To become popular in the 1970s, a band is supposed to appear onstage with a large bank of amplifiers, a Moog or two, some glistening bodysuits, and, perhaps, a friendly snake to twirl lovingly around the lead singer’s neck. It also helps to shoot for a large, easy-to-identify musical market.
But Oregon stays away from amps and snakes. Its four members, who dress unpretentiously, create sounds that have pretty well baffled the would-be categorizers.
Combining raga, rock rhythms, and modern classical and jazz forms, the group’s music is an indication of the diversity of talents brought together in Oregon. Ralph Towner, who writes the lion’s share of the compositions, has recorded with, among others, Tim Hardin and Weather Report, and has played with both the Elizabethan Consort and the Indianapolis Symphony. Glen Moore initially built his reputation as a jazz bassist when he performed with such artists as John McLaughlin, Nick Brignola, Airto, and Zoot Sims. Paul McCandless is a former symphonic oboist and Collin Walcott, who studied sitar with Ravi Shankar and tabla with Ustad Alla Rakha, is a distinguished composer and performer with credits that cut across conventional music boundaries.
Since they formed Oregon about four years ago, the group’s members have developed a cohesive stylistic mix and have produced two extraordinary albums for Vanguard, Music of Another Present Era (which earned a Grammy nomination) and the newly released Distant Hills.
The critics have been kind, but their accolades would not seem, paradoxically, to account for the growth of Oregon’s audience. While praising the group’s music, many writers have also left the impression that to appreciate it, one should first spend a few years in preparatory study and then arrive at their concert ready to work hard. One reviewer, for example, warned that Oregon “makes demands on its listeners” and should be heard only by “those who are up to meeting those demands.” Other critics, after explaining that the band’s music is “intellectually stimulating,” suggest that it is “not that easily comprehended, requiring a high degree of concentration.”
“What I think the reviewers have mostly missed,” remarks Walcott with a smile, “is the fun in what we’re doing. This isn’t ‘serious’ music. We don’t want people to have to work at getting into it. We just want to have a good time, and we want our audiences to have a good time, too.”
Adds Towner: “The music we play doesn’t represent anything. As far as I’m concerned, man, it doesn’t have to. It’s abstract, you know? Myself, I don’t get visual images from it. But a lot of people do, and that’s great. For me, though, it’s more like a feeling of energy.”
“We don’t rehearse,” says Moore. “We just learn the basic parts to do a composition and then what we do is improvise around it and play off each other. The important thing is that it’s not a chore. We enjoy what we’re doing. We love it.”
The Cafe Wha, in New York’s Greenwich Village, caters largely to a rock and folk audience, but the people who relax around its small, candlelit tables come not so much to hear particular artists as they do to spend an evening in a casual, friendly club. If one of the unfamiliar groups that provide the night’s entertainment turns out to be especially good, well, that’s a happy bonus.
On the night Oregon is to perform, the audience sits through four opening sets—a comedian, a poet and two folk groups—talking among themselves and nursing the non-alcoholic concoctions served at the Wha. When, after midnight, the lights go up and a sitar, a standup bass, tablas, and other instruments are brought onstage, wondering glances are exchanged at more than one table. After the room becomes dark again and a voice on the PA announces “Vanguard recording artists Oregon,” there is a smattering of handclaps.
Ignoring this lukewarm reception, the group starts playing. After rolling up his sleeves and meticulously wiping the strings on his standup bass, Moore leans into his instrument and begins to caress it madly. As the bassist develops a full bottom layer for the exposition of the first piece, McCandless, having brought the oboe to his mouth three times without playing, finally finds the perfect time to add his rich lines. Towner, on 12-string guitar, exchanges fire with Walcott, who sits cross-legged on the stage floor, smiling ecstatically as his hands blur over the tabla like a hummingbird’s wings.
Throughout the show, members of the group are periodically switching to new instruments. Towner, who divides his time fairly equally between classical and 12-string guitar and the piano, also works wonders on several bass instruments. Tabla player Walcott demonstrates his sitar virtuosity. Moore, the bassist, doubles on flute and proves his keyboard skill as well. And oboe player McCandless, who hocked his saxophone last year, turns in a fine performance on English horn. Often, members of the group hold an instrument in each hand and alternate between them. When it can be worked in, one person may play two instruments simultaneously.
Each of the songs has its own strengths. “At the Hawk’s Well,” which evokes open spaces, is a slow, reflective piano piece, while “Naiads” sparkles like a stream skipping over rocks and fallen branches. “Dark Spirit,” which Walcott’s sitar dominates, resembles an Eastern “Dark Star.” At points, it conjures up Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the Taj Majal; other times, it sounds like a racing locomotive—as it might be heard by an acid-crazed switchman. By contrast, “Aurora” initially lulls the listener with McCandless’s soft oboe lines and Walcott’s hypnotic tabla; then the oboe recedes and Towner, on piano, trades light and shadow with the tabla player; a moment later, Moore’s violin erupts, injecting the climax of the piece with a high-energy, otherworldly flavor. On “Distant Hills,” the oboe again lays in the smooth tracks, while a soft guitar builds detail; the mood is peaceful and expansive, like a view of mist-shrouded . . . distant hills. “Canyon Song,” on the other hand, features fast guitar licks and a pulsing oboe and is definitely danceable.
Playing their repertoire at the Cafe Wha, Oregon shows how it is building a devoted following: slowly but surely, song by song, a few fans at a time. A young girl in bellbottoms, who had seemed primarily interested in talking with her friends during previous acts, is listening intently as Oregon’s ethereal sounds reach out to touch all corners of the room. When the guy in front of her whispers something to his friend, the girl taps urgently on his shoulder: “Shhh!” Even Oregon’s comanager, Vince Cirrincione, who has sat through the group’s set many times, appears transfixed.
After the music finally stops, at around 2 a.m., the coffeehouse manager rushes up. “When are you coming back?” The four who are Oregon just smile.
Several people congratulate the group on its performance as the audience begins to file slowly out the back door of the Wha. Oregon, however, shows no signs of packing up to go, and soon, the group is back on the stage, making music for empty tables.
Lingering in the Wha’s doorway, the last remaining member of the audience looks out on a cold, dark alley and the icy Village cobblestones. The four musicians don’t notice him, but he’s there listening as they take turns soloing, then work their parts into a mellow whole that warms the music with its radiant fullness. After a long moment, the figure in the doorway draws himself away from the music but, halfway down the street, and even after he has turned the corner, he still doesn’t feel as if he has left the cafe.