Listening back 2020: Oregon recordings from a fraught year

Good music in hard times: We can’t let 2020 slip away without noting some recordings by Oregon musicians, several explicitly in response to crisis.

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I know the last thing many of us want to do is revisit 2020. But we can’t let it slip away without spotlighting one final batch of musical recommendations gleaned from the many recordings Oregon musicians released last year. Some explicitly respond to the crises that plagued what ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks calls “The Year That Should Not Speak Its Name.” Others were made earlier and released last year. Whether soothing or invigorating, they’re all worth hearing even after the year they appeared.

With most Oregon music happening on our home screens and speakers rather than stages last year, we’ve been devoting more pixels to recordings than ever. This is the last of several recording roundups explicitly devoted to last year’s Oregon sounds, but our antennae are already a-quiver over some stimulating sounds already emanating from 2021, so stay tuned for more roundups. And if you enjoy this music, please help make sure Oregon musicians can continue to create it by buying or gifting it. Bandcamp passes 100 percent of proceeds from purchases made on the first Friday of each month to the artists. 


LISTENING BACK: UNSPEAKABLE 2020


Her Own Wings–The Music Of Gabriela Lena Frank

Although this is California music, it was recorded by Oregon musicians in the lovely acoustic of a wine barrel room during composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s residency at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. She’s also worked with Portland’s Third Angle New Music. And of course, its title is our state motto.

The album includes two sets of pieces for string quartet, 2001’s Leyendas (Legends) and the world premiere recording of 2010’s Milagros (Miracles), but the individual pieces also stand on their own as concentrated, potent miniatures. Although a lot of the music reviewed in this story is pretty sprawling and even diffuse, it’s refreshing to hear such tightly focused power. The quartets here display Frank’s characteristic rhythmic vitality, dramatic sensibility and emotional directness.

You can hear the disparate global influences from her multicultural heritage, as well as 20th century classical composers Bartok and Ginastera, but these are entirely original contemporary classical creations, and an excellent showcase for the distinctive chamber music of one of her generation’s most incisive American composers.

Fermi’s Paradox 

Ronn McFarlane & Carolyn Surrick 

Portland lutenist McFarlane and viola da gamba ace Surrick–best known for their work in the much admired early music-plus ensembles Baltimore Consort and Ensemble Galilei, respectively–are friends and mutual admirers. When the pandemic made rehearsals, recordings and tours by their respective widely scattered ensemble members impractical and unsafe, the two near-neighbors (they live 20 miles apart) teamed up for this refreshing duo release.

Sponsor

If the unexpected break in their regular schedules closed the usual door, it opened another. ”The locked down, minimalist, intense, and miraculous spring of 2020, which took so much from so many,” wrote Surrick, “allowed for this project to come to life.” It also gave the pair license to veer from their usual repertoire, and, wow, did they ever exercise it. Fermi’s Paradox ranges from Renaissance (Dowland, Marais, ) to Baroque (Telemann, O’Carolan, J.S. Bach), to various traditional folk tunes (Irish, English, Swedish) to rock.

On first listen, not paying attention to the track list, I was happily startled to hear an old fave, the Allman Brothers’ poignant classic “Little Martha,” which never fails to bring a tear, as composer Duane was killed a few weeks after recording it. Classic rock fans will also notice an even older lick that Paul Simon swiped for his ‘American Tune’ from Bach, who nicked it from some dude named Hassler. Thus does music evolve and endure.

Creative reinvention — along with the consummate artistry of these player-arrangers —  is also why such a diverse slate of sources all sounds so natural and organic together, even though little of it was originally composed for these instruments. Its appeal should be equally broad — to fans of classical, Baroque, and folk music alike.

