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Oregon: The Art Of The Musical Canvas

By Published: August 5, 2004
Consider if you will, the early album, Music of Another Present Era (1973). Just how far are you prepared to stretch is determined by how willingly you allow yourself to be seduced by the canvas of the record. The odyssey begins in a musical stratosphere of heaven and earth! Consider the opening track: "North Star" that draws you into the song with McCandless blowing gently through the reed of his oboe, almost as if he were weaving a brush gently on a celestial canvas, joined in by Towner's piano and guitar crisscrossing the path to the stars, driven by the rhythmic intensity of Moore's bass and Walcott's palpitating tabla! As if this celestial journey were not breathtaking enough you are invited to feast at the edge of the waters of the earth with "Naiads" a bubbling tribute to the water nymphs that dance with the bubbling brooks of the musical mind. McCandless' oboe is ever-tantalizing as it gurgles in counterpoint with Moore's elegant obligato and Towner's tranquil guitar ascending, caressing the song, as if it would a nymph's form-changing body, while Walcott's drums urge the frenetic dance on to its joyous conclusion! Songs of myth and legend abound on this album - "Baku, The Dream Eater" and the "Bell Spirit"' are but two - whose journey traverses the space between heaven and earth. But it is tracks like "The Silence of a Candle" - an elementally sad sketch that almost suggests the sunset of a life - and "Touchstone" - an apparent journey to the space between the heart, with wave upon wave of sound layered by an English horn, oboe, bass, flute, guitar and the proverbial underpinning of the beat of Walcott's South Indian 'mridangam' (drum) and other percussion, that takes your breath away!

This splendid journey that began when the four founding members of Oregon branched out of the Paul Winter Consort continued through several albums in the 70s - including Distant Hills , (1973) - including the rhythmic expedition, "Aurora" and Winterlight , (1974) which featured an ever-expanding palette of musical sketches; almost wet paintings such as "Tide Pool" and "Ghost Beads" (a brilliantly improvised shadowy, Escher-like musical imprint), continued on the west-coast, Vanguard label. By the late '70s, Oregon came to the attention of WEA, and signed on to make several significant albums.

In 1978, the band cut Out of the Woods , a deeply impressionistic "Waterwheel", and a minor chord pastoral piece with a tantalizing rhythmic bed of tabla and bass that lifted the improvising oboe and guitar to giddying heights. This was followed by the album, Roots to the Sky (1979) and the release - among other albums - of Our First Record , a 'basement tape' all but lost until it acquired cult status among a growing of Oregon followers. The WEA releases solidified Ralph Towner's reputation as a composer of considerable repute; who could fuse the mathematical discipline of classical musical forms with the free flowing, ancient tribal harmony and rhythms with new world jazz dialects. The albums also marked Oregon's chimerical character, a group unafraid to take improvisation beyond accepted norms - even outside the fringes of jazz. Evidence of this was their ability to take John Pepper's classic "Witchi-Tai-To" and stand the tune on its head, with Ralph Towner's silky-flowing piano weaving in and out of McCandless' oboe and English horn choruses, vibrating with the heartbeat of the bass and percussion accompaniment from Glen Moore and Collin Walcott.

But this early Oregon reached its zenith when the group cut two genre-defining albums with Manfred Eicher's ECM label in Munich. The eponymous Oregon and Crossing, which was actually completed after Walcott's tragic and untimely death in a road accident, which in tour in Germany will always be two of the finest albums made by a band that came to typify the efforts of musicians determined to bridge the musical genres across continents, cultures and dialects. There are few albums that have broken the boundaries of music across continents, cultures and dialects.

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