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"Highly original power quintet."

"A truly unconventional approach to improvised music."

"Rich melodies and dynamic interplay."

"Hooky melodies and strong backbeats."

"Jarringly dissonant... poignant, soulful and reassuring."

"One of Portland's brightest lights... evoking post-rock icons Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor."

"A force of nature."

"Joyous interplay."

"Rocks harder than most rock albums and says more than most singer-songwriters--without any words at all."

Articles in reverse chronological order:

December 13, 2021
"Monday Mix: Blue Cranes, Amber Mark, Petey"

With its latest album "Voices," Portland jazz outfit Blue Cranes has mined the rich vocal talent that its hometown has to offer (there are contributions from nearly a dozen Oregon-based guest vocalists). The song "Raven" is a standout and one of the more soulful offerings on the release. Featuring an emotional performance by Redray Frazier and poetic lyrics from Liz Vice, Blue Cranes demonstrate the textured musical expertise that has gained them the deserved adoration of so many musicians in the Pacific Northwest.

December 2, 2021
Portland Mercury
"Album Review: Blue Cranes' Voices Overflows with Portland's Musical Abundance"

The Portland post-jazz quintet Blue Cranes has been carving their own unique space in the Portland music scene since 2007. The group consists of Reed Wallsmith on alto saxophone, Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone, Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, Jon Shaw on bass, and Ji Tanzer on drums. The group recently dropped their ambitious fifth album Voices—an album years in the making, and a collaboration with nine talented vocalists who all have the shared experience of living or having once lived in Portland.

"We wanted to push ourselves and our collaborators into unfamiliar territory," co-founder Reed Wallsmith says in an interview with Isra Box. "It is very much a Blue Cranes album at heart, written and performed in the spirit of collaboration and discovery."

Holland Andrews, formally known by the stage name Like a Villain, is the first voice we hear on the album on the introductory track "Brave Little Girl," which serves notice that we're about to enter an enchanted space. The song patiently guides you into the album with a growing number of instrumentals building on top of each other, all the while tamed by the mesmerizing vocals of Andrews. This vocal power dynamically reaches above the crashing of improvisational instrumentals as Andrews brings to life lines from a poem by Colorado Springs poet Nico Alvarado. "The music for 'Brave Little Girl' was composed entirely in the moment," Reed writes in the band's Facebook post describing the song's unique sound.

The intro track bleeds perfectly into the second song of the album, "Tatehuari," which features a collaboration with Pink Martini's Edna Vazquez and Y La Bamba's Luz Elena Mendoza. The song uses the subtlety of the percussion and sax sound which settles down the frenetic instrumentals of the intro, and builds up to a vocal crescendo at the song's conclusion.

Blue Cranes keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn takes the album into a more traditional space with the beautifully textured song "Handbook of the Dead." This transition is so perfectly done it's difficult to notice the tonal change, and the track settles in to find its place as another great song. "Handbook of the Dead" marks the first time Sanborn has been featured as a vocalist/lyricist on a Blue Cranes record, and she kills it.

The journey continues on its whorling pace of improvisational mastery and vocal luster in the stand out song "Raven," featuring indie-soul singer Redray Frazier. This song is a wall of symphonic jazz tones and poignant lyrics written by Portland native Liz Vice. She describes her motivation for the lyrics by saying:

"There is a particular story in the ancient Jewish text, the Torah, about a prophet who ran for his life and asked for his God to kill him because he was afraid for his life. His God had compassion for him and let him rest for three days in a cave using a raven to feed him. What's fascinating about this story is that in those days ravens were believed to be an omen of evil. To see something considered to be evil feeding a man in his distress is beautiful to me. Sometimes the very things that we have been taught are evil or bad or 'other' are the things that provide us life."

During the process of writing "Raven," Vice moved from Portland to New York, which opened the door for another vocalist to lend their talents to the project.

"We were lucky to work with singer/songwriter Redray Frazier, who lent his beautiful voice and heart to this song." Reed says. It's clear Frazier adds a certain flow to the song that is indelible to the track, but also demonstrates the beauty of extremely talented artists coming together.

The album closes perfectly with "Favorite Son," which features the alt-folk vocals of Laura Veirs. This song includes guitarist Timothy Young (The Late Late Show with James Corden), trumpeter Noah Simpson, and violist Kyleen King, among others complementing Blue Cranes member Joe Cunningham's lyrics. Favorite Son is yet another example of the wonderful way the album was arranged as it evokes imagery of the end of a great show at your favorite venue when the lights come up but you just don't want to go home. The final improvisational collage of sounds is set up perfectly by Veirs' tranquil vocal delivery, all of which is finally brought home by some of the best sax instrumentation of the entire album. The track serves as a testament to the album's sequencing, as it gently exits us from the enchanted experience.

The artistry of this album expands beyond the sonic pleasure of the musical collaborations and into the visual realm with the music video for "The Back Steps." The video was made by filmmaker and musician Rachel Blumberg, who many people may know for her time as the drummer/vocalist for The Decemberists. The video's a dreamscape of rolling waves onto a shore, at times superimposed over little girls at play on the beach, and visually comes across with an archival texture of a Ken Burns documentary. Spliced into these nostalgic scenes are some stop-motion animation which seems to serve as a reminder that it's all a dream of a time gone by. Images of a hand typing on an early model typewriter is spliced in, which effectively evokes the storytelling element of the song. This all comes together giving life to Reed Wallsmith's lyrics, inspired by a poem from Nico Alvarado, with its stunning evocation of the halcyon days.

"Its repetition of rhythmic figures and plaintive vocal poetry mentioning girls and waves and wooden wind and other things made me imagine a microscopic world and a capturing of a moment in time," Blumberg says about the inspiration for the video.

Voices is an album that ultimately serves as a sublime reflection of Portland's artists and the collaborative spirit that makes them special.

November 19, 2015
Portland Mercury
"Catherine Feeny & Chris Johnedis, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, Blue Cranes"

In its first major collaborative effort, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble is partnering with some of the city's best singer/songwriters for an evening of worlds colliding. It makes sense, considering the blurred lines of some of Portland's experimental jazz collectives like Blue Cranes (who are also on this bill) and local drummer Barra Brown's projects (the Wishermen, Old Wave). Tonight Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis explore new arrangements of their protest-folk compositions, along with the PJCE Wind Quintet. Rare collaborations like this are a big reason Portland's artistic community is able to persevere in the face of fleeting trends.

[arrangements by Reed Wallsmith, Noah Bernstein, Barra Brown, Doug Detrick, Kela Parker, Lars Campbell]

July 29, 2015
Willamette Week
"Festival Review: The PDX Pop Now Superlatives"

"Portland's experimental jazz-not-jazz quintet has been kind of quiet lately--due in part to side-projects like Swansea and the recent fatherhood of sax player Reed Wallsmith--but they sounded practiced and badass today. How often have you seen teenagers freaking out to crazy sax skronk? Pretty sure I've only seen it this once."

July 22, 2015
Portland Mercury

"Local jazz legends Blue Cranes are still one of the most interesting bands in Portland. Their moody 2013 LP, Swim, runs at the pace of a rock record and boasts a borderline poppy tunefulness, without compromising its classicist purity (which I guess is why it's "post-jazz" and not fusion)."

April 2, 2015
Vortex Music Magazine
"Up In The Trees: Recapping Treefort 2015"

"After almost exclusively seeing guitar bands all weekend, a set of elegantly composed jazz by Portland's Blue Cranes was a welcome reprieve."

March 30, 2015
"Treefort 2015"

"Blue Cranes played a horn-driven instrumental set that looked like a jazz combo but glanced at rock's rhythmic influence, with bass lines that drove rather than walked."

February 20, 2015
Portland Monthly
"5 Jazz Fest Picks: BLUE CRANES, Feb 21, Alberta St. Pub"

This quintet are one of Portland many acts (across many genres) that remain inexplicably just under the national radar. Their brand of jazz—if you want to call it that-is simultaneously accessible and progressive. As evidenced by 2010’s fantastic Observatories and 2013’s even more accomplished Swim, the group manages to meld the dynamism and drama of post-rock, folk's lyrical pacing, and the raw energy of Portland's underground indie scene into a truly special sound.

März/April 2014
freiStil (Vienna, Austria)

Ein wenig aus der Affäre um eine musikalische und politische Positionierung zur Welt ziehen sich die Blue Cranes, die ihr aktuelles Album swim vorlegen. Dabei wird mit allerhand Saxofonen ausgerückt, um leicht sphärische, durchaus auch Indie-affine Klänge zu erzeugen. Reed Wallsmith (Altsaxofon), Joe Cunningham (Tenorsaxofon), Rebecca Sanborn (Piano und Keyboards), Keith Brush (akustischer Bass) und Ji Tanzer (Schlagzeug) scheinen lieber schwimmen zu gehen, als politische oder sonst irgendwie radikale Musik machen zu wollen. Man ist ihnen aber nicht böse, dass ihre Musik dann doch ein wenig belanglos daherkommt, weil sie eben gut argumentiert, warum sie keine dringenden Belange mehr kennt. Stattdessen sind die Flächen und zum Teil fast schon poppig anmutenden Klangteppiche fein gewebt. Und darüber legt sich auch noch allerhand Zeug, das frei improvisiert ist. Songtitel wie Everything is going to be ok und Painted Birds geben dann sogar noch Hoffnung und Zuversicht. Die dezente Düsternis, die in diesen Song immer wieder aufblitzt, wird ganz einfach mit fröhlicheren Farben überstrichen, ohne albern zu werden. Zurückhaltend optimistisch: Damit ist diese Platte wohl am besten beschrieben.

February 10, 2014
State of Mind Music
"Matt Ulery's Loom + The Blue Cranes"

New York's Winter Jazz Fest is like any other large-scale jazz festival… except instead of running around some park or fairgrounds‚ you're running around Greenwich Village between an array of small-but-amazing venues like SubCulture‚ Groove‚ Zinc Bar and (Le) Poisson Rouge. WJF also breaks the festival mold by featuring nothing but 21st-century hardcore: No crossover acts‚ no retrospectives‚ and -- best of all -- NO SMOOTH JAZZ! That said‚ there is the usual problem with multi-stage shows: How do you choose? For me‚ it came down to venue and artist reputation‚ and both choices stood me in good stead.

The Bitter End has a plaque by the door recognizing the legendary space's "contribution to the artistic life in New York." Caricatures of Bob Dylan‚ Bill Cosby and Joni Mitchell are folded into a mural behind the long dark wood bar‚ while tattered posters advertising shows by Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker and the Stone Poneys cover the walls around the performance space. History may not have been made here‚ but it was damn sure started here‚ so it was a perfect place for Matt Ulery's Loom and the Blue Cranes to leave a mark on the young New York crowd.

Although relatively new to the jazz world at large‚ both Ulery and the Cranes have been developing their singular sounds for almost a decade. A graduate of DePaul‚ the Chicago-based Ulery played bass for Kurt Rosenwinkel and Howard Levy while leading groups like Loom and By A Little Light. He's got two kickass discs on Greenleaf Music‚ which gives him the Dave Douglas Seal of Approval. Meanwhile‚ out in the Pacific Northwest‚ the Blue Cranes started out as a trio in Portland‚ OR‚ slowly expanding to a quintet while making three self-released discs. The brainchild of altoist Reed Wallsmith‚ the group's base inspiration is Bad Plus drummer Dave King's avant-garde trio Happy Apple‚ but there's an indie-rock sensibility that keeps their jaw-dropping music driving effortlessly forward.

The Cranes' set started out the way most of their tunes begin - with a blasting riff from keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn. Drummer Ji Tanzer and bassist Jon Shaw latched onto Sanborn's lead‚ and then Wallsmith and tenorman Joe Cunningham took charge‚ first chording over the riff and then climbing all over it. Sanborn switched to an organ sound as Wallsmith went out on his own for a moment‚ trading the spotlight with Cunningham like two kids tossing a baseball back and forth across a yard. The sound was big, the intention was powerful‚ and the buzz sliced the air in half as the reedmen faced each other more than the crowd.

Although the band felt comfortable enough to play new pieces like the rocking "Eryn Young" and the wonderfully weird "Sandbox"‚ most of the set came from Swim‚ the Cranes' devilish 2013 Cuneiform release. "Beautiful Winners" roared off the stage with a stomping beat from Tanzer and a nasty left-hand figure from Sanborn‚ but the piece's complex middle section showed how intricate this band could get when they're in the mood.

