CD review: Blue Cranes

(Cuneiform Records Rune 364)

Look at the personnel list and you might expect a regular retro-Blue Note sound with two saxophones in the front line, piano, bass and drums behind. Take a listen and this is not what you will hear. Not at all.

Blue Cranes – Reed Wallsmith on alto, Joe Cunningham on tenor, Rebecca Sanborn on piano and keyboards, Keith Brush on acoustic bass and Ji Tanzer on drums – are from Portland, Oregon, have been together since 2007 and this is their fourth album. Wallsmith and Cunningham are the main writers but it sounds like music that is very much developed by the whole band. One track, Polarnatt, resulted from a group writing session.

A look at the interim activities of the members of the band will give some hints as to their angle on the music. They have worked with AU, The Decembrists, Wayne Horvitz,  and Laura Veirs among others. And it is The Decembrists’ Nate Query who is producer here.

The band has added some strings on some tracks – a string quartet with two violas instead of two violins – which adds a richer, almost cinematic quality to the music. There are other additional musicians on some tracks, too. Great Dane Small Horse has the wonderful Bill Frisell viola player Eyvind Kang, for example. Other guests include Steve Berlin from Los Lobos and Noah Bernstein from tUnE-yArDs.

Blue Cranes (Picture: Jen Downer/She Saw Things)

Blue Cranes (Picture: Jen Downer/She Saw Things)

The sound is thick and slightly grungy – perhaps appropriate, coming from the Northwest – and filled with unexpected nuances. The themes are bound to be a little dark – the band had had the deaths of two good friends and a serious injury to deal in the period they were making it – but it’s not all doom and gloom – there were weddings and a birth, too, at this time.

The second track, Everything Is Going To Be Okay, for example, starts slow and funereal with heavy drums and dark saxophone harmonies, but then swells into a stately tune, and suddenly fills with harmonies from saxes and strings which have a touch of Brian Wilson about them. It’s like rays of autumnal sun have broken through the lowering clouds. The piano and bass figure that follows verges on the perky, and the tenor solo which follows is full of folky narrative which develops some free wailing suggestions before being absorbed back into the ensemble.

Cass Corridor gets a whole bunch of additional musicians to each record one note which this then combined into one great big mashed-up as the insistent pulse of the song builds to a climax.

A piece like Painted Birds goes through many melodies, textures and moods in its nearly nine minutes, from strongly pulsed melodic head to spacey central section relatively free of rhythmic or harmonic restraint, and finally coalesces into a swooning delight of horns and strings. The closer, Goldfinches, makes for chills up the back of the neck with an elegiac mood and Cooper McBean in as guest on saw and Kevin DeMarco adding nicely slightly distorted guitar.

Overall, what is striking is the freshness and the searching nature of the music Blue Cranes make. It’s original, it’s personal, its richly and complexly beautiful, and it makes a whole lot of sense.

You can buy Blue Cranes’ Swim here.

Categories: CD review

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