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Highly Opinionated

Oregon: The Art Of The Musical Canvas

By Published: August 5, 2004
I caught up with the band when they were playing in Bombay, India, at the Jazz Yatra, a three day festival that I had been commissioned to cover for a magazine. Oregon was alive and had the spark that they brought to their live gigs. It was a magnificent sight to see and hear the band that I had first heard live in the mid-seventies. The band was swinging mightily. They played most of the classic pieces that they had become well known for. And while this was still Oregon, with its ability to conjure images of a world that echoed with myth and legend and jazz - hot and vibrant, something elemental had come into play. It took some time to find out quite what the band had become.

Ecotopia (1987) was the last album that Oregon released through the ECM label, and the first that the band - now with a new fulltime percussionist in the person of Gurtu (Walcott was never truly replaced, but continued and still does continue to inspire and propel the band ever onward). The music on the album is vivid and fresh, but like the half a dozen albums (including the ones they released up to Northwest Passage), there is a sense of mortality in the musicï an urgency in the tone and flow that suggests that Towner, Moore and McCandless have survived a catastrophe and are now tread softly into the future aware of the impermanence of things. "Twice Around The Sun" on Ecotopia is a typical example of this new sensibility. The percussion - Gurtu and Towner, together - drives the song into an almost lonely and sinister groove. 'ReDial' - suggests something completely lost and the closing track, "Song OF The Morrow", a Walcott piece is elementally sad.

The tone of Oregon in the post-Walcott era continued throughout the three albums that the band made with Gurtu. All are superb, with Gurtu fitting perfectly with the new and urgent sound. Through 45th Parallel , in 1988 and another landmark album, Always, Never And Forever (1992), the search for their new musical holy grail continued, with Gurtu driving the percussion chair with immediacy, markedly different to what Walcott brought to the group. "Les Douzilles" (on 45th Parallel ) and "Beppo" (on Always, Never And Forever ) are wonderful examples of the swinging freedom that the '80s and '90s Oregon band seemed to favor, in their happiest moments. But music from both albums kept the band in touch with the painterly concepts that they had brought to fruition with such finesse. "Beneath an Evening Sky" ( 45th Parallel ) and "When The Fire Burns Low" ( Always, Never And Forever ) will stand out as beacons of Oregonian splendor for decades to come.

When Trilok Gurtu left to pursue a solos career closer to his roots, Oregon was once again reduced to the three original members. The band released two albums as a trio - Troika (1994) and Beyond Words (1995). The former album was released on the very adventurous veraBra label and is almost a precursor to Oregon's last three albums (1999 to date, except that the band is, there, a quartet once more). Troika features some daring work by the trio. Towner displays almost silken touch on the strings, especially on "Charlotte's Tangle" and the magnificent portrait, "Mariella". "Gekko", turns out to be a feature for McCandless' oboe, playing the melody in sixths loping rhythmically like the reptile the track is names after, as it were. The stop-start pace of the song moves easily from major to minor chord variations, and takes on a character all its as oboe and guitar trade lines. "Charlotte's Tangle" features some superlative arco playing by Moore. And "Pale Sun", proceeds to be unveiled like a just finished watercolor of a look at the northern hemisphere sky. Absolute Oregon! Only this composition is by McCandless. Who could, after all resist writing a tribute to Ralph Towner? The short sketch, In "Minaret", McCandless displays a wonderful understanding for Middle Eastern harmonic cycles, which he uses to construct the musical edifice. Troika was (and still is) a significant achievement. In retrospect, it was a portent of the major work yet to come from the band. Here was, once again, a group of musicians adept at feeding off each other - melodically, harmonically as well as rhythmically. As Moore put it in a statement quoted in the liner notes to 45th Parallel : "The music we've evolved has not come from any idea, but from getting together and influencing one another. We've become one another's greatest influences because we've listened most carefully to one another at least over the last 20 or so years and Ralph and I for the last 30 years."

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