"Polarnatt" started as a deep‚ dark meditation with Shaw bowing a mournful sound more suited to Bartok then the Bitter End‚ but then the piece found its feet and ran right off‚ dragging the rapt audience with them. And I do mean rapt: At one point during "Sandbox"‚ Wallsmith and Cunningham were down on the floor playing children's xylophones while the rest of the group held back‚ and you could have heard a pin drop.

January 13, 2014
NPR/All Songs Considered

I've just spent the weekend at Winter Jazzfest and GlobalFEST in New York City. These are two of the biggest annual festivals of their kind, featuring several thrilling, packed days of music, with live performances that run late into the night.

As you might expect, given the names of these festivals, I saw a lot of music that likely fits nicely into what you imagine jazz and world music to be. But I also heard a lot of music that would (and should) take the stage at your favorite nightclub.

Music genres can be helpful as a jumping-off point in conversation. But to me, they're really a curse. I saw a band called Blue Cranes at the jazz festival, featuring an alto sax, a tenor sax, keyboard, bass and drums. I loved it. It was fiery and inspired. Now, if I told you it was a jazz band, you might just glaze over. But if you saw Blue Cranes opening at the 9:30 Club without that genre thing hanging over the band's head, there's a good chance you'd love it. ...

January 10, 2014
On The Territory Blog
Darrell Grant

...And for a moment I forgot we were at an industry event. That excitement and sharing of vision felt like what I feel at home... As did the set at the Bitter End tonight by the Blue Cranes. Sitting at table with Portland ex-pats Andrew Oliver and Drew Shoals, I got to revel in what I love about the Northwest. Even though it makes me sound like a cliche-prone music critic when I say it: The Blue Cranes capture a sense of place. The unabashed sense of melody, the sincerity, the indie collective "all for one" ethos, the unpretentious mix of rock, free improv, noise and instrumental-singer-songwriter vibe, the tasteful use of penny-whistle & glockenspiel, all resonate the place I call home.

January 9, 2014
Philadelphia Citypaper

Yes, they hail from Portland and their latest record, Swim (Cuneiform), was produced by The Decemberists' Nate Query, but don't approach the Blue Cranes looking for irony or affectation. So many musicians combine influences from modern jazz and indie rock that its become almost meaningless to define a band that way, but over the course of four full albums this quintet has honed a sound that roots exploration in song forms. The band's raw expressiveness foregoes the need for a vocalist, while keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn and the sax tandem of Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham provide enough charged melodicism and taut electricity to stand in for a guitarist. What sets Swim apart is the churning emotion at its core. You don't have to know that the group's members went through a variety of life-changing experiences in recent years to hear the darkness and hope, the foreboding and grit that have seeped indelibly into their music.

January 9, 2014
Wall Street Journal
"2014 Winter Jazzfest"

Now celebrating it's 10th anniversary, this massive, overarching megaevent isn't really a "festival" in the traditional sense of the term so much as a grand buffet, a humongous smorgasbord in which a wide--though not quite all-inclusive (hot jazz and swing, alas, have never been invited to the table)--variety of jazz ensembles play in hourlong sets scattered across nine different venues in the West Village, all for the price of a single festival pass. It's a particularly advantageous opportunity to catch out of town acts that rarely show up in Appletown, such as the nascent Chicago bassist-bandleader Matt Ulery's Loom, and the Blue Cranes, a highly original power quintet from Portland, Ore. The good news is that the weather promises to be more hospitable over the weekend, making the notion of a club-to-club trek less daunting.

January 8, 2014
Washington CITYPAPER (Washington, DC)

Its been almost 30 years since Cuneiform Records released its first LP, R. Stevie Moores weird-wave Whats the Point?!! And the Silver Spring specialist in all things experimental continues to release music that challenges not only listeners but easy genre classification. Two Cuneiform artists--local guitar-and-cello duo Janel and Anthony and Portland, Ore., quintet Blue Cranes (shown)--fall under the spotlight at tonights show at Union Arts. The evenings opening act, trumpeter and Towson University associate professor Dave Ballou, hasn't recorded for Cuneiform, but he's made numerous challenging yet inviting records. In many ways, tonights lineup is a perfect representation of Cuneiforms aesthetic: Ballou's accessible out-jazz finds kindred spirits in Janel and Anthony's chamber drones and Blue Cranes melodic improvs. Its a bit of everything, as long as everything is unique.

January 2014
New York City Jazz Record

There is a lot of seriousness going on both above and below the surface of Swim. This Pacific Northwest quintet relies on the under-drone set up by bassist Keith Brush, drummer Ji Tanzer and keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn for its thick foundation. Reed Wallsmith's alto and Joe Cunningham's tenor saxophones then lead the quintet further into or out of bleakness. All is not totally grim, however, and the band does occasionally break through the surface and into the light but never to bask in sunshine for long.

This formula is oddly engaging and in its purest form on the opener "Beautiful Winners" and "Polarnatt". The former introduces Nine Inch Nails to Madness with a very cool ? and the Mysterians organ line while the latter is a mournful sax/piano/synth paean to dark cold nights. The remaining seven tunes include guests who play strings and various reeds and brass. The strings, though at times equally morose, do lighten things up, allowing Sanborn and Cunningham to present the positive intent of the aptly named "Everything Is Going To Be Okay", complete with its stunning string quartet ending.

Wallsmith and Cunningham are masters of dark tonality and the addition of bass clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, baritone sax and trombone to the hypnotically repetitive "Cass Corridor" intensifies the dark industrial sound. "Great Dane Small Horse" is more rhythmically diverse and strings and horns take the bait to produce the most harmonically interesting cut. The two final songs allow the musicians to take flight in somewhat different directions: "Painted Birds" is a winding signature piece mixing fusion and pop melodies with an artsy middle before anthemic "Goldfinches" glides away on wings of electric guitar and theremin-like saw.

For more information, visit This group is at The Bitter End Jan. 10th as part of Winter Jazzfest.

December 2013
Kashmir Magazine (Mexico City, Mexico)

Oscuro, denso, rock. A pesar de la apacible tonalidad mañanera de la portada de su álbum, la lejanía de quien nada sugiere, en una segunda vista, la densa soledad de su persona en ese paisaje. Es curioso que algo tan atmosférico, igual que la portada de Swim, pueda ser aterrador. A pesar de jugar con emociones fuertes, no parecemos enfrentarnos a un álbum visceral, sino muy por el contrario, cerebral y reflexivo. Solitario.

Nos enfrenamos a una de esas bandas que intentan sacar al jazz de su encierro en sí mismo, un encierro poco discutido que mantiene al género en una especie de círculo elitista en donde todos se enriquecen menos sus artífices. Junto con The Bad Plus, Blue Cranes es una de las pocas bandas que sin mucho temor de encasillamiento logran ser jazz sin rendirse a repetir los viejos estándares, incorporando tanto influencias de New Orleans y la música americana que puso las bases del género como al pop con el que cualquiera pudo haber crecido (La pieza "Soldier" lo ilustra perfectamente, con ese final de cuerdas como para pensar en Sufjan Stevens).

Incorporar pasajes oscuros del rock o del chamber pop más sofisticado no es algo que se sacaran de la manga, basta con mirar los créditos y saber que Nate Query de The Decemberists produjo estas piezas. Blue Cranes alcanzan niveles profundos de improvisación y pasajes de jazz de vanguardia sin divorciarse por completo de su esqueleto rock, para comprobarlo basta escuchar el saxo demente de "Painted Birds" aún así arreglándoselas para tener pasajes de pop orquestal, de nuevo, para ofrecernos finales grandilocuentes, nada modestos.

Es fácil cuestionarse el futuro del jazz, sobre todo si constantemente se vuelve a los viejos clásicos como una grandeza alcanzada e imposible de repetir. Muchas veces es fácil acusar al jazz de ser elitista y además, de no ser en absoluto una manera viable de mantener una carrera artística. Decir que discos como Swim podrían revolucionar ese limbo extraño en que el género se encuentra es demasiado arriesgado, pero al escuchar la delicadeza y complejidad de piezas como "Goldfinches" tan cerca de su tiempo, tan honestos con sus influencias, podemos pensar que al menos Blue Cranes están haciendo un gran intento. Los amantes del rock atmosférico (aunque técnicamente aquí estemos hablando de jazz) tendrán que darme la razón.

December 17, 2013
"Top Ten Albums of 2013"

Portland’s Blue Cranes released perhaps their most ambitious work to date last spring with the carefully crafted “Swim” on the Maryland-based Cuneiform record label. Here, you’ll find the sound of some of life’s great trials and tribulations (Birth, Death, and Love) distilled into the sounds of triumph and beauty. The quintet expanded for this recording (which was produced by the Decemberists Nate Query) adding a string quartet that features the especially gifted viola work of Eyvind Kang, saxophonist Noah Bernstein and many more. A musical tour-de-force the whole way through and a band for Portland’s Jazz scene to be especially proud of.

December 17, 2013
Two Hands Clapping

Thursday evening at The Goodfoot was dedicated to artists on the progressive jazz label Cuneiform Records. Like a lot of people, my understanding of jazz gets fuzzy after the late 1960s, and I tend to be suspicious of, and protective of, the boundaries set by the form. Which is dumb, I know- all genre boundaries are made-up and nonsensical, especially in jazz. This evening did funny things to my notions of what sounds belong in which category...

....None of this prepared me properly for Blue Cranes, who proceeded to turn loose a moody, intense performance that was sometimes playful and sometimes somber and reverent. They really played as a group: each musician's individual choices seemed to make space for and support all the others. Even solos almost didn't feel like solos because the rest of the group still felt intimately involved. That's something pretty special.

There was a particularly lovely back-and-forth dialogue between keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn and drummer Ji Tanzer, and several haunting dual-saxophone sections by Joe Cunningham and Reed Wallsmith, who make their instruments sound like human singers. I vividly recall a memorable bass solo by Jon Shaw (featuring a sparkly shirt), and a majestic (and subtly hilarious) moment in which the saxophonists knelt for a somber dueling-glockenspiel prayer session, yielding to a climactic moment in which Ji stood up to strike some sort of huge resonant cowbell. Guitarist Tim Young also joined for several songs, and the mesh of lead guitar, saxes and keys made for pleasingly thick sonic foliage. The songs often seemed emotionally charged- every note seemed to have a purpose and depth. Sometimes music is a bit more than just music. Sometimes it says something much larger about how we're meant to be in the world together, listening to each other and making joyful music together.

December 5, 2013
Portland Mercury

Since 1984, Cuneiform Records has been one of the preeminent imprints for forward-thinking jazz, pro, and folk acts. Tonight, the label gets a small celebration here in Portland with three of its current acts featured on one bill--the first time that's happened on the West Coast. You likely already know local heroes Blue Cranes, whose 2013 release Swim is a masterwork of tight grooves and the ropy sax work of Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham. So, it's a good chance to acquaint yourself with the Paris/New York electronic/jazz hybrid trio the Kandinsky Effect, and Dylan Ryan Sand, the trio led by drummer Dylan Ryan that swings like vintage bop but puts a higher premium on Tim Young's fiery guitar work and the blast of freeform musical chaos.

September 22, 2013
Jazz Times

If you sense an emotional backstory while listening to Swim, you're mistaken; turns out there are several. The album's press notes put the music in context, noting that it was influenced by "indelibly profound life events--the passing of two dear friends, a serious injury, two weddings and the birth of a child, events at tragic and uplifting extremes."

Not surprisingly, Swim, produced by Nate Query of The Decemberists, is jarringly dissonant at times, but it's also poignant, soulful and reassuring. "Everything Is Going to Be Okay," the standout track, attests to that, thanks in part to an arrangement that accommodates a string trio. The Portland-based quintet has developed its own brand of fitful propulsion over the years, which helps distinguish "Cass Corridor" and other tracks while underscoring the often full-throated pairing of saxophonists-composers Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham. Several guests, including baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin, contribute to the album's layered textures, shifting moods and score-like melodic bent.

September 2013
All Music Guide

The saxophones evoke passion but the mood is more equivocal on 2013's Swim, the fourth full-length album from Portland, Oregon quintet Blue Cranes and their first for the Cuneiform label. Reed Wallsmith on alto and Joe Cunningham on tenor carry the melodic hooks but also wail and howl over the midtempo rockish rhythms of supple acoustic bassist Keith Brush and drummer Ji Tanzer and the sometimes dark unfoldings of Rebecca Sanborn's keyboards, augmented here and there by a string trio or quartet. This is an album with a back-story of life-changing events -- deaths of friends, weddings, new life -- and although Swim is entirely instrumental and thus avoids telling explicit stories, the significance of these events seems clear in music that is somehow both melancholic and affirming. The album begins with the Cunningham-penned "Beautiful Winners," a heavy but nevertheless catchy tune and one of only two on the disc with the core quintet unaccompanied by guest artists. Despite some tricky, angular stops and starts from the rhythm section, it's really an indie rock-styled tune with saxes standing in for singers, with a melody you might find yourself humming later. Among the writing and arranging touches that leaven the track's mood, the glockenspiel-like voicings on the bridge are a nice contrast with Sanborn's low-down distorted keys elsewhere.

