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Weekend Wrap: Blue Cranes, Jasper Quartet & The Rum Diary

The Blue Cranes performed at The Woods in Sellwood/Moreland.

Jason Quigley

My weekend started with Pink Martini, Storm Large and a citizen choir in Pioneer Courthouse Square, who had gathered to support the aims of Occupy Wall Street/Portland. From an artistic point of view, let’s just say the choir, like the democracy itself, needed a little more practice as it fought its way through “This Land Is Your Land” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But that performance did tint the rest of the weekend with a certain coloration.

I didn’t keep to my original plan entirely. On Saturday night I had intended to drop in on the Transylvanian Voodoo Ball and the Vagabond Opera, but by 9 pm my eyelids were already drooping, and I knew I’d make a bad audience member. I did hit the Blue Cranes show Friday night and the Jasper String Quartet Sunday, as scheduled, and as an added bonus, I got to the Saturday matinee of The Rum Diary with Johnny Depp playing a fictionalized Hunter S. Thompson, before the wearies overcame me.

Blue Cranes, The Woods: The Blue Cranes showed up at The Woods, the little Sellwood/Moreland club that used to be a funeral home, with their basic five-musician unit — saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Jeff Cunningham, keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, drummer Ji Tanzer and stand-up bass player Keith Brush — and a set of mostly new music.

The Woods was pretty well full, mostly with fans in their 30s, though I’m not especially good at drive-by demographic analysis. And those fans were appreciative of the set by Allison Miller and her band from Brooklyn (I mean Brooklyn in New York not Brooklyn up Milwaukie Ave. from Westmoreland), who opened the proceedings with some sonic idiosyncrasies driven by Miller’s drumwork and fine playing from the rest of the band (keyboard, violin, bass).

The Blue Cranes' Train Tour made a stop in Portland.

Jen Downer / She Saw Things Photography

One thing struck me right off. People quieted down while the Blue Cranes played. Not everyone, sure, but nearly. It wasn’t a hard-drinking, pre-Halloween party scene with the band reduced to blurts of sound that somehow made it through the din. They listened to the songs. My kind of crowd.

What did we hear? Well, Blue Cranes is built on the creative, symbiotic partnership of Wallsmith’s alto sax and Cunningham’s tenor sax. Sometimes they sounded like a bagpipe, all throaty harmonies delivered forcefully in long breaths. Sometimes their careful composition delivered some finely filigreed musical figures that darted in and around each other. Sometimes one signalled the chord changes while the other sounded the melody, and occasionally they each took a solo turn. And often this stuff was all going on in the same song, along with Sanborn’s chordal piano work, Brush’s bowed bass and Tanzer’s percussion, which sometimes marked time as insistently and fervidly as an old rock band but could dive into deeper water when called upon.

Most of the songs (and I’d give you the names of the new ones, except the microphone wasn’t that great: The only one I heard definitively, “That song for now is called ‘Great Dane, Small Horse,’ ” Wallsmith said after one of them) had a clear musical “idea” that the band elaborated on, departed from and returned to, and that idea could be a simple little riff that sounds like a ‘60s pop tune, a jazzier chord progression, a modal  experiment, almost anything. But yeah, constructed “songs” of various structures and textures.

The improvised moments weren’t ever very long. Cunningham’s tended to be more in the hard-bop tradition, while Wallsmith was keener on exploring subtle streams of sound that mixed with his own columns of air, a breathy effect poised somewhere between exhales and actual notes.

The point, I suppose, is that for sax players, Wallsmith and Cunningham are  remarkably self-effacing. They aren’t “colossuses,” saxophone or otherwise (though Wallsmith has mentioned Sonny Rollins, the original Saxophone Colossus, as an early influence). They work together and together with the rest of the band; they enjoy each other’s work; they sublimate themselves to the composition; their relationship with the audience was casual, easy, and you wouldn’t be THAT surprised if someone walked up and struck up a conversation with them during the set, except that everyone wanted to hear what they had to say, musically.
I wish our politics worked this way.

Johnny Depp stars in "The Rum Diary."

GK Films

The Rum Diary: Journalists of a certain age have to deal with Hunter S. Thompson, one way or another, unless they are SO hidebound and tradition-ridden — in Oregon maybe we call that condition “mossy”? — that they discount his work out of hand. That’s because Thompson’s first-person reports (which began in 1970 with an account of the Kentucky Derby) created a new form of journalism, dubbed “Gonzo,” that was livelier, richer, more provocative, more transparent (readers instantly know where the journalist stands on any topic because the journalist is at the center of the report) and ultimately more widely read, imitated (often badly) and parodied than what the moss-backs wrote.

