It’s inevitable that Oregon be compared with easy-listening jazz, due to the instrumentation (heavy on the soprano sax) and the optimistic, relaxed sensibility of their music. But Oregon has more depth. All the members play multiple instruments with great subtlety, so even though the rhythms can be plodding at times, one can always find interesting sound colors in this music.
Composer Ralph Towner offers some fascinating synthesizer samples, but he uses these strange new sounds with discretion. Towner plays keyboards and guitar and also wrote all the pieces on this week’s program. In his compositions and his unassuming stage presence one can see the calm satisfaction he takes in his work.
Soloist Paul McCandless plays an impressive range of instruments. It’s not unusual for someone to be able to play both oboe and English horn, and even soprano sax, but this virtuoso is equally fluent on the bass clarinet (an entirely different beast), and other miscellaneous woodwinds.
McCandless’s technique is flawless. His fingers fly over the soprano sax as if it’s a piano, and he moves easily from one instrument to another. He fills up the tiny oboe with as rich and mellow a sound as his bass clarinet, treating us to a continuous wash of sound by circular breathing. Unlike his more famous contemporaries (I won’t name names) he does not resort to schmaltzy swells. In fact, his tone is fairly straight, enhanced only with the narrow vibrato characteristic of oboists.
New to Oregon is Mark Walker, whose drum set is hung with strings of gourds, tiny shells, bells, and fiberglass "birds." These plus his collection of maracas evoked tropical effects such as rainwater, shifting sand, and birdsong. Walker’s wirebrush-on-tom-tom and note-by-note changes of timbre made for an exciting solo. He and the other band members have an intrinsic rhythmic sense that made the audience bob their heads with glee.
Speaking of glee, Glen Moore was noticeably eager for the fourth number -- the only piece with an interesting bass part. It started with the eerie sound of his bow drawn across the edge of a cymbal, then drawn up the side of one of his bass strings. Moore’s high harmonics in this spooky piece were accompanied by bone-rattling sounds from Walker and a haunted, moody synth by Towner.
The Jazz Bakery, one of L.A.’s premiere jazz venues, is the place to come if you’re looking for a sure thing. It’s where people come to hear the music, not talk over it, so chairs are arranged in a concert-like venue. The cover is $20, with free parking and student discounts. Seating is casual plastic patio furniture, which though unglamorous sure beats a barstool for comfort.