"Everything Is Going to Be Okay" begins even heavier and more dirgelike than the opening track, but in a pattern not unlike music heard elsewhere on the album, moves deliberately toward a form of tentative and fleeting uplift. After an increasingly intense saxophone solo over a steady cruising vamp, Cunningham and Wallsmith beautifully complement one another with contrapuntal lines over Sanborn's circular chords. The string quartet of violists Eyvind Kang and Kyleen King, violinist Patti King, and cellist Anna Fritz had been employed coloristically midway through, and as the track ends, Blue Cranes' nearly anthemic build rather abruptly fades into the unaccompanied strings, signaling something more measured than a wholly triumphant conclusion. "Great Dane Small Horse," which briefly shines a spotlight on Kang during its intro, also ascends expansively, but in its case, takes a sudden turn toward darkness with several full-ensemble pounds on an incongruously dissonant chord at the finish. A similar mechanistic pulse is stretched out across the entire length of the guest musician-laden "Cass Corridor" (a Portlandian take on the district in Detroit?), whose relentlessness -- albeit for only four minutes -- almost suggests that the leader of another Cuneiform band, Roger Trigaux of Present, was invited in to conduct. And while the nine-minute "Painted Birds" initially features its own insistent throb, the tune's climax coalesces out of the album's most purely improvisational interlude, moving decidedly away from the indie rockish impulses heard elsewhere. An album highlight for the improvised music fan, "Painted Birds" is followed by album-closer "Goldfinches," another strong track with perhaps Swim's deepest melancholy through guest Cooper McBean's singing saw but, at the very end, a tiny bit of optimism that seems unconditional.

September 5, 2013
Audiophile Audition

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.

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 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 [Rebecca Sanborn'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.

August 29, 2013
The Jazz Breakfast

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.

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 its 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. Its 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. Its original, its personal, its richly and complexly beautiful, and it makes a whole lot of sense.

August 22, 2013
Music Discovery
"Artist Of The Day"

Flipping through the radio stations a few weeks ago, I came across a local college station. The DJ was playing brooding after brooding song, when a droning upright bass began the next track. Almost floating through the airwaves, the bassist's notes were powerful and hypnotizing. Before long, the most elegant and heartbreaking saxophone line entered, creating the most melancholic conjunction of instruments I've heard in a long while. The track slowly built, and and the floodgates of emotion swelled and burst when the drums and piano introduced themselves. When it ended, I felt like I was hit with a tidal wave of emotions, all by a song that lacked words. It was beautifully gloomy, yet hopeful and enchanting. It was just a taste of what Portland's Blue Cranes have created on their new album, Swim.

Blue Cranes are a modern post-jazz band, consisting of two saxophones, drums, bass, and keys. They play a style of music that could be easily clumped into the indie scene, but it demands so much more. Their songs tell stories and contain endless amounts of energy and feeling, all while never uttering a single word. Swim is a magnificent release, which beckons multiple listens and only unveils itself in small pieces.

August 16, 2013
The Oregonian
"The Hot List"

Long before there were silly, cheapo, made-for-TV horror movies like "Sharknado," there were silly, cheapo, made-for-the-drive-in horror movies like "Planet of Dinosaurs." Guess what it's about? Oh, all right, I'll tell: This relic of the 1970s features a no-name cast in a sci-fi tale about a spaceship crew who crash-land on a planet -- that has dinosaurs! But this "Movies in the Park" presentation is a Filmusik Production, which means voice actors, musicians and sound effects artists will perform a new, live soundtrack. The music is by notable jazz quintet the Blue Cranes. Bring blankets, chairs and refreshments, and be prepared in case it gets chilly after dark.

August 15, 2013
Search and Restore / WWOZ

Back in action, bright and early, Scott Borne's weekly radio show runs today from 6-9pm central time, streaming live from New Orleans over at Todays preview from Borne's coming playlist is a current living band from Portland, Oregon called the Blue Cranes. Their newest record Swim is out and available for purchase (do it!) on the Cuneiform label.

The song feels like a song. Theres a folk root that cant be pulled up, and the string sound helps anchor that, but the saxophones also chisel a drive into the sound. That forward momentum added to the anchor creates a push and pull that is great to listen to, and is damn near pleasant. Thats a word often avoided or used passively but I dare say that these sounds feel relentlessly great in the ear canals, and the pleasantness is not to be dissed or avoided.

The consonance blended with a sense of adventure feels also directly connected to the bands hometown. Its a refreshing reminder that despite the internets gift of hyperconnectivity, our music can still be personal to the place it calls home. New York, Amsterdam or Portland, Oregon all have their sounds and the land is an instrument in the process. At least thats the romantic way to look at it.

Listen to the track below, and then check out our continued interview with WWOZs Scott Borne. Tune in if youre awake!

July 31, 2013
Portland Mercury
"My, What a Busy Week!"

Portland's own Blue Cranes play a percussive, timeless brand of jazz best listened to alone at 2am on a summer night in a big city apartment, and maybe with some tobacco smoke circling around your head. It's improvisational, but purposeful--full of fine sax work. And it's incredibly moody. w/ AgesandAges; Rontoms.

July 29, 2013
Redefine Magazine
"Cathedral Park Jazz Festival"

...The Blue Cranes turn out to be exactly what I like about free jazz. The lineup consists of an alto and tenor saxophone, a keyboard, a drummer and a bassist. Their music tends to be hypnotic to listen to, especially as the alto and tenor play in similar musical ranges, making the horns sound as one unified instrument. The sound is nothing if not hypnotic, even with some of the harsher sounds that the musicians make, and I couldn’t actually tell you how long some of the songs beyond that they were longer than five minutes. The dissonance and overblowing you find in other artists was used effectively to inject emotion into a song rather than simply dominating it. Here is where free jazz hits its peak: you can sit back and simply let your mind wander amid the song, seeing where the music might lead you. The Blue Cranes clearly have a good time and encourage a sort of audience participation; a couple of young children are given a toy marimba and allowed to just play on it while the band accompanies them.

July 23, 2013
The Province (Vancouver, BC)

If this group isnt one of the unsung heroes of the Portland music scene then somebody isnt doing their homework. This post-jazz unit produced by Nate Query of the Decemberists is a force to be reckoned with as keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn brings her dark tones to play on the opener Beautiful Winners and they get their post-modern bop balladeering on Polarnatt. The moods range from pensive to fully p.o.ed and you cant help but think of groups such as Fond Of Tigers and the like when you hear their mix of rock. jazz, and more. Without a doubt the band are all able-bodied without sounding like it is trying to play down its chops to fit the genre like many similar acts do.

July 21, 2013
Portland Mercury

Maximize the fine Portland summer by spending it lounging on the grass while surrounded by the sounds of the West Coast's longest-running free jazz festival. The Cathedral Park Jazz Festival is on its 33rd year, boasting a lineup that includes tonight's performers Blue Cranes and the Eri Yamamoto Trio.

July 3, 2013
Portal Esquizofrenia (Madrid, España)

Hoy traemos a colación a la banda estadounidense BLUE CRANES, formada en la localidad de Portland en 2007. En los últimos cuatro años, BLUE CRANES ha publicado tres CDs y un EP: el último de los CDs se titula “Swim” y ha sido publicado recientemente por Cuneiform Records. El grupo está conformado por los saxofonistas Reed Wallsmith y Joe Cunningham (alto y tenor, respectivamente), la teclista Rebecca Sanborn, el contrabajista Keith Brush y el baterista Ji Tanzer. El bloque instrumental no se queda allí, pues a lo largo del álbum hace acto de presencia numerosos invitados aportando más vientos y cuerdas: además, para el último tema ‘Goldfinches’, quienes tocan la batería, el contrabajo y el teclado son otros músicos (Eric Redpath, Sam Howard y Jessica Cooke), además de contar con el guitarrista Kevin DeMarco. Los músicos siempre se mantienen ocupados dentro del grupo así como en proyectos externos, por lo que el grupo ha debido tomarse su tiempo para terminar de grabar y producir este segundo disco, el cual sucede por casi tres años al muy elogiado “Observatories”: ahora “Swim” se encarga de afianzar a BLUE CRANES como fuerza líder de su zona musical.

Comencemos ahora con el repertorio del disco. Durando casi 3 ½ minutos, ‘Beautiful Winners’ instaura un espectro sonoro elegante signado por una arquitectura melódica limpia. El rol de la batería se torna esencial para aportar variantes a la dinámica general de la pieza por causa de algunos estupendos percusivos en el swing. Acto seguido, ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’ empieza con aires crepusculares exquisitamente arropados de sobrios arreglos de metales, para luego remontarse hacia un esquema rítmico ágil y llamativo: es aquí cuando el gancho del motivo central se explota sabiamente a través de los alternados solos de los dos saxos. El momento de ‘Cass Corridor’ es uno de moderada densidad, pues se focaliza en una serie de pulsaciones minimalistas (desarrolladas en un amenazante crescendo) sobre las que los saxos dibujan retazos grisáceos, creando así una atmósfera de inquietud que convenientemente culmina con un cierre abrupto: evidentemente, la banda se ha puesto a explorar áreas del rock-in-opposition al estilo de ART BEARS y el primer ART ZOYD. Como anécdota, cabe mencionar que el invitado al saxo barítono en este tema es Steve Berlin, de LOS LOBOS. ‘Polarnatt’ prosigue por estas aventuras de conceptualismo vanguardista, comenzando con un preludio envuelto bajo un manto relajado que evoca un ambiente funerario, y luego elaborando un cuerpo central bastante dinámico donde el ambiente varía hacia algo etéreo, trabajando con un colorido otoñal que traslada la languidez previa hacia una posición latente. En ‘Great Dane Small Horse’, BLUE CRANES hacen una perfecta síntesis entre la elegancia contemplativa de ‘Beautiful Winners’ y la sofisticación otoñal de ‘Polarnatt’ mientras desarrolla nuevos rumbos de fastuosidad dentro de su esencia estilística (al modo de los momentos más explícitamente esplendorosos del legado de COLTRANE). El rol que cumple el ensamble de cuerdas durante la primera sección de la pieza es crucial a la hora de crear recursos de plenitud y exaltación antes de que llegue una sección más reposada, aunque igualmente signada por una inocultable fuerza de carácter.

La dupla evocativa de ‘Soldier’ y ‘For Chris’ inicia el tránsito hacia la segunda mitad del disco. ‘Soldier’ refleja una espiritualidad elegíaca y también romántica: la banda trabaja las orquestaciones de fondo haciéndolas resaltar no para hacerse del rol protagónico sino para realzar el momentum indicado por la base compositiva. La mezcla de chamber-rock y avant-jazz funciona muy bien como fórmula de capitalización de la musicalidad introvertida, y esto se aplica también al caso de ‘For Chris’, una bella composición cuya serenidad inmanente refleja una impactante aura de vulnerabilidad emocional. Con sus casi 9 minutos de duración, ‘Painted Birds’ resulta la pieza más extensa del álbum: se trata de un ejercicio vitalistamente expansivo de un jam muy al estilo de la vieja escuela del jazz-fusion y la tradición del free-jazz: contando con amplias alusiones al modelo del WEATHER REPORT pre-Pastorius en varios de sus pasajes, además de algunas incursiones en chocantes orquestaciones caóticas a lo ZAPPA y algunas leves tendencias R.I.O., pero quitando la habitual tendencia siniestra. El eje central de la pieza es crear sucesivas variantes de colorido bizarro. ‘Goldfinches’ cierra el álbum con un aire sutilmente intenso revestido de una calma casi minimalista: se hace sentir la influencia de TORTOISE un poco, en efecto, se ajusta bastante al estándar del post-jazz. Siendo la última pieza del álbum, se siente como una despedida de buenas noches.

“Swim” es un discazo, pongamos con palabras breves y directas nuestro balance final: es un gusto para nosotros descubrir a BLUE CRANES a través de ésta, su obra más reciente, y sentirnos consecuentemente motivados a seguir hurgando en las maravillas escondidas que existen en el underground actual del jazz vanguardista estadounidense.