Jazz and AdJazzcent

Porter Plays Frishberg – Unsung

Randy Porter Trio

The very idea of an album featuring the living legend Dave Frishberg’s songs without his deliciously wry lyrics is like ordering a martini without gin, or even vodka. After all, critics rate the Portland jazz composer/singer/pianist as one of jazz history’s finest lyricists, (“I’m Hip,” “Peel Me a Grape,” “My Attorney Bernie” and so many more), and over his storied six-plus decade career, his songs have been covered by everyone from Jimmy Rushing to Mel Tormé to Rosemary Clooney. He’s also played with mortals like Ben Webster and Carmen McRae.

But if any mere instrumentalist can fill that unfillable vacancy, it’s Portland pianist Randy Porter, who himself has played with legends including including Benny Golson, Freddy Hubbard, and Art Farmer, and scored a Grammy nomination for his 2017 album with Portland jazz diva Nancy King.

Ably abetted by bassist John Wiitala and drummer Todd Strait, Porter’s elegant, restrained improvisations stick close to Frishberg’s melodies while revealing emotional depths in his music that have maybe been obscured by the brilliance of his wordsmithing, making this swinging album a double revelation, for both composer and pianist.

The Lost Album

The Ocular Concern

Back in 2013, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble founder Andrew Oliver and co-leader Dan Duval recorded one of the finest Oregon jazz albums of the decade, Sister Cities. The sessions, the culmination of two years of sustained gigging around town as the band expanded and meshed, produced enough high quality music for a planned follow up. Those plans evaporated when Oliver moved to London. Happily for Oregon music, he returned this year, and he and Duval exhumed eight more tracks from the vaults or hard drive.

It was worth the wait. Each co-founder takes the lead on the tunes he authored, and their strong chemistry pervades the performances despite their differing yet equally compelling compositional approaches. Oliver’s loping electric keyboards, Duval’s slamming guitar riffs and propulsive lines (as well as mellower moments), and Lee Elderton’s sometimes placid, sometimes playful clarinet take the foreground. Nathan Beck’s vibraphone and mbira provide much more than colorful garnish, and drummer Stephen Pancerev holds it all together while driving the action forward.

The tunes are as colorfully varied in feel as the instrumentation. If on first listen, The Lost Album as a whole doesn’t quite scale its predecessor’s heights, its brightest moments blaze as hot as anything created by the Ocular Concern — or any other Portland jazz ensemble of the day. 

The Peripatetic Piano

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble

Oliver’s pulsating piano also kicks off PJCE’s Peripatetic Piano EP, but it’s a very different sound. It’s not just that this keyboard is acoustic instead of plugged in, but it’s from a different world: a vintage Pianola upright player piano, sans the player mechanism. Its retro vinegary flavor suits Oliver’s stomping stride piano style, one of his specialties, conceived a century ago in Harlem by such masters as James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton.

Recorded live (at safe distance) in North Portland’s Peninsula Park, the variegated album also boasts attractive contributions from veteran Kerry Politzer (reflective, buoyant and breezy), Charlie Brown III (pensive, soulful ballads from a young pianist who’s worked with Amine and pop and soul artists), and Blue Crane Rebecca Sanborn, who also chips in a pair of Joni Mitchellesque vocal numbers reminiscent of her pop work (Loch Lomond, Swansea). 

Live at the Marigny Opera House

Cyrus Nabipoor

Diversity also distinguishes the eloquent debut album from young Portland trumpeter Nabipoor, who like Devin Phillips is another product of the New Orleans diaspora that’s enriched Oregon music. Still in his 20s, he’s worked with musicians from Korgy & Bass to Jason Marsalis. Recorded in May 2019 at a historic church of the arts in his old hometown, this debut reveals a broad creative palette running from Big Easy jazz to rock to funk and more, including a Smiths cover. 

The Shape of Things

Rich Halley

Veteran Portland saxophonist Rich Halley also recorded his last two releases outside Oregon, including this latest hard-charging effort made in Brooklyn in August 2019 with the same excellent quartet featuring renowned pianist Matthew Shipp and a supportive rhythm section, who sound even tighter than their debut effort. It’s a combustible, at times spectacular serving of high-powered jazz energy from start to finish that should bring Halley even more of the long-overdue national attention he’s been winning lately. 