Now, Thompson didn’t write enough for me, primarily because his, um, personal habits (drug and alcohol abuse) got in the way, and when he killed himself in 2005, I wished that he had a more substantial published legacy. But then I thought, yeah, but what he did write…

All of this is simply to introduce the film version of Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary, a fictionalized account of his time in Puerto Rico in 1960. (You could say with some justification that ALL of Thompson’s accounts, non-fiction or not, were fictionalized to some degree, of course.) For me, the primary pleasure of the film is simply to channel Thompson for a couple of hours, not that I think that Johnny Depp’s portrayal of him is the “truth.” It’s hard for me to imagine that Thompson was as arch as Depp played him in the first part of the film, though I can imagine him dreaming up something subversive as he does in the second half.

My problem with the movie is that I don’t think it’s as funny as Thompson was, doesn’t commit to the exploration of surreal territory as it hints it might and turns into a traditional boy-falls-in-love-with-beautiful-girl romance. On the other hand, it gives us some hint about where Thompson’s outrage at what he saw as the murder of the American Dream came from, and that’s worth something all by itself. And by the end, The Rum Diary becomes a profoundly political film, comparing the scavenging children of the slums of San Juan to the gleaming plaques of the investment houses on Wall Street. That’s something you could have happily preached to the Pink Martini choir on Friday.

Jasper String Quartet, Kaul Auditorium: On Friday, when I announced my weekend intentions to the radio audience of Think Out Loud, I said that it was unlikely that the Jasper String Quartet would march onto the stage, bow a little stiffly from the waist, settle into their seats and saw away (actually, I don’t think I used the word “saw”) until they’d finished, then rise, bow stiffly and leave. I figured they would be a little more explanatory than that, a little more informal, based on their visit to Portland a year ago, when they were part of Chamber Music Northwest’s first Protégé Project.

The Jasper Quartet performed at Chamber Music Northwest.

Mozingo Photography, David Long and Guoneng Zhong

But then, that’s exactly what they did, leaning and bobbing through Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, the first part of the program. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you know the famous second Adagio movement of the quartet because, so sad and beautiful, it figures in lots of movie and TV scores, including Platoon and The Simpsons. If it’s been on The Simpsons, it’s got to be famous, right?

Anyway, the Jasper account of the Barber was quite beautiful and heartfelt, they took a break before the next piece, Aaron Jay Kernis’ String Quartet No. 1, “musica celestis” and returned to the stage. Violist Sam Quintal rose and addressed us! Not only that, he gave us a little road map for the music we were going to hear, which he allowed could get a little complicated. And not only that! He asked violinists Sae Chonabayashi and J Freivogel and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel each to play the recurring melody, which Kernis plays around with in the first movement.

Then, they started playing it, and darn if he wasn’t right. That melody does pop up quite a bit, but it changes so much depending on how it’s played — melodic and uplifting at one appearance, halting and scattered at the next. Armed with a little knowledge of the terrain, we in the audience navigated the score’s twists and turns, and we especially enjoyed the second movement, because Kernis had told the Jaspers that only angels could hear it, and yippeee! It was totally audible to us! Audiences love a little flattery.

The Kernis quartet is packed with musical ideas and sonic effects. It can be tender at times and bombastic at others. It contains little tics and smart tricks, loves the higher registers, drives along with rhythms insistent and jittery, rushes and pauses, sings Romantically and sometimes completely absorbs the singular voice into the collective, generates a whirlwind and the sweep of a movie score, and then pulls everything apart into a quirky pizzicato. A rich and brilliant piece of music, in short, and one we really did need a map of some sort to enjoy.

After intermission, the Jaspers headed into more familiar territory, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, but not before Quintal recited the brief poem that inspired the 27-year-old Schubert, already suffering from syphilis and the effects of its “cure,” mercury. It starts with the maiden hollering at Death and closes with Death saying, “softly shall you sleep in my arms.” And the music follows suit, oscillating between lyrical Death and agitated Maiden, until it hits the shorter, rousing closing movements.

The Jasper String Quartet plays together quite well, but I think part of the reason for the enthusiastic ovation after the last delightful course of the Schubert was that the audience enjoyed hearing from them, learning a little about the music and by extension the musicians’ passion for it in the process. Yes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing — it can leave you wanting more.