Wednesday, July 03, 2013

CD Review: Blue Cranes - Swim

Blue Cranes

Portland's Blue Cranes might not be thought of as group that plays jazz, despite their two-saxes-and-rhythm-section lineup. There are some horn solos on Swim, but the first "real" one doesn't come until track five, "Great Dane Small Horse." The sax screams in "Beautiful Winners" serve as a parting comment instead of a gateway to extended blowing.

But the quintet comes off a bit like Jeremy Udden's Plainville group, playing what might be called post-rock had it been played on guitars. The textures of the music could lend themselves to visuals, and it's constantly moving, exploring the way the group and the band-and-a-half of guest musicians create something that sounds big and vast.

Alto saxophonist Reed Wallsmith and tenor saxophonist Joe Cunningham frequently play lines full of sustained notes, in the range where their horns cross over, so it's easy to mistake one for the other. Even when Wallsmith plays a raspy solo in "Soldier," it lures you closer to make sure you know what you're hearing. This track is one of five that includes a string trio adds to the texture, with violist Eyvind Kang sitting in on two more of them.

The group sprouts five more horns in "Cass Corridor" though they don't appear until the very end. During the whole song, drummer Ji Tanzer thumps a metronomic beat with help from Rebecca Sanborn, who adds a single electric piano note to the foundation, leaving Wallsmith and Cunningham to unravel a line of whole notes. After a countermelody from the strings, the extra horns (some hailing from Los Lobos and tUnEyArDs) join in for some pedal point chaos to take it out. It sounds both grating and hypnotic.

Swim was created amid some lifechanging events, both good and bad for the band, and knowing that makes the reflective quality of the music a little more obvious. The ballad "For Chris" seems like a sweet eulogy. "Painted Birds," which gives the group a chance to open up and blow free for a bit, points toward the desire to carry on, with hope for the future. The album closes with "Goldfinches," another slow shuffle which gets some levity from the guest saw of Cooper McBean (of The Devil Makes Three). Each chorus adds more instruments gets more expansive.

With Nate Query of the Decemberists producing Swim, the group seems to have harnessed some of his band's je nais se quoi. They take what might sound simple in lesser hands and make it dense and intriguing.

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