End of Summer Sounds
Our semi-annual roundup of Oregon CD releases
by Brett Campbell
For two decades, Portland’s Third Angle new music ensemble has carried the torch for contemporary postclassical music in the Northwest. Their important release Sound of the Five (New World), featuring music of one of the world’s most exciting composers, should vault them near the summit of the national new music map with groups like Eighth Blackbird, Kronos Quartet and Alarm Will Sound. In recent years, TA formed a close connection with the ebullient Guangzhou-born Chen Yi, who was part of that amazing class of Chinese composers to emerge from the newly re-opened Central Conservatory and now teaches and composes in the U.S. While only one piece entirely originated in China, most look toward her homeland in some respect, incorporating folk tunes or imitating the sound of indigenous Chinese instruments such as the erhu fiddle, chi’in zither and hsiao flute. Her experience as a violinist informs much of the string writing here, and the band performs with real understanding and distinction throughout the wide range of emotional territory it covers. Half the pieces are for string quartet, while others include piano, flute, clarinet and percussion. This isn’t just one of the finest CDs by an Oregon ensemble I’ve ever heard — it’s one of the decade’s most compelling albums of postclassical chamber music.
Surprisingly, some music of the great American composer Aaron Copland remains hard to find on disk. A new DVD by Washington D.C.’s promising Post-Classical Ensemble marks the world premiere of his entire score for The City, a major 1939 documentary (written by Lewis Mumford) created for the New York World’s Fair. Written the year after Copland’s popular Billy the Kid ballet, it’s the finest of several film scores composed over the next few years in his popular “Americana” style. Fans of the Oregon Festival of American Music and anyone interested in urban planning — and isn’t everyone in Oregon? — will be fascinated by this document from the beginning of the urban sprawl period that posits a more humane alternative to incipient car culture. The disc also includes a featurette that updates the story, plus the original mono soundtrack, and more.
I’m not sure how a band of Oregonians regularly manages to make some of the world’s heartiest Celtic music, but Eugene’s Skye somehow pulls it off with every performance, and their enchanting new CD Storm Watch (skyecelticmusic.com) continues the magic. Everything — Michael Bardossi’s evocative fiddle, the band’s lucid arrangements, Glen Waddell’s guitars and pipes, the upbeat dance tunes — works winningly, but what really melts your heart is the beautifully blended harmony vocals of Lexy Wellman and Julia Heydon (both of whom play multiple instruments as well) on standout tracks like “An Paistin Fionn” and “Grey Funnel Line.”
In past and present performances, Portland’s Al-Andalus Ensemble has demonstrated its masterful devotion to the rich, multicultural sounds of 8th through 15th century Spain, when Muslims, Christians and Jews combined to create potent artistic hybrids. But their alluring new 21 Strings (ALA) finds flamenco guitarist Julia Banze, oud virtuoso Tarik Banzi and violinist Charley Bisharat (from Shadowfax) exploring new territory: original chamber music inspired by the Al Andalus period but speaking appealingly to contemporary ears. Fans of classical and world music will find it irresistible; I can’t keep it out of the CD player.
This year has seen some excellent jazz-related releases by Oregonians. Gary Christiansen’s Synthesized cultivates a light and breezy sound that will delight fans of Chick Corea’s more pop oriented ’70s work. Hashem Assadullahi’s impressive Strange Neighbor (8 Bells), featuring trumpeter Ron Miles, ranges from cabaret to character-painting to cinematic soundscapes. Assadullahi and other players from that record appear on Douglas Detrick’s quintet disc The Turning Point (8 Bells). Recorded at DIVA, it’s just as thoughtful and even more atmospheric, displaying well integrated influences beyond jazz yet swinging when the need arises. Both CDs sport nice work from guitarist Justin Morrell. Detrick’s AnyWhen Ensemble incorporates post-classical and other nonjazz elements (including cello and bassoon) in a poised, exploratory new recording, Walking Across. Like Detrick and Assadullahi, Portland pianist Ben Darwish is a UO graduate and has been tearing up his hometown jazz scene for the past few years; his vibrant new trio recording, Ode to Consumerism (recorded at PDX’s premier jazz club Jimmy Mak’s), offers bustling originals and covers of Green Day and Roberta Flack yet makes it all — save for a lilting, pensive take of Richie Beirach’s ballad “Broken Wing” — gallop along convincingly.
Mustn’t neglect the live music scene. Along with all the solid bands at the Eugene Celebration, world music lovers can catch fabulous Malian guitarist/singer Vieux Farka Toure at the WOW hall on September 8, and Paul Prince and Ken Soko’s new band Chibuku playing its blend of Congolese, Senegalese and Zimbabwean dance music at Cozmic Pizza on Sept. 11.