Blue Cranes – Swim – Cuneiform Rune 364, 49:40 (standard CD or 33⅓ vinyl with download card) [6/4/13] ****:
(Reed Wallsmith – alto saxophone; Joe Cunningham – tenor saxophone; Rebecca Sanborn – piano, keyboards; Keith Brush – acoustic bass; Ji Tanzer – drums; Nate Query and Blue Cranes – producers; Eyvind Kang – viola (tracks 2, 5); Anna Fritz – cello (tracks 2-3, 5-6, 8); Patti King – violin (tracks 2-3, 5-6, 8); Kyleen King – viola (tracks 2-3, 5-6, 8); Steve Berlin – baritone saxophone (track 3); Noah Bernstein – alto saxophone (tracks 3, 7); Chad Hensel – bass clarinet (tracks 3, 7); Patrick Finley – trombone (track 3); Gus Baum – trumpet (track 3); Nick Sweet – trombone (track 7); Sam Howard – acoustic bass (track 9); Cooper McBean – saw (track 9); Eric Redpath – drums (track 9); Jessica Cooke – Fender Rhodes (track 9); Kevin DeMarco – guitar (track 9))
Portland, Oregon jazz quintet Blue Cranes is not a typical jazz group. Since their formation in 2007, the ensemble (Reed Wallsmith on alto sax, Joe Cunningham on tenor sax, keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, bassist Keith Brush and drummer Ji Tanzer) has developed a unique sound which explores free improvisation, modern jazz, and alternative music influences (they have covered Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith, Blonde Redhead and others). The band has tried tour approaches similar to DIY rock acts, including a month-long Amtrak train trip, and collaborated with various Pacific Northwest artists unfamiliar to most jazz fans, such as the Decemberists, the Portland Cello Project and alternative singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. It should not be a surprise, then, that Blue Cranes’ fourth full-length album, Swim, is on the eclectic-by-design Cuneiform label (home to Ahleuchatistas, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Curlew and many more independently-inclined performers), and Decemberists’ bassist Nate Query co-produced the 50-minute record, issued as a limited edition vinyl LP (with bonus digital download); digital download only; a CD with a limited edition handmade poster; and a standalone CD version, which was used for this review. [The first Amazon button is for the CD, the second for the vinyl…Ed.]
If a listener heard specific parts of Swim outside of the context, one might think it is an indie rock project. Cunningham’s “Beautiful Winners,” for example, starts with Sanborn’s electronic keys and a heavy drum beat. But then duo saxes enter, which take the place of vocals. “Beautiful Winners” is catchy but artful, with angular stops and starts, and sections where indie rock shapes come to the forefront. “Beautiful Winners” is an apt lead-off: it substantiates Blue Cranes’ rock attitude, their gift for indie-pop melodies, and plentitude of jazz. Another aspect of rock music which also washes through Swim is storytelling. Several tracks have emotional resonance and biographical backgrounds. Wallsmith’s solemn “Everything Is Going to Be Okay” is presented in remembrance of Wallsmith’s sister-in-law, ethnomusicologist Franya Berkman, who was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer and passed away one year ago. The nearly six-minute composition moves through affecting points, from despondency to upheaval, then resentment, and finally a celebratory aura of hope with a shade of uncertainty, and reflection. Cunningham and Wallsmith match their sax lines as Sanborn crafts circular chord progressions. A guest string quartet incorporates appropriate coloring, and the piece builds up anthemically, and then quietly ebbs as the strings bring the sensitive tale to a haunting conclusion.
Melancholy also dusts group composition “Polarnatt” (Norwegian for “polar night” or “a period of darkness”), which commences with a reiterating pattern replete with reverie, akin to a midnight memory which slips up out of the subconscious. Piano and drums add rhythmic layers, and the cut evolves and escalates, with bass and panned synth expanding the arrangement. Wallsmith’s alto soloing is a highlight here. Geography also seems to inform Cunningham’s cyclic “Cass Corridor” (apparently titled after the notorious Detroit area). A single-note drone is continually repeated in unison by guest alto saxophonists Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and Noah Bernstein (who backed tUnE-yArDs [not a typo] on their newest release), alongside clarinet, trombone, trumpet, cello and viola. Conceptually, it is comparable to rendering a Philip Glass or Steve Reich minimalist work into jazz, which has been done.
Three standouts focus on animals, but for different reasons. Wallsmith’s “Great Dane Small Horse” concisely spotlights violinist Eyvind Kang (whose credits include Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, John Zorn and others); and then emphasizes Brush’s bass and Cunningham’s tenor sax as the tune ascends, bends toward a dusky dimness dyed by discordance, and finishes with full-ensemble chord thumps. Cunningham’s “Painted Birds” (at nine minutes, the longest number) features a resolute groove heightened by Jessica Cooke’s Fender Rhodes, Cunningham and Wallsmith’s twinned saxes, and Tanzer’s insistent drums. The lengthy middle section centers on a wholly improvisational interval which changes into free-jazz terrain curtained with ambiance and open space; the track’s culmination combines wistful horns mixed with equally contemplative strings. Swim’s finale, the folk-filigreed “Goldfinches” (co-penned by Cunningham and Wallsmith), has the record’s most intense melancholia, reinforced by the singing saw of guest Cooper McBean (a member of alt-country trio The Devil Makes Three). Despite a slow, low onset, “Goldfinches” eventually shifts to include lithe optimism, which conveys a slight sense of relief from a predominant mood of uneasiness. The baby’s laugh that comes as an unexpected bonus as the music fades out is a reminder of rebirth and birth: Wallsmith’s first daughter was born during pre-production, and the sound also acts as a metaphor for the continuing development of Blue Cranes as creative musicians.
TrackList: Beautiful Winners; Everything Is Going to Be Okay; Cass Corridor; Polarnatt; Great Dane Small Horse; Soldier; For Chris; Painted Birds; Goldfinches