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American Musical Tapestries

From folk to jazz, Eugene bursts with the best American sounds
Black Prairie performs at The Shedd May 3
Black Prairie performs at The Shedd May 3

American “classical” music often finds a more welcome reception in choral concerts than in orchestra halls. Maybe it has something to do with the enormous popularity of choral music; nearly 30 million Americans — a tenth of the population — sing at least occasionally in a choir of some kind, whether it’s in school or church, amateur or professional. Maybe that’s why American folk and choral music sometimes seem like kissing cousins.

The April 26 Eugene Concert Choir performances at the Hult Center feature music by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Randall Thompson, plus traditional folk songs, gospel tunes and hymns, classics by Woody Guthrie and Louis Armstrong and music by longtime Eugene fave The Sugar Beets — a glorious mix of great music from various genres, in keeping with America’s varied cultural tapestry. Happily, the choir is also presenting a shorter version of the show, with classic country and folk tunes for kids (including young singers from around town) that morning in the Hult lobby — the better to pass on America’s rich choral legacy to future generations of listeners and singers.

Speaking of American folk music, one of the best purveyors of that tradition, the Ungar Mason Family Band, returns to The Shedd the eve of April 26. Featuring banjo, guitar, percussion, fiddle, ukulele and vocals, they’ll play traditional and original tunes, no doubt including Jay Ungar’s ever-popular “Ashokan Farewell.” The Shedd features a more contemporary American roots sound on May 3, when Portland’s Black Prairie (a spinoff of The Decemberists) returns with fiddle, guitars, accordion, drums and the band’s brand of American folk/bluegrass-meets-rock originals hot off their new album Fortune.

A much earlier American vocal music tradition appears on stage May 2 at First United Methodist Church, when the Seattle-based early music ensemble Baroque Northwest (featuring Baroque cello, flute, guitar, theory and mezzo-soprano Janene Nelson) plays and sings music from New Orleans’s The Ursuline Manuscript: music by French composers created during the reign of Louis XIV. In those pre-Revolutionary, pre-Louisiana Purchase days, French music naturally dominated New France, and New Orleans was already becoming the musical gumbo pot it remains. 

Speaking of musical melting pots, Brazil rivals New Orleans for mixing African, European and American music influences, and The Jazz Station offers a couple of delicious opportunities to hear Brazilian jazz. On Friday, April 25, Portland saxophonist David Valdez (who’s performed with Dave Holland, Charlie Hunter and other major jazzers) and Brazilian pianist Weber Iago bring their quartet, which also features Eugene natives Andrea Niemic on bass and Jason Palmer on drums, to play Latin- and Brazilian-influenced original jazz. On May 3, the great Oregon saxman Tom Bergeron, who’s been beguiled by Brazil for years, brings his Brasil Band featuring Brazilian keyboardist Cassio Vianna, singer Rosi Bergeron, Eugene guitar legend Don Latarski, veteran bassist Page Hundemer and Palmer again. 

May 1, still another erstwhile Oregonian jazzer, Portland-born, Corvallis-raised trumpeter Chris Botti, brings his band’s best-selling, Grammy-winning, smooth pop-jazz to the Hult. The following week, on May 7, one more ex-Eugene jazzer, trumpeter Josh Deutsch, returns to his old UO haunts from New York City to perform with the UO jazz ensembles at Beall Concert Hall. 

Celtic music is in the house May 4 when the California Celtic band Molly’s Revenge brings its bagpipes, uilleann pipes, bodhrán, fiddle, guitar and more to a house concert at 755 River Road (contact mmeyer@efn.org for info) and to Cottage Grove’s Axe & Fiddle April 29.

There’s nothing folkier than a ukulele, but there’s nothing traditional about what the great living master of the instrument, Jake Shimabukuro, does with it. Hear Shimabukuro April 25 at McDonald Theatre, when he’ll play everything from folk to rock (his breakthrough cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” still thrills), and jazz to Hawaiian to original music. He embodies the American tradition, apparent in the other concerts listed here, of weaving colorful musical tapestries from this country’s rich and varied cultural sources.