Oregon: Ecotopia (ECM 1354)

Oregon
Ecotopia

Trilok Gurtu tabla, percussion
Paul McCandless oboe, English horn, soprano saxophone, wind-driven synthesizers
Glen Moore bass
Ralph Towner classical and 12- string guitars, piano, synthesizers, drum machine
Recorded March 1987 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Carlos Albrecht, Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The stars of Ecotopia, Oregon’s third and final album for ECM and one wounded by the absence of Colin Walcott, are undoubtedly Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless. One could easily be content in listening to just the two of them for the album’s 50-minute duration, pairing so gorgeously as they do on tracks like “Zephyr.” As it is, we get a rich sound palette that, while a definite shift from what came before, speaks to a mode of experimentation that is therapeutic and adventurous. McCandless’s lines in “Twice Around The Sun” are somewhat lost in the cheapening synthesizer, but make for a light-footed introduction all the same. Thankfully, Glen Moore’s bass and Trilok Gurtu’s percussion steer this vessel into more organic waters. As the group swings in retrograde, Moore works his corona through a shower of bells and stardust. Piano and reeds fall behind silhouetted mountains, leaving Gurtu to ponder the landscape with nimble footsteps, writing the history of a savannah without wind. “Innocente” is the album’s zenith, a wondrous journey in which Towner rides a wave of table beneath McCandless’s lone seagull, who touches wing to water with every chromatic dip. His reeds sound absolutely resplendent, every note a thin ray of sunlight gathered in able grasp. After a brief throwaway improvisation (“WBAI”), the title track vindicates the use of electronics, while the swanky late-night stroll of “Leather Cats” does not. Thankfully, McCandless’s soprano wins out in this conversation. Towner lays down the groovy backbone of “ReDial,” which Gurtu and McCandless are more than willing to flesh out with all manner of delicate venation. Towner outdoes himself and brings his gentle cascade to bear on a smooth finish. “Song Of The Morrow” also makes beautiful use of synthesizers and ends this colorful and classic album which, despite its unnecessary forays into technology, is now assured of its status as one of ECM’s Touchstones.

Oregon: Crossing (ECM 1291)

Oregon
Crossing

Paul McCandless oboe, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, English horn
Glen Moore bass, flute, piano
Ralph Towner Prophet 5 synthesizer, piano, cornet, classical guitar, 12-string guitar, percussion
Collin Walcott tabla, percussion, sitar, snare drum, bass drum
Recorded October 1984 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Anyone who’s ever wondered what all the Oregon buzz was about need only listen to the first 30 seconds of “Queen Of Sydney” to recognize the signature beauty they created. Their ability to fashion such a polygonal sound from its simple ostinato is something to cherish and typical of the group’s quiet charm. In this gentle weave of sustained melodic and percussive colors, one finds a storm waiting to undress itself in the light of dawn. Collin Walcott’s tabla uncorks a fine groove in “Pepe Linque” as Paul McCandless dances his soprano sax through a cloudy corridor toward the “Alpenbridge.” This track is the sonic equivalent of Walcott’s cover photograph, walking steadily above the clouds in a space where civilization is nothing more than a passing notion. Further joys course through the veins of “Travel By Day” and the softly peaking wave of “Kronach Waltz.” As its title would imply, “The Glide” goes down easy, thanks in no small part to bassist Glen Moore’s smooth lines. “Amaryllis” then curls its acoustic fingers around a softly swelling rope of sound, pulled higher by an ethereal oboe into the glistening title track, which ends in a delicate conversation.

Crossing is even more highly evolved than Oregon’s self-titled predecessor for ECM. So much of this music lives in the sky, treating its earthen vamps as mere springboards for the comfort of suspension. Crisp with equal parts sunshine and pastoral night, it is a fitting ode to the diurnal. A real treat for the ears, yet even more so for the soul.

Oregon: s/t (ECM 1258)

 

Oregon
Oregon

Paul McCandless reeds, flute
Glen Moore bass, violin, piano
Ralph Towner guitar, piano, synthesizer
Collin Walcott sitar, percussion, voice
Recorded February 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

By the time of this self-titled ECM debut, the collective known as Oregon had firmly established its uncategorizable sound on a host of recordings for Vanguard. From the cover photograph, which stands as one of the more confounding choices in ECM history, those unfamiliar with Oregon would probably never guess that the music it sleeves could be so ethereal. Oregon finds the group still in its original incarnation with Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, and Collin Walcott (in one of his last sessions with the group before his life was tragically ended in a 1984 car crash).

The opening chords of “The Rapids” render some of the album’s more compositionally minded passages (the others being McCandless’s “Beside A Brook” and two pieces from Moore, of which the winged “Arianna” stands out). And yet, while rays of light shoot from McCandless’s soprano, the music’s percussive colors are what really hold our attention. Oregon doesn’t so much cross into as over idioms, as exemplified to pointillist effect in the droning “Beacon.” These sustained emotions continue later in “Skyline,” before carrying us into “Impending Bloom,” the rhythms of which burst like an organic ancestor of Aphex Twin’s “Alberto Balsalm.” It also constitutes a meta-descriptive statement for Oregon’s musical process, where the idea of profusion is but a memory on the slope toward a different kind of light. It moves with the persistence of a small locomotive, soprano saxophone flirting with the snake of smoke above it. The evocative “Taos” is another highlight, so adroitly negotiating as it does subterranean thrums with high flutes. The crepuscular guitar and wayfaring bass clarinet of “There Was No Moon That Night” form yet another.

I must confess that, despite Oregon’s legendary status, I was only recently introduced to their music via this recording. A magical experience. As I understand it, those more well-versed than I in Oregon lore tend to look down upon this album, so who knows how my relationship with it might change as I begin to familiarize myself with the more classic material. Whatever may come, I know I’ll always appreciate this date for having shown me the way.