Oregon: In Stride
With a shared history of 40 years amongst three of its four membersand a fourth now rivaling the group's co-founder, the late Collin Walcott, as percussionist with the longest tenure, it's almost redundant to discuss the inherent chemistry shared amongst the members of the genre-busting Oregon. Woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless, guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner and bassist Glen Moore go so far back togetherpredating Oregon in the Paul Winter Consort , where they appeared on lost gems including Road (A&M, 1970) and Icarus (Epic, 1972)that there would be something wrong if they didn't interact on a deeper, near-mitochondrial level than most. Still, few groups speak a language so instantly identifiable as Oregon's, and with In Stridethe group's 26th album, and third for the Italian Cam Jazz label, following 2005's Prime and 2007's 1000 KilometersOregon has delivered one of the best albums in recent years by drawing a clear and unmistakable line between its origins in the 1970s and where it is now, in the 21st century.
As usual, Towner is the group's primary writer and, as has also been the group's habit for the past several albums, he revisits two older compositions. Taken at a brighter tempo, "Song for a Friend" is pared down to a duet between Towneron 12-string guitar, the instrument he's made his own, despite rarely touring with one these daysand McCandless on English horn, contrasting the full-group version of Distant Hills (Vanguard, 1974) but still relatively reverent to the original. Reprising "Summer's End," from Towner's last ECM disc to feature a full group, Lost and Found (1996), his decision to turn to piano this time, rather than the original's classical guitar, more clearly speaks to the influence of the late Bill Evans on both his playing and writing.
Amongst the six new Towner compositions, the opening "Hop-To-It" makes clear that Mark Walker's use of a full kit may appear more conventional than Walcott and subsequent percussionist Trilok Gurtu's arsenal of hand percussion and tablas, but only on the surface. Where his predecessors were deeply ensconced in the music of India, Walker's reference point comes more decidedly from the Latin world (he's been Paquito D'Rivera's drummer for over 20 years)though even that marker is deeply subsumed in the kind of seamless, pan-cultural integration that's defined Oregon since inception. His sole compositional contribution, " Nação," suggests growing strength as a writer, with Towner's synth guitar creating a warm pad beneath his classical guitar; Moore's pliant bass locking, hand-in-glove, with Walker's second line-informed pulse; and McCandless' soaring soprano saxophone.
As ever, Moore's compositional contribution brings a quirky levity to the album's overall arc, his duet with Walker, "The Cat Piano," alternating between curiously skewed Scott Joplin-esque arco harmonies and lithe pizzicato. McCandless' syncopated "Petroglyph," with 12-string guitar and piano overdubbed in support of his ascending and cascading oboe, feels like a logical evolution of Oregon circa Out of the Woods (Elektra, 1978), as Walker combines hand percussion with delicate cymbal work.
There are those who consider Oregon's glory days to be in the past, but with dark-hued and nuanced tracks like Towner's "As She Sleeps" and the brighter "On the Rise"a compelling combination of vivid lyricism, redolent of Towner's two-decade Italian residence and a potent demonstration of his unique approach to guitar, moving from upper to lower registers in almost call-and-response fashionthere's plenty to recommend, and no sign of the tired predictability that plagues some longstanding collectives. And despite Towner's compositional dominance, Oregon is an egalitarian ensemble. Only the title track seems a tad out of place, a near-anthemic piece, driven by Walker's buoyant groove, Towner's blending of classical and synth guitar tones, and McCandless' fetchingly optimistic melody. But while resorting to a rather atypical backbeat, Towner and McCandless' effortless navigation through the song's relentlessly shifting changesand one of Towner's most impressive solos of the setkeeps it well within the Oregon continuum, bringing In Stride to a strong, definitive close.
A close to an album that would be impressive under any circumstances, but when coming from a group that, entering its fifth decade, has largely managed to avoid repetition and easy predictability, In Stride is nothing but sure indication that, rather than winding down with age, Oregon has plenty of promise still ahead.
Tracks:Hop-To-It; As She Sleeps; Nação; Summer's End; On the Rise; Glacial Blue; Aeolus; Song for a Friend; Petroglyph; The Cat Piano; In Stride.
Personnel: Paul McCandless: oboe, English horn, soprano saxophone, flutes; Ralph Towner: classical, 12-string and synth guitar, piano; Glen Moore: double-bass; Mark Walker: drums, hand percussion.