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Oregon: The Art Of The Musical Canvas

By Published: August 5, 2004
The seminal Oregon was recorded in February of 1983. Although this was not the first ECM imprint (The quite fine Solos/Trios had been recorded in 1972, but for legal reasons, it could not be labeled an 'Oregon' album and so became 'attributed to Ralph Towner and Glen Moore', but also featured - albeit never together on any of the tracks - Paul McCandless and Collin Walcott), Oregon found the band had crossed the Rubicon in the art of ensemble music. The foursome was inspired - both in the compositions, which were infinitely more intricate - harmonically - but also began to illuminate a much wider musical heritage stylistically. The soul of Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro resonated in the mists of the music, along with Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok - even Bach! The character of each of the members of he group also began to come to fruition - something that would propel them into a nebulous zone that would be light years ahead of composers of modern music by the end of the century. (More of this later.)

Ralph Towner, for instance honed his talent for not only appropriating myth and legend of the many worlds his mind inhabited at once, but also showed (on this album) that he had a flair for expression that was eerily reminiscent of Flemish painters. His study, "The Rapids" is so alive and vivid that it not only conjures images of white water and gleaming rock, but suggests this almost as if it were a canvas just painted and still wet, and in a style that pays handsome tribute to Pieter Breughel! Towner also introduced, for the first time, the use of synthesizers, which he used to generate sounds that so enhanced the 'acoustic sound' that Oregon had come to exemplify, that electronic instrumentation, at Towner's hands, came to be completely redefined. Ralph Towner had, with this album become the 'painter' of sound. As "The Rapids" indicated, Towner's natural flair for applying layer upon layer of shade and color upon a composition to imbue it with a richness of setting and tone that few composers today have been able to accomplish - with the possible exception of Egberto Gismonti.

Of the other three members of Oregon, McCandless came to become the most mysterious and delightfully whimsical. His delicate faun-like compositional style - evidenced on 'Beside a Brook' - was complemented by his now rounder tone on his ubiquitous oboe. McCandless also introduced other horns - the soprano saxophone on "The Rapids" and the bass clarinet on "There Was No Moon Tonight". Glenn Moore had a fine sense of humor as his sly tribute to Toscanini's oboist, Robert Bloom - "Impending Bloom" indicates. Walcott does not compose on this album, but is everywhere on it in his interpretations of his band mates' compositions, and as you would imagine, his contributions on the group improvisations also indicates.

But Walcott shines on Crossing , his last album with the band - and Oregon's penultimate with ECM. Crossing marks the turning point in the journey that is Oregon. It is perhaps one of their most 'complete' albums - in terms of the flawlessness of the compositions and the seamless intimacy of the four musicians. It is almost as if this were a family bonded together by a sixth sense when they tossed ideas among themselves. Instruments seemed to be extensions of their bodies just as ideas seemed to flow in and out of each other's hearts and minds! And of course, the characters of each of the composers of Oregon reached heights which musicians rarely accomplish. Moore's work abounds in humor - "Pepe Linque" and "Kronach Waltz" - McCandless continues to charm with his whimsy - "Queen Of Sydney" and "Amaryllis" - Walcott, who contributes just one track - "Travel By Day", almost like watching a caravanserai of camels gliding upon the undulating desert dunes and Towner, whose musical brush glides over an imaginary canvas as he creates "Alpenbridge", "The Glide", a breathtaking track with an ascending and descending motif, "The Looking Glass Man" and the wistful and altogether beautiful "Crossing", which shows how deeply the composer has come to be influenced by Brazilian the sensibilities - typically 'saudades' - the sense of longing (for a better time and place, perhaps). As it turned out this was to be prophetic. Walcott died in an accident - that also killed Jo Harting, a friend and non-musical assistant - before the release of Crossing and this almost broke the group completely.

It took almost a year and a tribute to the late percussionist and musician, Collin Walcott that brought Oregon together again. It also marked a new era of sound and vision for the band. Towner, McCandless and Moore came together with Trilok Gurtu, the Indian-born percussionist who had been introduced to them by Walcott himself, years earlier.

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