July 3, 2013

Portland's Blue Cranes might not be thought of as group that plays jazz, despite their two-saxes-and-rhythm-section lineup. There are some horn solos on Swim, but the first "real" one doesn't come until track five, "Great Dane Small Horse." The sax screams in "Beautiful Winners" serve as a parting comment instead of a gateway to extended blowing.

But the quintet comes off a bit like Jeremy Udden's Plainville group, playing what might be called post-rock had it been played on guitars. The textures of the music could lend themselves to visuals, and it's constantly moving, exploring the way the group and the band-and-a-half of guest musicians create something that sounds big and vast.

Alto saxophonist Reed Wallsmith and tenor saxophonist Joe Cunningham frequently play lines full of sustained notes, in the range where their horns cross over, so it's easy to mistake one for the other. Even when Wallsmith plays a raspy solo in "Soldier," it lures you closer to make sure you know what you're hearing. This track is one of five that includes a string trio adds to the texture, with violist Eyvind Kang sitting in on two more of them.

The group sprouts five more horns in "Cass Corridor" though they don't appear until the very end. During the whole song, drummer Ji Tanzer thumps a metronomic beat with help from Rebecca Sanborn, who adds a single electric piano note to the foundation, leaving Wallsmith and Cunningham to unravel a line of whole notes. After a countermelody from the strings, the extra horns (some hailing from Los Lobos and tUnEyArDs) join in for some pedal point chaos to take it out. It sounds both grating and hypnotic.

Swim was created amid some lifechanging events, both good and bad for the band, and knowing that makes the reflective quality of the music a little more obvious. The ballad "For Chris" seems like a sweet eulogy. "Painted Birds," which gives the group a chance to open up and blow free for a bit, points toward the desire to carry on, with hope for the future. The album closes with "Goldfinches," another slow shuffle which gets some levity from the guest saw of Cooper McBean (of The Devil Makes Three). Each chorus adds more instruments gets more expansive.

With Nate Query of the Decemberists producing Swim, the group seems to have harnessed some of his band's je nais se quoi. They take what might sound simple in lesser hands and make it dense and intriguing.

June 17, 2013
Something Else

It would be easy to assume that a discussion about a record produced by the Decembrists' Nate Query and featuring a guest spots by the tUnE-yArDs' Noah Bernstein and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin is a discussion about an indie rock record, but since this is the Blue Cranes we're talking about here, it's a little more complicated than that. Complicated, but not problematic.

The last time this five piece band from Portland, Oregon had made a record, we got a kick out of how they were able to apply indie rock sensibilities to jazz, or something resembling jazz, and make music that split the difference but not dilute anything. Observatories demonstrated the combo's unique ability to do that, devising rich melodies, alternatively improvising and playing to score when you don't expect them to. And shaping their sound around a two-saxophone front line (Reed Wallsmith, alto sax; Joe Cunningham, tenor sax), keyboards (Rebecca Sanborn), a standup bass (Keith Brush) and drums (Ji Tanzer). No guitar.

Three years later, Swim solidifies their signature sound. It's Sanborn's coarse electric piano and the husky sax duo that give it an indie rock sound without the help of a single guitar, except for last track. Meanwhile for five of these nine songs, a viola/cello trio made up of Patti King, Kyleen King and Anna Fritz smooth out those rough edges and clarify the harmonies. They make the chorus swell on "Everything Is Going To Be Okay," add to the resolute throb amidst swirling brass on "Cass Corridor," while violist Eyvind Kang (Bill Frisell), gets "Great Dane Small Horse" to a jaunty start with devilish viola.

Additional horns by Berlin (baritone sax), Bernstein (alto sax), Chad Hensel (bass clarinet), Patrick Finley (trombone) and Gus Baum (trumpet) contribute in a dramatic way to that one-note thump of "Cass Corridor" and add poignancy to Wallsmith's solemn, intricate "For Chris."

The core band remains at the heart of every performance, however. "Beautiful Winners" blends the crunch of an electric keyboard with a sax front, establishing what this band is about: rock attitude, indie pop melody and jazz gumption. "Polarnatt" begins with a repeating figure but then they layer it and evolve it and cap it off with a pretty alto sax solo by Wallsmith. They modulate the mood masterfully on "Soldier," which is highlighted by a quiet middle where Brush solos, followed by a fragile one by from Wallsmith.

Avant garde leanings flair up here and there (Cunningham threatens to go off the deep end during "Everything Is Going To Be Okay"), but "Painted Birds" is their most adventurous track overall. Launched by another throbbing single note from Sanborn's Rhodes, but with more variation this time. There is some intimate interaction amongst everyone sounding somewhat like Bitches Brew, until the song is brought back up from the group improv, bolstered by those viola/cello section.

"Goldfinches," by contrast, brings the album to an end on a spiritual note, a gentle and majestic folk tune spotlighted by Cooper McBean's (The Devil Makes Three) musical saw, and a Charlie Haden styled bass solo by Brush.

A deeper, denser excursion than their prior output, Swim manages to stay afloat amidst the rough waves they make, because the members of the Blue Cranes invest a lot of trust in each other, and it's a trust that pays off in a record that brings together the parts into a beautiful mess.

June 13, 2013
Music and More

Blue Cranes, from Portland, Oregon, are an interesting band that combines modern jazz with elements of indie rock to forge a unique sound. Consisting of Reed Wallsmith on alto saxophone, Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone, Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, Keith Brush on bass and Ji Tanzer on drums. “Beautiful Winners” opens the album with some dirty sounding electric piano and harmonized horns giving the music a full feel. Strong drums and piano build to a frenzy and then stop abruptly. There is a heavy slow and ponderous beginning to “Everything Is Going To Be Okay” with the horns piling together over dark piano. Horns and bass break out of the torpor with a saxophone solo that builds energy as it stretches. “Cass Corridor” has a throbbing undercurrent with saxophones soaring overhead, developing an ominous feel accented by electronic smears of keyboard. Slow and quiet bowed bass opens “Polarnatt” with slow and low toned saxophone letting out as the piano, bass and drums play an interlude akin to The Bad Plus before the saxophones move back for a deep and strong full band improvisation. “Great Dane Small Horse” has bowed bass and and low toned saxophone harmonize into a hard gutsy feel, developing a dense and claustrophobic improvisation. “Painted Birds” features electric piano, drums and saxophone developing an upbeat and genial conception. Pastel hued piano and breathy saxophone carry things through to an amicable conclusion. The bonus track “Corporal’s Lament” is pleasingly experimental with accordion like keyboards messing with processed saxophone and smears of electronics developing an exciting prog-rock feel.

June 12, 2013
WNYC - New Sounds
Episode #3479

Whether it's piano-driven, horn-driven, or interlocking rhythms of guitar music, listen to music with a steady groove on this edition of New Sounds. Hear the Blue Cranes, who are a keyboard trio and dueling saxophones from Portland with a from a new record, "Swim." Also, listen to music from keyboardist Marco Benevento with his playful arrangement of an early Pink Floyd song, recorded live at Tonic. Hear a groove-based instrumental piece from the gifted guitarist Kaki King. Plus, music from three-ohs Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Bad Plus, and the Neil Cowley Trio, and more.

[Episode features Blue Cranes' songs on the intro and two selections]

June 12, 2013

Perhaps it's a good thing that I've never heard anything by Blue Cranes before; I can approach this release with a fresh perspective and open mind, with no previous baggage to carry along. But it needs to be said that this is the Portland, Oregon based band's fourth full length release. The first thing that jumps out at the listener is the dual-sax front line of Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham on alto and tenor respectively. Their purpose through most of the nine tracks here is a disciplined dedication to melody, and not a lot of free blowing solos. This is jazzy at times, sometimes very much so, but it's not jazz in the classic sense, but a touch more chamber in nature with some jazzy embellishments. Oh, and did I mention that it rocks? Oh yeah, at times it sure does, but the band is void of guitars; instead, all that middle ground is handled by the piano and keyboards of Rebecca Sanborn; and the rhythm section of Keith Brush (acoustic bass) and Ji Tanzer (drums) ties it all together nicely with a busy everpresence that supports the effort but doesn't overwhelm the sound. Their compositions (most by Cunningham and Wallsmith) offer sincere melodic strength and emotion that one can take away from the listen, and they vary in timbre, scope, and style enough to keep this interesting all the way through. Just when the train is about to fly off the tracks, they'll calm it down with a gentle pastoral piece that puts it all in perspective. This is a disc that begs for repeat plays.

June 6, 2013
Los Angeles Times
"Jazz picks"

Portland's Blue Cranes and local drummer Dylan Ryan's ensemble Sand lead this meeting of two up-and-coming ensembles pushing at the edge of contemporary jazz on the adventurous label Cuneiform.

The Blue Cranes' latest album, "Swim," finds the group's two front-line saxophones mining a darker, more contemplative vein with production help from the Decemberists' Nate Query, and Sand splits the difference between widescreen post-rock and the avant-garde adventurousness of John Zorn with the help of bassist Devin Hoff and guitarist Tim Young.

June 6, 2013
Chico News and Review

Blue Cranes: The innovative Portland jazz group hits Cafe Coda Saturday, June 8, the same week their new album, Swim, is released. Produced by The Decemberists' Nate Query, the new disc is described as a departure from the quintet's earlier albums, a more dense and dark work featuring an eclectic collection of guest players, including Noah Bernstein of tUnE-yArDs, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and Devil Makes Three's Cooper McBean.

May 24, 2013
Experimental Portland
"Interview: Reed Wallsmith of Blue Cranes"

Few bands have done as much to raise the profile of the current jazz landscape in Portland than Blue Cranes. The five piece ensemble has done so by sticking with an uncompromising yet accessible sound that centers on the wicked interplay of saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham, with coloring tossed into the mix via keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn and their sharp rhythm section of Keith Brush on bass and Ji Tanzer on drums. You could call it post-bop, indie jazz, or some other weird modifier, but that doesn’t take into account the deep soulfulness that the players bring to their compositions.

Tonight at Mississippi Studios, the quintet is celebrating the release of their latest album Swim, a stunning collection of originals that evokes the beautiful, haunting, and slightly scary image that graces the record’s cover. Many of the songs were influenced – as Wallsmith told me in the below interview – by the highs and lows of life that the band has experienced in the past few years. All of that pours out through the addition of a string section to several songs and through the impassioned playing of all involved. Check out a track from the new album and then read what Wallsmith has to say about its creation and inspiration. [READ MORE...]

May 2013
Eleven PDX Magazine

It's often from dissonant and jagged experiences where the most life-affirming and bitterly sweet music comes. Local post-jazz rockers Blue Cranes have indeed been through the darkest lows and brightest peaks lately. The quintet has seen serious injury, the deaths of dear friends, weddings, and nativity. On their fourth record, Swim, the complexity of this emotional tableau informs their work, but equal praise must also be attributed to their exceptional musicianship. Everyone feels pain, but magicians alchemize pain into bliss.

Whether live or in the studio, every moment is infused with all they've got. A prodigiously creative rhythm section accompanied by Ji Tanzer on drums, Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, and Keith Brush on bass; mimicking the insistent progression of a life-ending disease or jutting skyward in joyful reception of a newborn. The colorful sonic banter of saxophonists Reed Wallsmith (alto) and Joe Cunningham (tenor) offer an endlessly fresh interplay, sometimes beckoning sad melodies from unexpected balconies or mapping a constellation of rich, golden chords within the ether. This is music that not only explores, laments, struggles, and celebrates, but also reminds us of why music exists in the first place.

May 2013
Downbeat Magazine
"Portland Jazz Fest Turns 10"

The main goal of the Portland Jazz Festival is not to challenge its audience with experimentalism or atonal blasts from beyond. That said, organizers and curators of the 10th installment of the festival made some surprising and thoughtful choices in this year's lineup and carefully pushed the proverbial envelope.

The artist who exemplified that philosophy the most was Wayne Horvitz. The pianist and composer may have traveled a mere three hours from Seattle, but the music he brought to his neighbors down south seemed to come from light-years away, including his collaboration with one of Portland's brightest lights in the local scene, the quintet known as Blue Cranes.

Horvitz's presence and his languid piano and synthesizer lines visibly and audibly energized the group. He infused his usually angular take on modern jazz with pop melodics and swelling waves of dynamics and volume. At times, the performance moved out of the jazz realm, instead evoking post-rock icons Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

May 22, 2013
Portland Mercury

"If there is a theme, it came about pretty organically among all of us," says alto saxophonist Reed Wallsmith. "A lot of amazing and a lot of really rough stuff has happened to us," he adds, referring to the time since Blue Cranes' 2010 album Observatories.

