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Oregon: Prime

John Kelman By

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Given most marriages don't last 35 years, the fact that three of perennially genre-busting group Oregon's four founding members have remained together so long—and there's little doubt that if Colin Walcott had not tragically died in a car accident in '84, he'd still be around too—is truly remarkable. Sure, there are a few old warhorse rock and roll bands like the Rolling Stones who've been around longer. But given the mercurial and significantly less-recompensable nature of jazz, guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless, and bassist Glen Moore's ability to continue to evolve and find new things to say makes them a definite anomaly in the jazz landscape.

Their latest release also features more recent recruit Mark Walker, who, having been with the group since '97's Northwest Passage, is Oregon's longest-standing percussionist since Walcott's untimely passing. Prime demonstrates just how they've taken influences from a variety of spaces over the years—jazz, folk, classical, ethnic music of India and Brazil, and more—and integrated them in ways that eliminate delineation, developing a unique language imitated but never copied. Their strongest album in years, Prime also reconnects the group with recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug and Rainbow Studio in Oslo, Norway. This is the first time they've recorded there since their short tenure with the ECM label in the mid-'80s, and the result is an album whose sonic excellence matches its exceptional writing and performances.

As always, Towner provides the lion's share of the writing. It's as much about his unique way of voicing as specific melodic and rhythmic concerns, and it remains instantly recognizable but never predictable. In its pastoral folksiness, "If" bears some resemblance to earlier pieces like "Green and Golden," but its odd meter and deceptively difficult changes provide characteristic yet fresh grist for Towner and McCandless' advanced improvisational acumen, which remains uncannily lyrical in the face of harmonic adversity.

And while some have accused Oregon of becoming softer and less edgy over the years, Towner's three-part "Monterey Suite," some of his best writing in recent years, lays waste to that suggestion. While lacking the sharp angularity of some of his earlier work, the complex nature of the first part, "Dark," still comes from a shadowy place similar to "Distant Hills," even as Walker's kit work gives it less idiosyncratic but more dynamically-building forward motion. The second movement, "Tammurriata," vividly proves that Towner's creative sense of counterpoint is still intact.

As always, a number of brief free pieces act almost as way stations along the disc's greater narrative arc, and it has the same inherent sense of purpose that has always differentiated Oregon's spontaneous improvisations, which are more about texture and ambience than mere notes and pulses.

Moore contributes two pieces, most notably a reprise of "Pepe Linque" from '85's Crossing which, with Walker's shuffle beat and Towner's blues/gospel piano, is the closest Oregon has ever come to boogie. Proof that, with Prime, despite the kind of familiarity that can only come from so many years together, Oregon still has more than a few tricks up its sleeve.


Track Listing: If; An Open Door; Toledo; Hoedown; Solar Flare: Castle Walk; Moonrise; Pepe Linque; Monterey Suite--Dark--Tammurriata--Mountain King; Cleguerec; Doff

Personnel: Paul McCandless: oboe, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, sopranino; Ralph Towner: classical and 12-string guitar, synth guitar, piano, keyboards; Glen Moore: bass, stick bass; Mark Walker: drums, hand percussion, drum synthesizer.

Title: Prime | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: CAM Jazz

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