Sunday, August 29, 2010

Entering the ether with the Blue Cranes

By Barry Johnson

At several points during the Blue Cranes CD release concert Saturday night band leader Reed Wallsmith seemed to enter a transition state between body and spirit, hovering in the limbo world between the two. Which makes sense because that's a reasonable description of music, too, I suppose.  It wouldn't have been much of a surprise if he'd left us altogether -- his presence seemed that ethereal.

The music itself, the stage full of engaged collaborators (at one point 10 musicians joined together in the Alberta Rose Theatre), the happy crowd -- it's easy to see why Wallsmith might have left his human form behind for, well, something else.

The music of Blue Cranes on the new CD, "Observatories," isn't easy to convey because it's difficult to categorize.  Both Wallsmith on alto sax and drummer Ji Tanzer employ experimental, free jazz techniques, and occasionally the sound of the band dips in that direction, but soon it has migrated to lush harmonies and simple, sweet melodies. Sometimes Blue Cranes sounds like the back-up band for a rhythm and blues singer, sometimes like a chamber orchestra, sometimes like those wind-swept post-rock Euro bands such as Sigur Ros. And sometimes they sound like a "where the spirit takes me" jazz band, most often when Wallsmith is soloing.



The heart of the band is the sax duet of Wallsmith and Sly Pig, who can get the creamiest tone from his tenor sax when he wants to or let go with one of those whipsaw blues riffs that we know so well. Their individual playing can be moving, but together they are uncanny, how they insinuate themselves into each other's musical thoughts, the rhythmic lock they have on each other's tempo,  their sense of when to enter and when to depart, when to occupy and when to give ground. I watch them and want to be a better partner in all my enterprises.



I'm not going to get into the details of the new CD (Wayne Horvitz's "Love, Love, Love," above is the only cover on the album) beyond what I've already said. It takes me a while to get a fix on new music under the best of circumstances, let alone these, in which the approach is so eclectic.  It's hard to talk about the contribution of keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, for example, which sometimes seems limited to providing a chordal bedrock for the songs but then suddenly evolves into a winsome little duet with Tanzer's percussion.  Or Keith Brush's bass, which is similarly submerged much of the time, but then steps out, especially when the band invites a string trio onstage (Kyleen King, Anna Fritz and Marilee Hord played on the CD and I'm presuming they were also the musicians on stage). I guess I'm simply saying that my impressions at this point are pretty superficial, so I'll spare you.


I've written about the Blue Cranes once before, a little piece I originally intended as my first column in The Oregonian two Januaries ago. It was too long and maybe too "expansive" for a daily newspaper I suppose, and I substituted a different subject.  The column wasn't about the Blue Cranes, really, they just make an appearance at the beginning and then it starts to wander, to deal with the idea of noise, David Schiff's idea of composers as "differently eared," Charles Ives, the city and its sounds.  I'm not sure how many people ever read that column, but I liked it, and if you want to take a little side trip, I've just posted it on Arts Dispatch.

Ah, side trips. The Blue Cranes want to tour the continent by train, and they've started a Kickstarter campaign to do just that. Really, American should give a listen, right? If you want to help, here's the link.

I should also mention that Rebecca Gates (Spinanes!) and the Consortium and electronically enhanced sax soloist Jonathan Sielaff were delightful openers for Blue Cranes,  and I'll be looking for them in the future.