor”, wherein Garanian uses hand signals to direct different sections of the orchestra in performing composed snippets and combining them into a new whole with each performance. Altogether the experiment works well, not sounding as avant-garde as one might imagine. This set is a must-have for Oregon devotees and is sure to appeal to fans of modern classical or acoustic instrumental music as well.
Personnel: Ralph Towner, classical and 12-string guitars, piano, synths; Paul McCandless, oboe, English horn, soprano sax, bass clarinet; Glen Moore, acoustic bass; Mark Walker, drums, percussion; Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, conducted by George Garanian.