The West Coast ensemble The Ocular Concern meekly touts their product as “Music for the Curious Listener,” but that belies a whole lot of adventure contained within their songs. Dan Duval (electric guitar) and Andrew Oliver (electric piano) are the composers and linchpins behind this Portland, Oregon-based quintet, who, in a jazz world full of acts trying to stand out and be creative, truly are. At least, that’s my big takeaway from their upcoming release Sister Cities.
Augmented by Stephen Pancerev (drums), Lee Elderton, clarinet and Nathan Beck, (vibraphone and mbira), The Ocular Concern smashes boundaries between jazz, chamber music and world fusion. And if the combination of instruments both modern and traditional playing this music makes it seem even more unconventional, well, that’s because it is.
The centerpiece of this album is the four part “Sister Cities Suite,” where the base quintet is expanded by a violin/viola/cello string trio and a bandoneon (Argentinian accordion). Now, it gets even more curious.
“Sister Cities” is the first of the four, a delicately through-composed segment, paced like a classical piece but often sounding like fusion jazz – especially when Oliver solos – and at another point you hear the sounds of palmas (percussive handclapping) that reference flamenco. “Portland In Reverse” is also episodic, but flows smoother and features an appealing spotlight for Elderton. “Ghost Town City Council” has this Western vibe lurking in the background amidst a sophisticated, refined arrangement. That is, until Duval’s heavy guitar erupts out from nowhere near the end. And finally, “The Island Milonga” sports a festive, tango rhythm, where that bandoneon shares the center stage with Beck’s vibraphone and Oliver’s Rhodes.
At first, I thought the presence of an accordion with the vibes and a clarinet made The Ocular Concern a sort of plugged-in Claudia Quintet, but actually, Duval’s and Oliver’s composition styles that are reflective of the detailed, intelligent approach of Claudia leader John Hollenbeck is what makes this ensemble similar to Hollenbeck’s wonderful invention.
That becomes clear on the non-suite songs, too, when the bandoneon or those strings aren’t around. “The Ocular Concern” (the song) has all the nuanced cadence of the formal-sounding suite leveraging modern, odd-meters that flow out in close coordination with the melody. That sets the table for Elderton’s mint clarinet solo as the band building up behind him on the strength of Pancerev’s increasingly strident pulse. And the global of music abounds on these other tracks, too: “Lafayette” is driven by a southern African rhythm set to a hopeful, catchy melody.
The Ocular Concern is NYC gumption, imagination and chops on the other side of the country. Topped off by the discriminating songwriting tandem of Dan Duval and Andrew Oliver, Sister Cities is, sure enough, music for the Curious Listener. I’d add “discerning” and “adventurous” listeners. All these types of listeners will be richly rewarded by this record.
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Sister Cities is due out January 15 by PJCE Records. Visit the Ocular Concern’s website for more info.