Blue Cranes – Swim (2013)

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It would be easy to assume that a discussion about a record produced by the Decembrists’ Nate Query and featuring a guest spots by the tUnE-yArDs’ Noah Bernstein and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin is a discussion about an indie rock record, but since this is the Blue Cranes we’re talking about here, it’s a little more complicated than that. Complicated, but not problematic.

The last time this five piece band from Portland, Oregon had made a record, we got a kick out of how they were able to apply indie rock sensibilities to jazz, or something resembling jazz, and make music that split the difference but not dilute anything. Observatories demonstrated the combo’s unique ability to do that, devising rich melodies, alternatively improvising and playing to score when you don’t expect them to. And shaping their sound around a two-saxophone front line (Reed Wallsmith, alto sax; Joe Cunningham, tenor sax), keyboards (Rebecca Sanborn), a standup bass (Keith Brush) and drums (Ji Tanzer). No guitar.

Three years later, Swim solidifies their signature sound, It’s Sanborn’s coarse electric piano and the husky sax duo that give it an indie rock sound without the help of a single guitar, except for last track. Meanwhile for five of these nine songs, a viola/cello trio made up of Patti King , Kyleen King and Anna Fritz smooth out those rough edges and clarify the harmonies. They make the chorus swell on “Everything Is Going To Be Okay,” add to the resolute throb amidst swirling brass on “Cass Corridor,” while violist Eyvind Kang (Bill Frisell), gets “Great Dane Small Horse” to a jaunty start with devilish viola.

Additional horns by Berlin (baritone sax), Bernstein (alto sax), Chad Hensel (bass clarinet), Patrick Finley (trombone) and Gus Baum (trumpet) contribute in a dramatic way to that one-note thump of “Cass Corridor” and add poignancy to Wallsmith’s solemn, intricate “For Chris.”

The core band remains at the heart of every performance, however. “Beautiful Winners” blends the crunch of an electric keyboard with a sax front, establishing what this band is about: rock attitude, indie pop melody and jazz gumption. “Polarnatt” begins with a repeating figure but then they layer it and evolve it and cap it off with a pretty alto sax solo by Wallsmith. They modulate the mood masterfully on “Soldier,” which is highlighted by a quiet middle where Brush solos, followed by a fragile one by from Wallsmith.

Avant garde leanings flair up here and there (Cunningham threatens to go off the deep end during “Everything Is Going To Be Okay”), but “Painted Birds” is their most adventurous track overall. Launched by another throbbing single note from Sanborn’s Rhodes, but with more variation this time. There is some intimate interaction amongst everyone sounding somewhat like Bitches Brew, until the song is brought back up from the group improv, bolstered by those viola/cello section.

“Goldfinches,” by contrast, brings the album to an end on a spiritual note, a gentle and majestic folk tune spotlighted by Cooper McBean’s (The Devil Makes Three) musical saw, and a Charlie Haden styled bass solo by Brush.

A deeper, denser excursion than their prior output, Swim manages to stay afloat amidst the rough waves they make, because the members of the Blue Cranes invest a lot of trust in each other, and it’s a trust that pays off in a record that brings together the parts into a beautiful mess.

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Swim dropped on June 4, through Cuneiform Records. Visit the Blue Cranes’ website for more info. Feature photo credit: Jen Downer/She Saw Things.

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