All five members of the band are discussing their latest album, Swim, in the back room of Peter's Bar on NE Fremont. Like Blue Cranes' other work, the new record bears some tenets of jazz (instrumental compositions, the presence of horns), but genre descriptors still fail to adequately encapsulate Blue Cranes. "Post-jazz" seems to be the tag the band begrudgingly agrees is the least inaccurate. But from Swim's opening seconds--a distorted electric piano riff from Rebecca Sanborn, closely followed by deep, thumping drums from Ji Tanzer--it's clear the band is omnivorous in its sound, defined by an embracing absorption of music in all forms.

Swim is an invigorating, moving listen that, while without lyrics, manages to convey pretty heady emotions. Its basic tracks were recorded live at Jackpot! Recording Studio with Decemberists bassist Nate Query in the producer's chair. The studio layout allowed the band to perform with everyone in each other's sightlines, and bassist Keith Brush was able to mic his upright bass in an isolation booth without the need for further amplification.

Tanzer says, "One of the reasons we got Nate on board was because he said, 'I want to have you guys recorded like your live shows. I want it to feel like a live show in the recording setting.'"

The album marks the first time Blue Cranes collaborated during the songwriting process, and the band made the most of a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant by retreating to the Oregon Coast for a couple intensive composition sessions. Discussing the difference between composition and improvisation, Brush says, "It's a very blurry line. The melody and the chord progression are usually composed. But the way they're internalized and embellished is improvised."

"The forms tend to be pretty concrete," says Tanzer. "But that also depends on the songs. If we're playing a punk-rock club, we're gonna play it a certain way, probably. If we're going to play at a sit-down house concert where there's seven people, then that will probably be different than the punk-rock club."

Tenor saxophonist Joe Cunningham adds, "Typically with jazz bands, they'll play a head and then they'll solo, and the soloists and the improvisations are the stars of the show. But with our thing, we sort of think of the songs as the stars."

"I think this album is a lot darker than our other albums," Wallsmith says of Swim. "Or maybe more complex or dense in certain ways. A lot of that came out of coping with some pretty rough stuff that was happening. Rebecca's best friend died of brain cancer, and my sister-in-law died of breast cancer. For me, part of the music has been trying to hang on and cope with everything that's going on and process that."

"With instrumental music, the emotion has to come out of the music," says Cunningham. "So it's important for us to show that emotion in our writing and playing, and especially the improvisation."

"We can't help it," says Sanborn. "We just know each other so well, and that's the way that we play together--because it's about the song, and a group dynamic, and about being connected, and not just blowing through changes. Anything that's happening in our lives is always going to be on the table. We all share it together."

Wallsmith adds, "It's a therapy group, really."

May 22, 2013
Willamette Week

Theres no way around it: Swim, the fourth album by local jazz institution Blue Cranes, is as heady and dark as anything the group has done in its six years together. The big chainsaw synths of opener Beautiful Winners are followed by dual sax lines glued together so tightly they, too, sound synthetic--like a video-game version of an Ethiopian funk bands horn section. The opener's massive bridges, packed with drum fills, offer some resolution, but the real relief doesn't show up until the aptly titled second track, Everything is Going to be Okay. Tenor saxophonist Joe Cunningham is granted room to improvise wildly, breaking apart the industrial grind established in the records first six minutes. Its intense call-and-response sax flights, which shoot up like fireworks reflected on the Willamette, are among the records prettiest moments.

Its not long before the darkness returns, and its urgent and gutting. Polarnatt sounds like John Coltrane with Nigel Godrich at the helm. Soldier is all string-driven, drunken majesty, like Charles Mingus partying a little too hard with the Kronos Quartet. For Chris is one of many examples of this band getting absolutely profound without ever saying a word. Taken together, these songs--produced by the Decemberists Nate Query--map out some pretty harrowing times, but I struggle to think of better cartographers than the members of Blue Cranes.

May 22, 2013
Oregon Music News

In order to stop the conversation about to which genre the Blue Cranes belong, we have to talk about it. Then let's drop it. Are they the Jazz band that Indie audiences love? Are they the Indie band the Jazz fans embrace.

Depends on your prior orientation. You're going to hear Jazz if that's what you like, and Instrumental Rock if you're coming from that directon. Either way, listening to them is a growing experience and those of us who have listened to them for a long time have seen their own growth. The two saxophonists, Joe Cunningham on tenor and Reed Wallsmith on alto are superb. They are the perfect match. There aren't another pair of saxophonists who have both the chops and the emotional clarity of these two. They've been playing together for several years now, but it sounds like they've been playing together since birth.

Rebecca Sanborn is on keys and people don't talk about her as much as they should. Cunningham talks about her in the interview below. Keith Brush on bass and Ji Tanzer on drums complete the band, literally. This band is complete, a unit and a unit has unity, you know? We throw that word around, but when it is so apparent and the results are as rewarding for the listener as they obviously are for the players, the result is art.

Their new album is called Swim and it's on a real label, Cuneiform. It is produced by the band and the Decemberists' Nate Query. Their album release is on Friday, May 24 at Mississippi Studios with Billygoat and Golden Retriever.

May 12, 2013
Killing Sasquatch

Available for pre-order now is the latest adventure of Portland explorers Blue Cranes. Before you even read, just have a listen.

What you're hearing is what some bloggers might call post-jazz. The minimal and progressive song structures are reminiscent of post-rock groups like Explosions or Godspeed, But what Blue Cranes puts forth is a bold mixture of abstract heavy metal, classically inspired orchestral movements, and jazz improvisation. Where many groups struggle to incorporate such diverse elements, Blue Cranes builds a brilliant synergy. The aptly named "Everything is Going to be Okay" is a gorgeously representative piece that begins in a slow slog of gloom, then moves through an extraordinary little epiphany, until it breaks into joyous piano over groovy bass. When the sax solo kicks in, man, I really felt like everything was going to be just fine.

April 23, 2013
OPB Arts and Life Blog
"Blue Cranes join musical forces with Wayne Horvitz"

Longevity is a key ingredient to transforming a decent band into a mesmerizing one. If a group manages to stay together for years, refining their sound and honing their telepathy, the individual voices may blossom into the greatness of unity.

Such is the case with Portland band Blue Cranes.

Since 2006, when the group solidified into a quintet, Blue Cranes has become one of the most unified jazz bands in Portland. Founded by alto saxophonist Reed Wallsmith, the group includes Joe Cunningham on tenor, keys by Rebecca Sanborn, Keith Brush on the bass and Ji Tanzer keeping time on drums.

Like much innovation in music, their sound remains difficult to categorize, but two constants abound in the sonic world of Blue Cranes. Their songs possess a stimulating pulse and catchiness drawn from the world of indie rock underpinned by dazzling improvisation that can only be called jazz. The uniqueness of this improvisation is that the players eschew extended individual soloing in favor of what might be called jazz by committee.

With three full-length albums under their belt and a reputation throughout the Northwest as a force of nature in live performance, 2013 is looking like the year that Blue Cranes get the opportunity to spread their songs to the uninitiated. Having signed to East Coast indie label Cuneiform Records, the group has a new album waiting in the wings that has already generated excited speculation and much deserved attention.

They also headlined a show in collaboration with Seattle jazz innovator Wayne Horvitz during the opening weekend of this years 10th Annual PDX Jazz Festival. What transpired on the stage of the Mission Theater that night brought the audience a swift sighting of lightning in a bottle. Both Blue Cranes and Wayne Horvitz are innovators in terms of how they play and the compositions they write, so a collaboration seemed inevitable and long overdue. Joining the band on piano and keys, Horvitz brought an elegant experimentalism to the proceedings as he played their tunes and Blue Cranes eagerly tackled his own compositions. The audience howled out for more when all was said and done.

For a taste of what it was like to be there, check out the video courtesy of KMHD Jazz Radio above.

April 18, 2013

With three full length albums under their belt and a reputation throughout the Northwest, 2013 is looking like the year that Blue Cranes get the opportunity to spread their songs to the uninitiated. Having signed to East Coast indie label, Cuneiform Records, the group has a new album waiting in the wings that has already generated excited speculation and much deserved attention (take a look/listen here). They also were chosen to headline a show in collaboration with Seattle jazz innovator Wayne Horvitz during the opening weekend of the 10th Annual Portland Jazz Festival in February. [ VIDEO ]

What transpired on the stage of the Mission Theater that night brought the audience a swift sighting of lightning in a bottle. Both Blue Cranes and Wayne Horvitz are innovators in terms both of how they play and write, so a collaboration seemed inevitable and long overdue. Joining the band on piano and keys, Horvitz brought an elegant experimentalism to the proceedings as he played their tunes and Blue Cranes eagerly tackled his own compositions. The audience howled out for more when all was said and done.

March 18, 2013
Jazz Times
"Review: Portland Jazz Festival 2013"

This year, the Portland Jazz Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary with one of its most diverse and ambitious line-ups to date. From Kurt Rosenwinkel to Kenny Garrett, Patricia Barber to Esperanza Spalding, Portland's Blue Cranes to New York's Matt Wilson, the 10-day event represented a cross-section of what's happening now in Jazz. And, with an array of jazz legends including bop pianist Barry Harris, 94-year-old conductor Gerald Wilson and drummer Jack DeJohnette, (all NEA Jazz Masters), the festival certainly had its share of big names as well...

On night two, it was Portland's own Blue Cranes with a special guest, Seattle-based composer Wayne Horvitz. With Horvitz on keys, the band worked through a set of music from its upcoming release on Cuneiform Records, and original Horvitz compositions. This was one of a handful of shows put together specifically "for Portland only," one of the festival's new themes.

February 14, 2013
NPR - A Blog Supreme

Call it "creative music" or "post-jazz" or whatever you like, but the Blue Cranes sound is steeped in the ideas and concepts of jazz. The driving pulse and horn melodies of "Grandpa's Hands" opens the 2010 album Observatories. Somewhere around the two-minute mark, the twin saxophones of Reed Walsmith and Joe Cunningham begin to trade solos, culminating in a beautifully improvised sonic experience. [Stream: Grandpa's Hands]

January 16, 2013
Oregon Music News

After much speculation, it was leaked last week on the Progressive Ears Website that the Blue Cranes have signed with independent label, Cuneiform Records (Silver Springs, Maryland).

Label chief, Steve Feigenbaum mentioned that the brash quintet's new album is set for a May 2013 release date. The label is well known in the Indie realm with a diverse roster from instrumental post rock (Universe Zero and Thinking Plague) to jazz, progressive rock (Happy the Man, Soft Machine) and experimental music. The group has been working for over two years on their latest album (rumored to be entitled Swim) which is a quantum leap from their previous full length release, Observatories (2010).

Since then the quintet has released two EP's, one a set of clever remixes and the other (Cantus Firmus), a 3 song set of unique covers. The band's publicist Matt Merewitz (Fully Altered Media) confirmed the signing today saying, "After a long series of consideration and negotiation it is indeed true. We will be doing a press release shortly."

Editor's note: Copies of Swim have been floating around for months. They're been successfully kept under wraps, including at OMN. An email to the Blue Cranes' Reed Wallsmith was not returned.

September 10, 2012
NPR - A Blog Supreme

The first time I saw Portland's Blue Cranes live, I walked away trying to compare what I'd seen to anything I'd encountered before. I couldn't do it, and I still can't - the band is a force of nature. [Stream: Ritchie Bros.]

July 12, 2012
Chico News and Review

Portland, Ore., indie-jazz crew the Blue Cranes has an impressive collection of press clippings, with a shower of praise for its genre-hopping art-rock/jazz sound coming from everyone from the L.A. Times to NPR. But I think I like best how Josh Fernandez, a brother at our sister paper, the Sacramento News & Review, described them: "Blue Cranes provide a new amplification of jazz, allowing listeners to hear a stream of water pass through a storm drain thick with sediment." Let 'em wash over you this Saturday, July 14, as they join returning Chico fave Zach Zeller for a summer evening at Café Coda.

February 29, 2012
Willamette Week
"Tim Berne & Snakeoil, Blue Cranes"

...Blue Cranes, one of the city's most broadly appealing jazz bands, somehow manages to reach just about everyone, thanks especially to the chemistry between saxophonists Joe Cunningham and Reed Wallsmith.

February 11, 2012
"Blue Cranes – Cantus Firmus"

This Portland quintet seem to straddle the line between jazz and post-rock, but where much of post-rock sounds meticulously thought out, it’s the heart of jazz that typically shines through when improvised music is the guiding principle. The Blue Cranes clearly take to improvisation. Featuring a core of tenor & alto sax, keyboards, drums, and bass, they seem more than happy to toss a bunch of strings into the mix. Strangely, it pushes their music further away from post-rock and closer to an avant-chamber jazz sound. Cantus Firmus is an EP, but they also have a proper album from 2010 called Observatories and another called Lift Music! Flown Music! from 2007, and it’s just as cool as the EP. Intoxicating tunes with plenty of force from sax and melancholy from strings, rhythms that don’t so much keep the time as spray paint the walls wherever the melody wanders.

