It takes a minute for a band to hurdle growth spurts and become the eloquent ensemble it hopes to be. But striving for a truly individual sound, one that depends on the contributions of each member, is a noble goal. After three years as a quintet with two saxophones up front, Blue Cranes have achieved such a victory. They prove it with Observatories.
On its third album, everything gels for the acclaimed instrumental outfit from Portland, Oregon. Working that thin line between prog-jazz improvisation and indie rock catchiness, the band arrives at a unique spot. Like forebears such as The Ordinaires and The President, and contemporaries like Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, Blue Cranes have found ways to make exploration seem like the most enjoyable process around.
The songs and performances on Observatories are all about rewards of collective articulation. Reed Wallsmith, the group’s straw boss, saxophonist and main composer, says the new album finds them putting their best foot forward.
“Homing Patterns, the record before this, was a quintet with two horns; Sly Pig joined us on tenor saxophone a year before we made it. But, I had conceived of a lot of the music originally for quartet. Since then, with more time under our belts, I think our compositions more fully incorporate all five of us. For Observatories we wrote more contrapuntal lines, not just melodies and support riffs. I hope that the entire group unity comes through. It feels great to hear it happen.”
Blue Cranes is comprised of drummer Ji Tanzer, bassist Keith Brush, keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, tenor saxophonist Joe “Sly Pig” Cunningham, and Wallsmith himself. The alto saxophonist says that the camaraderie of gigging on the road has bolstered the band’s unity.
“We’ve done seven tours now, and gone out for a week and a half at a time. That kind of continuity is such a great way to get tight as a band - performing every night and being able to talk about the music every day. We have fun on the road. Sharing music on iPods, hanging out, laughing about everything. It’s such a blast to get to know each other better. It’s not just my vision driving the action anymore; it’s all of ours - which has always been my goal.”
Blue Cranes’ music is refreshingly diverse. They may be a left-of-center instrumental outfit, but their book has lots of room for old-fashioned beauty. Wallsmith’s “Grandpa’s Hands” is a bittersweet anthem with a luminous theme that boasts echoes of Steve Reich. Cunningham’s “Broken Windmills” is an evocative lament that could easily snuggle up to an Ornette Coleman ballad. Waxing rustic isn’t forbidden with Blue Cranes, and that decision widens the record’s emotional palette. On “Yellow Ochre,” the group sounds like The Band sauntering its way through The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
“Tim Young, the guitarist from Wayne Horvitz’s band, made a comment I liked,” says Wallsmith. “He said ‘You guys aren’t afraid to just play melodies.’ I think that's true. ‘Yellow Ochre’ feels old fashioned to me. ‘Maddie Mae,’ too. I'm proud of that tone. But the album wouldn’t work if it was full of tunes like ‘Yellow Ochre.' We wanted to make it flow, to have the pretty stuff move right into the in-your-face stuff.”
Indeed, Observatories does strike a balance between genteel and rambunctious. Crescendos crop up in all sorts of places, and the physical thrust of the rhythm section gives several moments a wonderfully vicious clout. “Richie Bros.” has an intricate pounding intro, a dreamy head, and an explosive middle. “We don’t get super mathy, but ‘Richie Bros.’ is aggressive,” Wallsmith concurs. “I like the power of it, but I also like the fact that it’s followed by the softness of ‘Maddie Mae.’
Sly Pig also played and recorded with indie rock super heroes The Decemberists. It seems he and Wallsmith have found the perfect formula for cogent abstraction.
“From the first day we started playing, I felt unexpectedly in-synch with him,” says Wallsmith. “We started at an all-improvised gig, and when we played together, I had this feeling that we were long lost brothers.’ I’ve never really met another sax player who approaches music like me. Wherever we’re coming from, it’s a similar same place. We work as a team.”
The Blue Cranes have received kudos from a few key contemporaries. They’ve shared bills with keyboard icon Wayne Horvitz (his “Love Love Love” is part of Observatories) and he’s now a fan. Wallsmith was a Happy Apple zealot when he was in college in Minneapolis and when drummer Dave King, now of The Bad Plus, posted a “don’t miss John Hollenbeck’s tour” missive on the The Bad Plus’ blog, Wallsmith made a point to catch the drummer-composer. “After the gig I gave someone at the venue a CD to give to John. He later contacted me out of the blue to say that, although he didn't expect to, he really liked it. What an honor!” Blue Cranes have since shared the stage with bands as diverse as Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, the dub/hardcore Mi Ami, trumpeter Cuong Vu and violinist Michael White.
Ultimately Observatories is about breadth. Blue Cranes is a band that sees things from various perspectives. A toy piano is the first sound you hear on the disc; a baby’s voice is the final. Variety is central to the action. Tanzer is the go-to guy when it comes to album titles; he’s named the previous Blue Cranes albums. But it was the band's friend and Tanzer's band mate, Spinanes leader Rebecca Gates, who came up with the current moniker, and one thing’s for certain: Observatories is dead on, because the Blue Cranes are here to show us all sorts of things.