Seven Storey Mountain VI

Nate Wooley 

Since he left Portland for New York two decades ago, trumpeter/composer Nate Wooley has evolved beyond jazz to something bigger, broader, undefinable. “Evolution” also describes the astonishing sound in this monumental single track that over 45 minutes develops into a searing, soaring, overwhelming explosion of musical ecstasy. And it also summarizes the process of its creation, because this is the sixth incarnation of a decade-long song cycle (inspired by the famous Thomas Merton book) in progress.

In a process made possible only by studio technology, Wooley (a central player on Brooklyn’s noise/improvised music scene who’s played with everyone from John Zorn to the New York Philharmonic) draws on the past recorded SSM versions and live performances (for samples, loops and musical patterns), discards other elements, and adds new material — including, this time, interpolating a feminist folk song by Peggy Seeger. (He’s donating the album’s royalties to the National Council Against Domestic Violence.) The live musicians then play (often improvising) over the latest version of the pre-recorded sound file in a risky, collective process he calls Mutual Aid Music that “build[s] a distinct aural topography while still feeling grounded in the earlier versions of the piece.”

Although this latest version retains almost none of its original material, it’s expanded from that seed into a musical flowering of immense power — an expanding universe. 

Ambient

Last summer’s Oregon CD roundup highlighted ambient electronica as an antidote to the social stresses then acutely plaguing us. They’re still with us, alas, so I think there’s room on our playlists for more relatively soothing sounds.

Severed Seas, Heaven

Amulets

In his Amulets project, Portland’s Randall Taylor creatively combines sources old (audio cassette tapes, sometimes with audible hiss) and not so much (delay pedal, portable synth) to conjure a lovely, floating stillness that never recedes into austerity. Severed Seas deploys breath-length, long tones, on the lusher end of ambient music, while Heaven adds whispery vocals and deliberately paced bass, some serrated background noise guitar.

Quiescent, Redo

The OO-Ray

Portland electronic musician Ted Laderas’s ambient project returned with a couple of 2020 releases, following his duo release with occasional collaborator Marcus Fischer we told you about last time. Quiescent achieves its titular state via chiming guitar, stately cello, and sometimes charmingly retroambient electronics. Bonus: check out his brief, luminous “Rings and Whole Tones.”

Laderas offered the spare Redo as “my holiday gift to everyone. It’s a quiet piano piece to help you relax or sleep. Best listened to on loop.”

You can listen to it for free (as a looped video) here:

Two Installations

Visible Cloaks

Portland duo Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile return with a release compiling a pair of recent site-specific installation creations originally composed to complement their settings. The placid Gallery 211 was installed two years ago in the eponymous gallery in the European wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, which houses its inspiration, Francesco Mochi’s bust of (what is thought to be) St. John the Baptist. Beginning with a simple, melancholy repeating phrase, the “virtual ensemble” soundscape gradually brightens, as though emerging from clouds into a sunnier territory painted by what sounds like clarinet and percussion. 

Partly inspired by the sonorous tradition of English handbell ringing, the bubblier Stedman’s Senary was originally emitted by a circular 6 speaker array spread across the entire distance of Portland’s Cathedral Park in August 2016. According to the liner notes, “fixed FM synthesis tones are used to emulate bell resonance along with an arrangement for voice, pressure valve air and Armenian duduk animated within the 6 channel field using ambisonic panning, intended to mix with the natural soundscape of the park and surrounding anthropophony from the St. John’s bridge overhead.” Of course, the stereo version here can merely approximate the original environment, but it works just fine over twin speakers (including those wrapped around your noggin), especially in the trippier, percolating passages that give way to a reflective closing section, evoking the gradually encroaching summer gloaming. 

Heard other Oregon music ArtsWatch readers should know about? Let us know at music@orartswatch.org.

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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