Friday, January 20, 2012
The Oregonian

Are Blue Cranes a jazz band that doesn't play jazz? Or are they a rock band that doesn't play rock? The instrumental makeup is pretty jazzy -- saxophone is the primary melodic instrument -- but they don't play standards or take extended solos over changes.

Rather it's a kind of, gulp, fusion in which the band employs complex, through-composed arrangements that range from the sublime to the quasi-industrial. Their sound picks up where genre-bending post-jazz groups like the Lounge Lizards and the Ordinaires left off, with plenty of respect to Ornette Coleman and Frank Zappa.

The harmonized horn lines between saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham on "Maddie Mae (Was a Good Girl)" set a slightly dissonant but gorgeous introduction to tenor saxophonist Cunningham's eloquent soloing over the circular and propulsive groove set by drummer Ji Tanzer and bassist Keith Brush. On "Ritchie Bros.," ping-ponging repetitive horn lines recall Steve Reich sound collages over industrial drumming and contrast with another interlude of lyrical beauty.

The adventurousness gives way to the stately, gospel ballad, "Yellow Ochre," carried by the grace of the melody first sketched out by guitarist Timothy Young before Wallsmith takes over. Tanzer's emphasis on the third beat of each measure implies a slow, waltzing rhythm that adds to the reflective tone.

Although these days most bands squeeze into vans to take their live shows to the public, Blue Cranes, funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, made their way across the country via Amtrak last April. They're in Portland on Wednesday at the Alberta Rose Theater.

They are recording a new album, their [fourth] original full length, due out this summer as a follow-up to last year's "Observatories." It's melodic progressive avant jazz -- you'll love it.

January 18, 2012
The Forest Grove News-Times
"Portland’s Blue Cranes brings jazz odyssey to Walters Center in Hillsboro"

Throughout the years, Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center has played host to music from throughout the ages, from the sounds of the renaissance to throwback groups that cater to nostalgia with soul and pop sounds that tickle the ear with familiarity.

Portland jazz quintet Blue Cranes, which plays the center on Friday, is composed of musicians who have a mastery of tweaking the familiar and taking it into completely different and unknown territories. Even the band’s most ardent fans take distinct pleasure in the group’s ability to take even its most familiar songs and guide them into completely different directions.

The band’s influences — which range from classical to rock and pop — dictate much of the group’s sound, but it’s an even more essential element that the band draws on to keep things fresh in a genre where no two shows sound the same: the audience.

“The songs we play have a lot of spaces in them. We play them in different ways depending on the audience, and what the room is like,” says founding member Reed Wallsmith. “It always depends on what the space is like. It’s fun to present something that people aren’t expecting.”

Since debuting in 2007, the Cranes — alto saxophonist Wallsmith, tenor sax man Joe Cunningham, keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, bass player Keith Brush and drummer Ji Tanzer — have released six acclaimed records, including last year’s “Cantus Firmus.” The five-piece outfit is currently recording a new album, tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

Those who are weaned on the group’s studio output, however, are in for a treat with the Walters Center show. The Cranes use the templates of their jackknifing jazz compositions as springboards into uncharted musical territory. Not even the group knows how the middle sections of each song will sound until each member finds himself or herself deep in an odyssey of improvisation.

“It’s hard to play the exact same way all the time. I’m really thankful that there’s a lot of space where we can change all the time,” says Wallsmith. “That makes us a jazz band, but we’ll compositionally and musically pull from rock and modern classical stuff. Improvising and being able to change our music is really important.”

Improvisation is something employed by many groups, but Wallsmith credits much of the group’s ability to stay together as it musically wanders to the fact that, along with being masters of their respective instruments, the Cranes are a close-knit musical family.

“[It’s] important to have people who you connect with really well musically, but also who are your best friends,” says Wallsmith. “We wouldn’t still be together if we didn’t really like each other. The camaraderie is what really keeps it going.”

Friday marks the band’s first trip to Hillsboro, and Wallsmith says the audience can expect a signature Cranes show full of musical experimentation, solid grooves, classical stylings and sounds that literally have never been heard before. ...

January 13, 2012
Willamette Week
"Jukebox of Guilty Pleasures: Blue Cranes"

"But what if you put on your guiltiest pleasures and everyone knew it was coming from you? You know the drill: pop songs, classic rock, songs from movie soundtracks; really anything you wouldn't openly advertise as to liking. It's in that spirit that we introduce a new reoccurring column and turn the jukebox over to the members of Blue Cranes to make their guilty pleasures a dirty little secret no longer.

Bon Jovi, "Raise Your Hands"
" I admit to a love affair with a good rock anthem. It all began in 1986. I've just walked home from school to find the house to myself. This is my time. I grab my favorite cassette, go to my Dad's hi-fi player, don the enormous 10 lbs headphones and completely lose myself in the Anthemic Rock Glory of Jon Bon Jovi.... [read more]

October 31, 2011
The Oregonian
"Weekend Wrap" Live Review

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 Joe 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).

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.

October 28, 2011
"Stories From The Road: Touring In The 21st Century, Part Three"

In the final part of our feature about successful DIY touring strategies, we talk to saxophonist Reed Wallsmith of the Portland-based quintet Blue Cranes.

Blue Cranes combines jazz improvisation and harmonic structure with an indie-rock aesthetic. Earlier this year, the group made the audacious decision to tour the United States…by train.

Wallsmith says they had several reasons for criss-crossing the country.

“We decided to tour to have fun and spend time with each other, to develop as a group through playing together every night, to listen to and make connections with musicians in other cities, and to play in front of new audiences.”

He added those goals outweighed trying to make money, although he envisions touring as a money maker in the long term.

[ more]

June 23, 2011
Just Out

"Portland’s improv renegades"

June 17, 2011
Portland Mercury

The Filmusik ensemble have always had talented musicians performing the live score for their presentations, and for their current production of Planet of Dinosaurs, they've enlisted the jazz/not-really-jazz ensemble Blue Cranes to create the music as the film plays overhead. Planet of Dinosaurs is a 1978 sci-fi schlockfest with a incredibly low productions; its hilarious stop-motion special effects actually won a Saturn Award for "Best Film Produced for Under $1,000,000." A crew of space travelers crash-lands on a distant planet populated by nothing but dinosaurs and terrible acting, the former of which will be on full display and the latter of which will be replaced with live dubbing and foley from the Filmusik crew.

As far as I know, Filmusik are doing something quite unique right here in Portland: providing live actors and music for old, campy films that quite frankly could do with the improvement. And with the enlistment of Blue Cranes, this current show seems particularly special, not to mention that next week they'll even be doing a special Spanish-language version of the movie, with the talent of actor Enrique Andrade (you might know him as the Spanish voice of the MAX).

June 15, 2011
Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon)
(cartoon by ADAM KRUEGER)

The city’s hottest original-jazz ensemble supplies the live soundtrack for the latest installment in Filmusik’s pairing of cool, new music with kitschy, old movies. The sound design also includes live voice actors and Foley artists—16 including the Cranes. The culprit this time: The 1978 science-fiction film Planet of Dinosaurs, concerning the heart-wrenching plight of astronauts who crash on a…well, you get the idea.

May 11, 2011
Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon)

"incomparable improvisers."

April 23, 2011
Los Angeles Times
"Portland's Blue Cranes take wing on the rails"

With gas prices headed into orbit, launching a cross-country tour is more difficult than ever for an up-and-coming band. In a move that's as consistent with jazz tradition as it is a departure from 21st century practices, Portland's Blue Cranes set aside the musty Econoline cliché and instead turned to the rails in organizing its first national tour, which swings into the Townhouse in Venice on Sunday.

Helped by a recent fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter, the group purchased a 30-day rail pass on Amtrak that allowed for 12 stops across the country, which took the band to hotbeds such as Chicago, New York and New Orleans before winding back to the West Coast. Though the band intended to highlight train travel as a viable transportation option for bands and vacationers alike, it had to make some compromises to allow for Amtrak's luggage restrictions.

"We actually had to make some modifications to instruments," said tenor saxophonist Joe "Sly Pig" Cunningham. "Ji [Tanzer], our drummer, built a new set where he can put all his toms into his bass drum, sort of like one of those Russian dolls. It's working out."

Though its mode of transportation may be a throwback, the Blue Cranes isn't a group otherwise concerned with tradition. A self-described "jazz/not jazz" band, the group's 2010 album "Observatories" mixes two saxophonists, keyboards and a propulsive rhythm section that together emphasize rich melodies and dynamic interplay over acrobatic soloing. The group released an EP earlier this year with covers of indie rock groups such as the Red House Painters and Blonde Redhead, exposing roots that lay well outside of "Take the 'A' Train."

After the jump, a conversation with Sly Pig about the Blue Cranes' experience on the rails and blurring the lines between jazz and indie rock.

How did this idea of touring by train come about?

You know, we keep trying to figure that out. It was a combination of things. We brought it up a couple years ago sort of jokingly, and then a friend of Reed’s [Wallsmith, the band's alto saxophonist] brought it up again and then we started to seriously look at the possibilities. [The question] was mostly just about the gear, whether we could get the gear on the train and what the weight restrictions were and how much it was going to be. But, yeah, it’s been great so far.

Are you covering more ground by rail than if you were touring by van?

Not necessarily. Ultimately I think we decided to do it because we didn’t want to drive. We’ve all done it, and we’re older and realize what a pain it is. People falling asleep in the middle of the night trying to get home or trying to get to the next gig, it’s dangerous, you know? That was sort of the beginning of the idea: Rather than hiring a driver, we thought we’d just jump on the train. I guess that’s kind of like hiring a driver.

You guys are hitting a lot of generally indie-rock-oriented venues; has it been tough to find a place to play with what you do?

No, actually, kind of the opposite. Because we sort of cover so many genres, we can play in a jazz club, we can play in a rock club, we can play in a punk club. So it’s actually a little easier for us because we’re not limited to jazz clubs. ... [read more]

April 22, 2011
Austin Chronicle (Austin, TX)

For some time, music has been steadily becoming a major component of Fusebox, and that continues with this year's debut of the Free Range Music Series, offering concerts in nontraditional spaces. The kickoff with Mother Falcon and 100 string players inside the Seaholm Power Plant has passed, but you can still catch Portland, Ore., jazz quintet Blue Cranes performing at one of the "Play Me, I'm Yours" public piano project sites.

April 16, 2011
Philadelphia Weekly (Philadelphia, PA)

On recent discs Observatories and Homing Patterns as well as the new EP Cantus Firmus, the Blue Cranes corral influences from Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz to Sufjan Stevens and Blonde Redhead. Having embarked on a fan-funded, eco-friendly Amtrak tour, the Portland-based quintet is headed to Philly for an evening of tuneful, biting, hard-to-classify instrumental music. Call 'em a jazz group with an art-rock heart, featuring two saxophones (Reed Wallsmith, Joe Cunningham), keyboards (Rebecca Sanborn), bass (Keith Brush) and drums (Ji Tanzer). Serving up mournful melody, avant-garde bombast and tight-knit rhythmic displacement--often in the same song--the group tells us much about the eclectic winds blowing through the Pacific Northwest.

April 14, 2011
The New Yorker (New York, NY)

A new-jazz triple bill brings together the Honey Ear Trio, the Blue Cranes and Ben Perowsky's Moodswing Orchestra.

April 14, 2011
WYNC / NPR Music News (New York, NY)
"Gig Alert / Show profile"

A trip though Observatories, the 2010 album by the Portland instrumental quintet Blue Cranes, is full of surprises. The band is led by two saxophones, but the tracks are blanketed with textures not commonly associated with jazz--twee glockenspiels and toy pianos, roaring electric guitars, four-on-the-floor bass drum beats and sweeping strings among them. Since blooming out of the fertile soils of the Pacific Northwest, The Blue Cranes has won fans up-and-down the west coast for its truly unconventional approach to improvised music that puts other third-streamers to shame. This track, "Ritchie Bros," sets the mood by opening with its robotic saxophone fugue before taking some jarring turns over the course of its four and a half minutes of music.

April 14, 2011
New York Magazine (New York, NY)
Critics' Pick

Rollicking Portland indie-jazz ensemble Blue Cranes.

April 13, 2011
Time Out New York (New York, NY)

Smart Portland, OR, outfit Blue Cranes combines a downtown-jazz aesthetic with overtones of arty indie rock.

