Blue Cranes – Observatories (2010)

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photo: Jason Quigley

by S. Victor Aaron

Although we don’t really cover indie rock on our little corner of the blogzine world, I’m often intrigued by musicians who approach jazz from the indie angle. They don’t swing and they usually don’t try to dazzle with labored technique. Most times the compositions aren’t these tedious, multi-sectioned pieces with the intricacies of classical music (otherwise, it would be prog rock). What the indie-inclined crowd do bring to the table is a group collective disposition, an attention to melody and harmony, and a belief in textures and mood.

That could aptly describe the Portland, Ore. quintet Blue Cranes.

Blue Cranes, led by alto sax player and composer Reed Wallsmith, has made fans from Wayne Horvitz to Claudia Quintet leader John Hollenbeck. The reason for this is rooted in playing a kind of music that’s probing but is easy to embrace. Last Tuesday, Blue Cranes introduced their 3rd album, Observatories, a self-released undertaking.

Joining Wallsmith is Joe “Sly Pig” Cunningham on tenor sax, Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, Keith Brush on bass and Ji Tanzer on drums. A dual sax front line isn’t quite what you’d expect from a band that doesn’t swing. It’s not just about the band configuration, however, it’s how it’s exploited. I’d even go on to say that how they capitalize on the two-sax front is the very thing that defines the character of this album.

This band is really good at coming up with circular melodies, layering on it, modulating the sonic space, and tossing in countering lines. The cyclical melodies are evident in Hortvitz’s “Love, Love, Love” (video below) and the punchy “Ritchie Bros.,” but is executed most masterfully on the melancholy “Maddie Mae (Was A Good Girl).” On this piece, a lone sax states the beautiful melody, joined on the second bar by a harmonizing sax, and then more layers of saxes are added with contrapuntal lines. A violin, viola and cello section comes in, before the acoustic bass and drums finally enter. The layers are washed aside, leaving only the rhythm section, Timothy Young (Horvitz’s guitarist), and Sly Pig. Both Pig and Young take turns at solos, with Young’s guitar sounding appropriately tortured.

“Yellow Ochre” is a quiet, Americana type tune that Bill Frisell would be rather proud to call his own. Not only does guest guitarist Young sounds a little like Bill, but Wallsmith is just singing the lyrical line on his sax instead of improvising. And for this song, that works just fine. The closing track “Here Is You, Here Is Me” might be the most imaginative track of the whole set. Starting off with some nifty delicate percussion, Wallsmith launches the choral theme with Sly Pig chiming in with a countering line and all seems to be rolling along predictably when the songs stops on a dime and Wallsmith goes berserk with an Ayler-esque freakout. Pig soon re-enters with the theme and the drummer Tanzer and the rest of the band is swayed to follow him back to the song. Wallsmith, meanwhile, manages to get his lines in while he continues to play skronk jazz in the gaps!

It’s just that kind sense of adventure that makes Blue Cranes a lot of fun to listen to as they strike the right balance of seriousness—but not too much seriousness—when they get experimental. Best of all, their experimentation is the kind that serves the songs, which is a good strategy, since they are pretty strong in the songwriting department. Blue Cranes’ Observatories is one of those records that can get the indie crowd into jazz. Or the jazz crowd into indie rock? Or more likely, a place in the middle where both crowds can come together.

Visit their website here.

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