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Jazz | Jazz Review

Oregon Excels at Being Enigmatic and Eclectic

May 11, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The group Oregon always has been a bit difficult to decipher musically. In the '70s, they were one of the first ensembles to add world music elements--primarily via Collin Walcott's use of the sitar, tabla drums and dulcimer--and they were often grouped, inaccurately, among New Age ensembles. "Inaccurately" because Oregon also was quite capable of delivering solid, respectable, straight-ahead jazz performances.

More than two decades after they were founded, and 16 years after Walcott died in a car accident, Oregon is still a bit musically enigmatic. On Tuesday, in the opening set of a six-night run at the Jazz Bakery, the quartet once again offered a program that refused to be locked into any single category.

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The current lineup--original members Ralph Towner on guitar and piano, bassist Glenn Moore and multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless, with drummer Mark Walker--doesn't perform together with the regularity it did in the past, but their musical compatibility remains warmly intuitive.

The material was drawn from past recordings, from the relatively recent "Northwest Passage" album, and from an as-yet-unreleased new album. In most cases the character of each piece tended to be determined by the instrumentation.

When Towner was playing guitar, and McCandless performing on oboe or English horn--as on Towner's "Claridad"--the mood was usually serene and atmospheric (even though, in this case, it was underscored by a preset synthesizer loop).

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On other pieces--the humorously titled "I'll Remember August," for example--Oregon shifted into a more straight-ahead mode, usually featuring McCandless' driving soprano saxophone and Towner's thick piano chording.

And there was more: a new work by Moore structured around a kind of Russian musical subtext with the feeling of a Prokofiev march. A wildly adventurous avant-garde excursion through a free-improvisation universe. All of it was ably supported by Moore's classical-sounding bass and the remarkably subtle drumming of Walker.

Enigmatic and difficult to categorize, perhaps, but easy to appreciate. In Oregon's case, eclecticism is a true musical virtue.

BE THERE

Oregon at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., (310) 271-9039. Admission; $20 tonight and Friday at 8 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday at 7 and 8:30 p.m.; $22 Saturday at 8 and 9:30 p.m.

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