April 14, 2011
Lament for a Straight Line (New York, NY)
"Blue Cranes: Vivid, Voluptuous, Vital"

Saw the Blue Cranes last night. The Portland, Oregon quintet is bouncing around the country right now, and they just slid out of New England and hit NYC. Using a two-reed front line to essay all sorts of provocative tunes, the fascinating jazzstrumental band stresses melody and mood just as much as they do improv and solos. That's refreshing. On Observatories they balance gorgeous themes with experimental extrapolations. Some pieces sound like forlorn Ornette Coleman ballads; some sound like muscular Philip Glass explosions. Lots of their stuff is cinematic; I can see "These Are My People" working well behind a bravura scene in a bull ring.

At Barbes last night, waxing vivid at every turn, Reed Wallsmith and company tilted toward the high water marks made by such bands as Curlew and the Muffins. And they showed their scope, covering Wayne Horvitz and Blonde Redhead, too. It's time they started getting the kind dap reserved for Marco Benevento and associates, or maybe gigging with outfits like the Low Anthem. They'd not only fit right in, they'd add to the bill. Their current tour is being done by train, so don't forget to ask them how their travel has been going. And recommend a righteous place in New Orleans for them to eat on the cheap.

NYC'ers can see 'em tonight at Littlefield, on a bill with the Honey Ear Trio and Ben Perowsky's Moodswing Orchestra.

April 8, 2011
New York Times

"[Honey Ear Trio] has a headlining role in this album-release show, which will also feature the rock-informed band Blue Cranes, from Portland, Ore., and the deeply ambient Moodswing Orchestra, led by the drummer Ben Perowsky.

April 7, 2011
Providence Phoenix (Providence, RI)

Reed Walsmith won’t get lost while leading the Blue Cranes to AS220, 115 Empire Street, Providence. The saxophonist, who has been the prime mover of the Oregon outfit for several years, was once a member of Rhode Island’s Grüvus Malt and a La Prov resident. Since hightailing to the great Northwest, he’s shaped the Cranes into a fascinating jazzstrumental band that uses a two-reed front line to essay all sorts of provocative tunes. On Observatories (Blue Cranes), the group balances gorgeous melodies with experimental extrapolations. Some pieces sound like forlorn Ornette Coleman ballads; some sound like muscular Philip Glass explosions. Lots of their stuff is cinematic; I can see “These Are My People” working well behind a bravura scene in a bull ring. Waxing vivid at every turn, Wallsmith and company tilt toward the high water marks made by such bands as Curlew and the Muffins. Their current tour is being done by train, so don’t forget to ask them how their travel has been going. (Full disclosure: I helped the Cranes on their most recent CD’s packaging efforts.) Sharing the bill is their Northwest neighbor, Rebecca Gates. The former Spinanes singer knows a few things about vivid music herself. Her reedy voice and eerie tunes have often been fetching. The Rice Cakes share the bill.

April 7, 2011
City Newspaper (Rochester, NY)

There is something wonderfully odd and off-kilter about the music of Blue Cranes, so it's no surprise to find that the Portland, Oregon-based group is in the midst of a tour - across the entire country - by train. With two saxophones (tenor played by a man named Sly Pig), keyboards, bass, and drums, Blue Cranes' sound can range from sublime subtlety to full-throttle, frenetic freak-out. The music verges on avant-garde and yet manages to be not only engaging, but also downright catchy.

March 29, 2011
Chicago Reader (Chicago, IL)

On their new self-released EP, Cantus Firmus, Portland instrumental quintet BLUE CRANES tackle tunes by Blonde Redhead, Red House Painters, and David Bazan without a whiff of the crossover crassness or postmodern cleverness that typically infect jazz versions of indie-rock songs. They're a jazz band in name, but the indie rock they grew up with defines their sensibilities; the original tunes on last year's Observatories have hooky melodies and strong backbeats all over them. Saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Joe "Sly Pig" Cunningham handle the lion's share of the melodic exposition and improvisation, but soloing isn't Blue Cranes' focus. They prefer an ensemble approach that relies on carefully charted arrangements—three of which include a string trio. For this U.S. tour Blue Cranes are traveling by rail, a choice sure to bolster their indie bona fides.

March 22, 2011
Field Hymns (Portland, OR)
"Blue Cranes - The Interview"

I first became aware of Blue Cranes through a handful of circumstances too involved to be mentioned here but suffice to say I didn’t really become aware of them until I observed them live – and then they are truly something to behold. I am not saying that because I am submitting this interview – I am submitting this interview because they are one of the most exciting live bands in this town. No slouches in the studio, they have released five excellent albums in four years. I just happened to track down one of their sax players (and ringleader) Reed Wallsmith and berated him with my rookie questions. Remarkably he said yes to the interview.

My first jazz record was Sonny Rollin’s score for the film Alfie – what was yours?

I haven’t heard that! Did you like it?

Oh yes..

The first full jazz album I ever had was alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt’s “Stitt plays Bird.” That was soon followed by Sonny Rollin’s “Saxophone Colossus.” I listened to both of those tapes so much. They are so good.

Tell me about the “Tour By Train”. You guys started a Kickstarter campaign pay for a train tour – does that mean no shows in Hawaii?

Our original thinking was to figure out a way to do a national tour that would be cost-effective and also allow those of us who can work our day jobs remotely via laptop to still do work while traveling. Then we started thinking about the environmental (and relaxational) benefits of train travel vs. automobile travel, and realized what a unique opportunity this tour could be, not just to promote our music, but to also promote a more logical, sustainable mode of intercity transport. We ended up getting the support of NARP (National Association of Railroad Passengers), a great national organization that is working to improve intercity rail travel. They are helping to promote what we’re doing. It is thanks to the generosity of so many of our friends that we were able to raise the necessary funds to be ready to embark on this tour. [read more]

March 16, 2011
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)

Portland quintet Blue Cranes is a jazz band. But what makes the Cranes such a great jazz band isn't the idea that jazz permeates most modern music—it's the idea that most forms of modern music have the ability to penetrate jazz. At once experimental and innovative, the Cranes burst out with a sound laced with tweaked time signatures and an impulse to go from lucid and abstract to straight-up rocking with razor precision. The band is the embodiment of the breathless, reckless foundations of jazz, a collection of master musicians that hasn’t forgotten to let its freak flag fly.

March 4, 2011
A Blog Supreme / NPR Jazz (New York, NY)
"At The Portland Jazz Festival, Delicate Issues And Joyful Audiences"

"...only one Portland band, the Blue Cranes, received top billing (which they shared on a double bill with Nik Bartsch, from Switzerland)."

March 4, 2011
Echoes From The Bin
"Blue Cranes - Observatories"

Stumbling on a band like this, I felt no reservations about jumping in blind and taking a risk. I make zero claims to being a jazz aficionado, I'm not. Enthusiast? that's probably more realistic, I could rattle off the names of jazz players I admire, most of them are the standard bearers of the music itself, the more well known innovators and maybe a few obscure ones on the side, some vocalists here and there for good measure, all of them from the eras in which jazz was a force to be reckoned with, and often, took more formidable risks than the infant "rock" genre of the time. What I'm getting at is this: writing about jazz is an entirely different monster in many ways, attempting to deconstruct music that can lend itself to being both fluid and simultaneously staunchly grounded in its principles and values while rooting itself deeply and penetrating straight to the mind and heart and latching on could impose some degree of intimidation...luckily I don't take myself or what I do seriously enough to worry , so I have nothing to sweat.I know what catches my attention and charges my pulse, and after hearing a sample of their work, I knew I found the charge i was looking for. In some ways I was reminded of what Miles Davis' classic "On The Corner" achieved. It was a dense and jaw dropping mixture of jazz cool; the well thought, carefully planned and precise musical attacks merged wtih the more wide eyed and cocky swagger of funk. Davis blended, minced and smashed them together as if it were no big deal and the end result was one of the greatest two headed monsters to be birthed. How does that relate to Blue Cranes? The underlying principle. The band arm themselves with both old and new school jazz sensibilities and combine them with the more prickly edged energy of rock 'n' roll, focusing on the improvisation aesthetic. The biggest difference of course is the band avoids straying into territory of self indulgent wankfests or meandering, senile noodling jams in hopes of hitting the vein.

One of the true gems laid out here is tenor saxophonist Sly Pig's composition "Broken Windmills" which I read was written for his grandmother. Even before learning that small but important fact, the track struck a chord with me the first time I heard it. It's a deeply moving and emotionally effecting peice. Both Sly Pig and alto Reed Wallsmith play off one another and connect in an emotional cortex that bursts with pride, longing and sentiment. Ji Tanzer's explosions midway through the piece are vivid and bold, often resembling artillery fire or bursts of thunder without taking anything away from the heart of the song. If anything, his touches only catapult the emotions to an almost uncontrollable urgency before it gradually fades away and passes, leaving only an impression. And I can't help but wonder how close to the mark that metaphor hits.

"Maddie Mae (Was A Good Girl)" is a lurching, slow burning jam. The gradual unfolding of the piece is intoxicating, Keith Brush's bass work winds in and out while guest guitarist Timothy Young lays out what sounds like water meeting an electrical current. it's the type of jamming that has a purpose but lacks an ego. "These People Are My People" serves as almost a buffer between the emotional ebb and flow of the album. The opening jams on the drums is just damn funky and when the entire band kicks in, the piece is given an exotic sort of cool.

"Yellow Ochre" is cut from the same bolt as "Broken Windmills" but with a major difference: there's not flurry of percussion to drive and electrify the piece, no sudden bursts of sheet metal chords or wild eyed wailings of the saxes. It's a slow moving piece, Timothy Young's guitar shimmers and slides, reminding me of Santo and Johnny's classic instrumental "Sleep Walk" in some subconscious context. It's the end of a late night, the return to an empty and dark room where walls and pictures keep company with time and contemplation. I swear there's an uplifting sensibility lurking beneath it, even if there is though, it's still emotionally gripping and tugs the heart strings firmly. Touches of yesterdays, regrets, memories and empty hands flash like an old home movie on a reel to reel in the dead of the night while passing time, I think this stands as one of my all time favorites. The album ends on a slightly higher not with "Here Is You, Here Is me." which wastes little time in kicking up the pace to a more hip swaggering groove, courtesy of a solid and bouncing backbeat. The entire band come alive in this one, cutting loose and playfully jamming but all the while coloring in the lines without sounding dull. All in all it's a brilliant way to end an amazing album. Jazz not your bag? There's enough rock in this one to appeal to both sides of the hipster spectrum, and not willing to expand perimeters and broaden horizons is a shame enough, but it's a bigger shame if an amazing album like this gets lost as a result.

March 3, 2011
Audiophile Audition
"The 2011 Portland Jazz Festival"

"Blue Cranes, Portland’s own indie jazz ensemble, delighted their exuberant fan base with a vibrant performance. Relying on the clout of double saxophones (tenor and alto), the ensemble combined their muscled, orchestral themes with a crowd pleasing hard rock downbeat. Continuing in their repertoire, the group added a string trio (cello, viola and violin) on a moving opus, “Soldier”. Eventually the band swelled to a four horn soul chorus on the closing number. The Blue Cranes will be embarking on a month long cross country train tour in March."

February 18, 2011
The Oregonian

February 11, 2011
National Association of Railroad Passengers Blog (Washington DC)
"Musicians Hit the Rails"

Before paved highways were common, and a vast network of frequent passenger trains served the country, performing ensembles of all stripes toured the country by train. Nowadays, most musical groups pile themselves, their instruments and equipment into a van or truck and go on the road. But some bands have proven that it’s still possible to turn a road tour into a rail tour.

Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson and others played in towns along the Amtrak City of New Orleans route in 2007 to raise money to help struggling New Orleans musicians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Guthrie recorded the best-known version of Steve Goodman’s song that bears the train’s name.

Now, the Blue Cranes—an indie jazz quintet, has made a name for itself in the Portland, Oregon, music scene—will become the next band to take its show on the rails.

During the month of April, the band will go all the way to the East Coast and back, stopping to perform in towns along the way. While entertaining audiences, they will also educate them about the pleasures—and the economic and social benefits—of train travel and encourage them to support NARP.

The Blue Cranes are still forming their itinerary, which is being financed through individual contributions solicited online. Each bandmember will probably buy a 30-day USA Rail Pass, which covers coach fare for an unlimited number of Amtrak rides over the period during which it is valid. However, it may wind up being less expensive for them to buy individual tickets for each leg of the trip.

