Virtuoso jazz musician Dan Balmer will open the 2024 PDXJazz Festival concert starring Grammy-nominated guitarist Julian Lage on Feb. 28 at Portland’s Revolution Hall. A generation or so younger than Balmer, the innovative Lage has a reputation for “impeccable technique, free association, and the spirit of infinite possibility,” according to his press materials.
Balmer? The same credentials apply, except that he’s a hometown boy. He has stuck around Portland for six decades, performed regularly and sometimes exhaustively, and taught guitar at Lewis & Clark College since he graduated in 1980, majoring in economics. His father, Don Balmer, was a political science professor for 50 years at Lewis & Clark, and the younger Balmer carries on the family’s teaching legacy at the Portland liberal arts college.
Aside from teaching, he has continued to maintain a high profile as a Northwest jazz guitarist, performing with everyone from pianist Tom Grant in Grant’s prime to Pink Martini to the progressive Trio Subtonic, and with his own band, Dan Balmer Group. Add to that his many appearances with national and international heavyweights like Joey DeFrancesco, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Les McCann, Javon Jackson and Karrin Allyson, Benny Golson, Jeff Hamilton, Gerald Clayton, John Clayton, Duduka da Fonseca, Kendrick Scott, Taylor Eigsti, Buddy De Franco, Bruce Forman and many others. The list goes on and on.
A guy like Balmer makes music with a lot of musicians, and he has been doing that for a long time. He has been playing since he got his first guitar at 11 years old. His mother, Betty Balmer, was a piano teacher and music was a household staple in the family, which included three older brothers. “I loved music from my first memory and was always moved by it,” Balmer said in a December interview. He found refuge in playing, and later, some pocket money. He began gigging in coffee shops (and in one bar) at 15. “It makes you feel like you’ve been around forever. Which may be true.”
Then in 1976, 19-year old guitarist Pat Metheny amped up Balmer’s enthusiasm. When Balmer was a student at Portland’s then-Jackson High School, there was no separating the teen-ager, who loved the Byrds and Creedence Clearwater Revival back then, from his instrument after he heard Metheny’s Bright Size Life. “It was one of the most counterrevolutionary jazz albums ever,” Balmer said, who named a song for Metheny on his new CD, When the Night, though in characteristic playful fashion, Balmer titled it “Lifesize Bright.”
Balmer has worn his signature black beret, and more recently a baseball hat, for 25 years (“not a bad idea when you’re losing your hair,” he joked). Whichever style the hat, he has not stopped being an original, energetic and accessible musician. “I want to reach regular people.”
He has made 15 CDs, if you count three by his former group, Go by Train, and several with pianist/arranger Clay Giberson. His first record, the 1988 upbeat Becoming Became showing his fancy fretwork, was a national hit and fell into the smooth jazz/pop jazz genre. His music has since changed and become more unpredictable and innovative. He says he didn’t get rich or famous with his newer CDs, but he has remained creative and compelling and often comes up with original poetic song titles. Being a verbal guy, he’s one of the few jazz musicians who likes to explain his music.
When the Night was released in November this year after a five-year hiatus. He and accompanying national musicians, keyboardist Gary Versace, who once taught at University of Oregon, and drummer Rudy Roysten, join him on the nine-cut 50-minute album. Balmer said both musicians “understood” his music to the core. Balmer joined them in New Jersey to record the CD earlier this year, and they joined him at a packed Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concert Nov. 10 at Lewis & Clark.
The CD is melodic, emotional, autobiographical, even confessional. It is spiked with ballads. “Ballads are the one time you can be like pop music and really move people,” he said. “Love Ballad (Two Words)” is a harmonically complex stand-out. The CD’s title cut, “When the Night,” evokes a country vibe, suggestive of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ or Byrds’ influence, and “Never Leave,” written for his brother in the midst of an illness, are the obvious ballads. I’d slip “Seattle” into that category, though Balmer doesn’t.
“For Wes (for my Favorite)” is a tribute to guitar giant Wes Montgomery, but no good reason surfaced to call it that, really, said Balmer–though a short oboe part in Montgomery’s “That Rainy Day,” is echoed by part of Balmer’s tune. “It’s a pretty obscure reference,” Balmer said. “But he’s the guy.”
His most cheerless tune, “It Felt Like Drowning (Last Divorce Song),” is a cathartic reference to his recent divorce. “It is a dark and angry tune,” he said, and a follow-up to “Where Has She Gone, Where Did She Go,” another ballad on the 2018 Not A, The. But that’s it. Those two tunes are enough about his break-up, he said.
Now in his 60s, but still racking up 250 gigs a year, Balmer said he might not rank among the “coolest” musicians these days, but he remains a hard-working, inventive musician and dedicated teacher. Today, aside from leading jazz combos at Lewis & Clark, he works with Lincoln High School jazz students and especially gets a kick out of teaching the least experienced musicians. “I was playing bass with their lowest combo, playing `Jingle Bell Rock’ the other day and I thought: I’d rather be doing this than sitting on the beach. I love talking about how jazz works. I like to ask `are you telling a story here?’ I love contributing. I love to play.”