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Live Reviews

Norwegian Jazz 101: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008

By Published: May 16, 2008
Andy Sheppard's Saxophone Massive and Oregon

Saturday in Stavanger brings everyone out to the streets, especially when the weather was so warm and clear (as it was for the entire duration of the JNiaN trip). British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, known for his work with Carla Bley and collaborative albums including his fine duet disc with guitarist John Parricelli, P.S. (Provocateur, 2003), put on a performance that could possibly end up in the Guinness Book of Records for the most saxophonists on a single stage. With one hundred saxophonists performing in a piazza before periodically heading onto a small stage in subsets or as a whole, Sheppard created an electronics-augmented soundscape that took advantage of the great range and aural depth of saxophones ranging from soprano to baritone.

align=center>JazzNorway in a Nutshell / Andy Sheppard / Saxophone Massive Andy Sheppard / Saxophone Massive



Sheppard's ability to vertically layer so many saxophonists to create a sound that went beyond normal expectations, coupled with a number of strong soloists, created a 45-minute set that was as impressive for its musicianship as it was for its pure spectacle. Periodic passages of dark electronics set a context that contrasted with the bright and sometimes buoyantly rhythmical playing of over one hundred saxophonists of ages ranging from juniors to seniors. With a conductor positioned in the crowd, perhaps fifteen meters from the stage, what was equally remarkable about the performance was how well coordinated it was, given that the musicians didn't have any sheet music with them. The leader of the project may not be Norwegian, but his fearless ability to pursue an unwieldy idea to such a successful conclusion fit in with the Norwegian aesthetic of no boundaries, where nothing is impossible.

One of the few non-Norwegian groups to be featured in an evening performance, Oregon arrived in Stavanger on May 9, hot off a tour of the American west coast. Arriving at their hotel at 6:30 pm, rather than settle in, they immediately went to Jon Balke's performance, further evidence of the pianist's reputation amongst musicians. Playing in the same venue (St. Petri Kirke), the group, together now for 38 years with the exception of drummer/percussionist Mark Walker—who joined guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless and bassist Glen Moore in the mid-1990s, beginning with the 1996 Intuition disc, Northwest Passage—put on a performance that makes clear the benefit of long-term musical relationships.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell / Ralph Towner / Oregon

Playing material largely from its last two discs—Prime (Cam Jazz, 2005) and 1000 Kilometers (Cam Jazz, 2007), the latter receiving two unexpected but well-deserved Grammy nominations—Oregon performed with an energy and connectedness that was rare, even for a group who has always achieved an uncanny simpatico. Towner's "Redial," from Ecotopia (ECM, 1987), was an early highlight, with a new intro and slightly brighter tempo. Walker's ability to simultaneously work with an array of hand percussion and a conventional drum kit continues to evolve, sometimes sounding uncannily like two percussionists. The arrangement of an older Towner tune, the title track to Distant Hills (Vanguard, 1974) but featuring a new passage first heard on Live at Yoshi's (Intuition, 2002) and driven by Towner's arpeggiated programming, was unexpectedly powerful, despite the tune's inherent darkness.

A mid-set duet with Moore and Walker was another high point. Moore has always been an undervalued bassist with a deep sense of melody coupled with a dry sense of humor that imbues the music, even at its most serious. Both seemed possessed with a Puckish sense of mischief, and created a more energetic contrast to Towner's pastoral "Green and Golden." Walker's "Deep Six," from 1000 Kilometers and the track nominated for the Grammy, was a blend of strong solos and a knotty but propulsive groove. Now with the band for thirteen years, Walker is nearing becoming the group's longest-standing drummer, despite the unmistakable importance of original percussionist Collin Walcott. He brings a stronger sense of swing to the group, even though that swing is rarely of the conventional kind.

Towner, whose classical guitar and piano work has evolved into a harmonic language all is own, continues to be the group's primary writer and, along with McCandless, principle soloist. But make no mistake, Oregon is a democratic collective, with Moore perhaps taking less solo space, but providing a strong contrapuntal contrast that goes far beyond rhythm section anchor.

align=center>JazzNorway in a Nutshell / Oregon Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless, Mark Walker, Glen Moore



With a history as long as Oregon's, one can expect any performance to be a good one, as their 2007 show in Montreal made clear. But its Stavanger performance was especially strong, with the set ending with what is most likely an Oregon first. Towner's new (and, as yet, unrecorded) tune, "In Stride" was nearly anthemic and, with a bright groove from Walker and Moore and joyful melody from Towner and McCandless, actually had the audience clapping along. Its often-played encore, Jim Pepper's "Witchi Tai To" ended the show on another high note. That Oregon only does limited touring each year is a shame; but the chemistry between its four members is such that whenever they reconvene for either a tour or recording, it's as if no time has passed.

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