Oregon: The Art Of The Musical Canvas
If Troika was the quieter and more introspective albums of the two, then Beyond Words (1995) brought the group back again to familiar territory in terms of their sphere of reference culturally, and musically. Again more sophistication in the interpretation of the music - most of which had been written years before, but the music was now more orchestral-oriented, in the way it was rearranged and scored for the myriad instruments that were now employed to create the Oregon sound, sans percussion, of course. "The Silence Of A Candle", "Les Douzilles", "Ecotopia" and the ever present "Witchi-Tai-To" are some of the exquisitely reworked originals on Beyond Words. The best, it seems, was yet to come.
In 1997, Ralph Towner wrote in liner notes to Northwest Passage : "Oregon is a social microcosm complete with all the fluctuations and changes of a large culture. In the 27 years of our existence we've dealt with our individual growth and differences, selfishness and generosity, death and rebirth, patience and impatience, triumphs and failures, and remain together to learn and flourish as friends and musiciansï Through the years there have been inevitable crossroads that have required us to re-examine our courseï We felt for this album, we needed to rekindle our love of playing with percussion, and found two exceptionally worthy musicians, Mark Walker and Arto Tuncboyaciyan, who met our requirements of versatility, maturity and musicianship." And so began the latest chapter in the Oregonian odyssey.
It appears that Towner's words about rebirth were almost apocalyptic. Northwest Passage saw a musically recast Oregon. The percussive element of the group is completely different from what we had heard form the band throughout the Walcott years and the albums made with Trilok Gurtu behind his array of percussion instruments. Tuncboyaciyan has a distinct, wild and folksy east European style and brought a Bartokian sensibility to "Don't Knock on My Door", "Under a Dorian Sky" and "Under The Mountain" - the tracks he contributed to - both as musician and co-composer. Walker, already a master at Latin rhythms, from graduating in the Paco D'Rivera school, fed Towner's voracious appetite for dipping into the Brazilian sensibility that pursues him like a second shadow. His 'hot' style contrasted delightfully with Towner's saudades for 'alegria' and - it seemed - McCandless' yen for the same as well! "Lost In The Hours" (McCandless) and "Yet To Be" (Towner) are outstanding examples of the synergy between the Oregonians and their percussionist. Even Tuncboyaciyan makes joyful turns in "Take Heart" and "Claridade" - both Towner pieces. And the last, title track is a tour de force of an Oregonian canvas, with Towner's keyboards driving the group into the mythical passage that the band paints on a wet and imaginary musical canvas.
Three years after Northwest Passage Oregon pulled off yet another miracle. The group journeyed to Moscow with Steve Rodby, their new producer and virtually another member of the group, to make Oregon In Moscow, with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra conducted with George Garanian. For thirty years before that, Oregon music has always had a strong relationship with orchestral music - as much as it has had with the far side of jazz, Latin, Indian and other musical dialects. In Towner's words, not only have the use of double reeds and, of course his own use of the piano and classical guitar, given the band the unique identity and expansive sound associated with symphonic orchestras, but it was as much a question of composition, and presentation of the music. The close attention to details of articulation, dynamics, phrasing and tonal production derived from the band members' own classical studies.
So Oregon In Moscow was conceived and delivered much like a precious child with meticulous detail. If any one Oregon project can lay claim to being a masterpiece, this record would be it. (Although, I also believe that Crossing (1985) and Troika (1994) have also taken Oregon to great heights in the history of the band.)