Of course, the biggest challenge facing traveling musicians is how to carry all their instruments and equipment. Most bands just pile into a van or truck for a road tour. A rail tour, while it requires more logistical coordination, can be done. Amtrak can take most instruments as checked baggage so long as they are packaged securely. For stations and trains without checked baggage, instruments can be stored in on-board luggage racks. For certain large instruments with irregularly-shaped carrying cases, such as upright basses, Amtrak does require passengers to buy an extra seat for the instrument.

A second problem is getting everything from the train station to the concert venue and the hotel. If both are within walking distance of the train station, it would be easy. But, unfortunately, most US cities aren’t laid out that way. Bands traveling by rail have to rely on taxi or limousine companies with large enough vehicles, or on friends to give them a lift. Of course, there is the option of having things shipped to a given location.

American railroads, from the early days to the Amtrak era, have almost always been able to accommodate the myriad needs of many types of travelers, including touring performers who’d rather not spend long hours on the blacktop. And musicians have returned the favor by penning volumes of songs extolling the virtues of train travel.

January 19, 2011
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Blue Cranes, Gavin Castleton, Gulls / J.P Jenkins Duo, Doug Theriault"

[POST-JAZZ] Tonight marks the release of not one, but two Blue Cranes albums—neither of which is a conventional "jazz" release. The first, Cantus Firmus, is an EP that finds the Cranes covering (downright masterfully, in fact) three giants of understated indie rock in David Bazan, Blonde Redhead and the Red House Painters. The second is a broad remix album called Oversea Orbits that features everything from 8-bit reworkings with new lyrics (Jonny Classic's version of "Grandpa's Hands") to droning soundscapes (Ethan Rose's take on "Here Is You, Here Is Me"). Both releases provide yet more evidence that Blue Cranes is Portland's risk-takingest post-jazz combo.

December 29th, 2010
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"WW Scoop"

JAZZMATAZZ: If there was any lingering doubt about Blue Cranes being the hippest jazz outfit in Portland, the forthcoming Oversea Orbits—a nine-track remix album featuring local artists like experimental composer Ethan Rose, electronic music producer Jesse Munro Johnson (Gulls) and singer/songwriter/producer Gavin Castleton—ought to seal the deal. The album—a reworking of the Cranes’ 2010 album Observatories—also includes three videos, one of which is a welcome addition to the popular “Shredz” YouTube meme. The disc drops on Friday, Jan. 21, at a Secret Society Ballroom show featuring many of the artists from the remix album. Then, in April, Blue Cranes will tour the entire country via train and blog their trip for—at which point the Cranes will probably cash in their massive stash of cool points for some travel mugs and lava lamps.

December 17th, 2010
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"LIVE REVIEW: Northwest Dance Project Celebrates Cool Yule with Blue Cranes"

So what’s cool about the Northwest Dance Project’s Cool Yule show? Its collaboration with Portland jazz collective Blue Cranes. Each of the six choreographers who contributed to the show chose a piece from the Cranes catalog and set work to it, which the band accompanies live onstage. Variations on this theme are not unusual in the dance world—a single choreographer choosing a suite of music by a band, or a band creating a score for a company to use—but this is an interesting and less-traveled direction to take.

It’s also cool to have a break from Christmas music and décor. Cool Yule is held in the company’s airy, white-walled studio, with paper globes hung from the ceiling and tea lights lining the windowsills. The dancers are simply costumed in earth tones—green short shorts, black turtlenecks and the like.

Despite the simple setting, musical mood and movement vary in the show, which zips along briskly. Minh Tran’s Evanescence opens it with two duos set to the propulsive “Ritchie Bros.” There is a compact muscularity to the work, with push-pull partnerships and the occasional group entanglement. On the flip side, Carla Mann turns in a lyrical duo, Dovetail, warmly performed by Samantha Campbell and Patrick Kilbane on opening night.

Company member Andrea Parson, a 2010 Princess Grace Award winner for her dancing, demonstrates a facility for choreography as well with The Wall, set to the Sufjan Stevens cover “Seven Swans.” Here, the back of the studio becomes a climbing wall, an immovable obstacle, a support for upended balances and a reinforcement for the company as Kilbane dashes backward and leaps into their waiting arms. In Sarah Slipper’s Snow, Parson is a white parka-shrouded gremlin with twitchy legs who deposits a snowball on the head of a mute, wide-eyed Elijah Labay as a prelude to their duet.

In Tracey Durbin’s Broken Muse, Ching Ching Wong actually interacts with a Cranes saxophonist before melting slowly into the floor on the first notes of “Maddie Mae.” The evening concludes with Kemba Shannon’s ensemble number Why Me?, in which the dancers, wearing festive knee socks, jump, slide and shout in a kind of house party led by a most excellent good house band. “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to have live music,” said Slipper in a post-show address. Agreed—it’s a cool Christmas gift for dancers and viewers alike.

December 15, 2010
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Northwest Dance Project"

Jazz is the thread tying together the dances at Northwest Dance Project’s Cool Yule show; specifically, jazz from Portland’s Blue Cranes, who will see their work take shape (literally) as they play live. The choreographers on the bill have set new pieces to Cranes compositions: Carla Mann followed the jazz impulse for improvisation in a duet set to “Crane,” Minh Tran chose “Ritchie Bros.” for his twin duets, and company member Andrea Parson’s avant-garde ensemble number was inspired by the Sufjan Stevens cover “Seven Swans.” NWDP artistic director Sarah Slipper has crafted a male-female duet to “Crane Reprise”; Kemba Shannon made what she has dubbed a “high-energy, jazzy snazzy” ensemble work against “Returning to Portland”; and to “Maddie Mae,” Tracey Durbin offers a lyrical jazz solo. Wassail and other seasonal treats will be served. 833 N Shaver St., 421-7434. 7 pm Thursday, 7 and 9 pm Friday-Saturday, Dec. 16-18. $33-$50.

December 13, 2010
DIY Musician Blog (CD Baby)
"Top Three Touring Tactics: Lessons from Portland, Oregon"

Everybody loves End-Of-Year Best-Of lists, right? And those of you who say you don’t still like to complain about them, which means you really DO love them! ... For CD Baby’s bit, we’ll be looking at three Portland bands who are touring smart in very different ways. ... Without tour support from a label, DIY artists have to make sure they’re getting maximum return on their time, financial investment, and effort when they go out on the road. After all, touring is one of the main ways musicians grow their fan base. And for the following bands, it is working!

1. Blue Cranes Go By Train-

In one swift move, Portland’s favorite jazz rock collective teaches us 3 valuable lessons: garner massive press attention by embarking upon an environmentally & economically conscious national tour and have your fans pay for it all. Blue Cranes is a busy band. They gig often. They’ve toured often. But when it came time to consider a national tour, the cost of the undertaking was tough to wrap their heads around. But rather than be deterred, they took the challenge to their fans, successfully using crowdfunding site to raise enough money to mount the tour.

Oh, and this wasn’t just any tour. Blue Cranes is going by train, coast to coast and back again. The unusual mode of transportation makes for good camaraderie, a good story for press coverage, and good Green thinking (both in terms of the environment and the almighty dollar.)

December 1, 2010
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Blue Cranes, The Youngs, Why I Must Be Careful"

[JAZZ AND FRIENDS!] Blue Cranes’ latest disc, Observatories, isn’t just one of the best jazz releases out of Portland this year, it’s one of the best releases out of Portland this year—or any year, for that matter. A deep, beautifully composed and then radically deconstructed effort, it rocks harder than most rock albums and says more than most singer-songwriters—without any words at all. I realize that, for some people, “jazz” is a dirty word—even the Blue Cranes themselves avoid throwing it around—but the Cranes’ music throws back to an envelope-pushing era when “jazz” could mean just about anything. There’s Mingus and Coltrane in here—even if there’s also a bit of Bazan and Kozelek, two songwriters the Cranes cover (the Bazan cut, “Harmless Sparks,” is especially full of life) on their new EP, Cantus Firmus. There’s nothing forced about these pop covers—they seem to flow out of the Cranes just as easily as their epic original tunes.

November 13, 2010
The Big City
"Genre Confusion"

And the Blue Cranes . . . Where Miles Davis made jazz that knew Hendrix and Sly Stone, this band makes music that is rock in style and jazz in spirit, a dish whose ingredients include The Bad Plus, Bill Frisell’s take on Americana, Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Or, try this; imagine doo-wop played by a traveling carnival band’s saxophone section, with a strong back-beat and solos. Observatories is nothing but pleasure, track to track (listen to selections here). The band plays all original material, except for Wayne Horvitz’s take on Satie, “Love, Love, Love,” and everything works. The sound and style are unique, and one they’ve clearly developed through a lot of thought and practice. They may make music like you’ve never heard before, but every note and gesture sounds so lived-in, so purposeful and confident. The opening “Grandpa’s Hands” has some of the most deliciously velvety sax playing you’ll hear, from leader Craig Wallsmith and Joe “Sly Pig” Cunningham, while the standout track is “Maddie Mae (Was A Good Girl),” seven minutes of everything that makes this band so remarkable; lyrical, country blues, driving drums from Ji Tanzer, a crunchy guitar solo by Timothy Young, all coming together into an achingly wistful and rousing expression. The following “Broken Windmills,” with it’s hint of “You’re Nobody TIll Somebody Loves You,” is forceful and poignant. And there’s more wonderful music after that. The Blue Cranes have come out the other end of prog- and jazz-rock and are making something new, progressive jazz, anyone?

November 12, 2010
Cover Me
"Blonde Redhead gets Kind of Blue"

When did people start to view jazz as safe? Most of the great jazz musicians lived on the edges of society, succumbing to heroin addiction, like Charlie Parker, or dying in other unnatural ways, like Chet Baker’s mysterious plunge from a hotel window. These artists explored the limits of music, at first by using standard, well-known Broadway tunes as platforms for their adventures and later bursting beyond form altogether—think Miles Davis with Bitches Brew or John Coltrane with Interstellar Space. Now jazz is simply something your crazy, half-deaf grandfather rants on about or—worse—elevator music. Personally I blame Kenny G for destroying the reputation of jazz, but I tend to prefer simple explanations for complex societal and cultural changes.

Thankfully, a few folks under the age of 65 still carry the torch for real jazz. Blue Cranes, a quintet from Portland, Oregon, play jazz infused with an indie aesthetic. Their latest EP, Cantus Firmus, features covers of three decidedly non-jazz tunes, including Blonde Redhead’s “Hated Because of Great Qualities.” The band preserves the contemplative feel of the original and uses the open space to explore the melody with solos and harmonized saxophones. You won’t be hearing this version when you’re put on hold calling the Buy More and that brings a warm glow to my heart. Download the track below.

October 1, 2010
Utne Reader (Minneapolis, MN)
Featured in October music sampler

A jazz quintet centered around two saxophones, Portland’s Blue Cranes have a sensibility that draws equally from old and new wells. You don’t have to count the tricky beats to enjoy their joyous interplay on this song from Observatories, their third album.

October 1, 2010
Berkshire Living (Pittsfield, MA)

Portland, Ore.-based quintet Blue Cranes calls its music “jazz/not jazz,” a surprising coinage as jazz seems the least of what’s going on here. The group’s front line of saxophones reminds one of East Coast groups including the Ordinaires or even Morphine, and the other signifying characteristic seems to be a fondness for the repetitive ostinatos of minimalism and an aggressive rhythmic pulse drawn from indie-rock and other beat-based music. Not that I begrudge the group’s jazz cred; there’s plenty of swing and apparent improv going on here, on mostly original compositions plus a cover of Wayne Horvitz’s “Love, Love, Love.” Observatories should appeal to the more adventurous fans of the Bad Plus, as well as to followers of Bill Frisell and John Hollenbeck.

September 29, 2010
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"A Kick In The Arts"

Goal: $6,145
Raised: $6,732

Portland alt-jazz band Blue Cranes has played seven tours since forming in 2007, but has never made it beyond the West Coast. The five-piece wanted to take its experimental sounds east, but in order to avoid the physically and environmentally taxing method of driving a van from coast to coast, decided to tour the country via train. Realizing the tour itself wouldn’t generate enough revenue to pay for train tickets, the band decided to draw on the support it has at home to fund the trip through Kickstarter.

“We tried to add little things in to make it special,” says the band’s alto-sax player, Reed Wallsmith. They created a three-song EP ... and offered a range of unique personalized rewards, from limited-edition silkscreened tour posters and T-shirts to a bowling lesson with the band’s tenor-sax player, Sly Pig, and a Blue Cranes concert at your house.

“There’s a strong ‘buy local’ movement in Portland, and Kickstarter is sort of an extension of that. You can have a direct connection with the group or person you’re giving money to,” says Wallsmith. The band plans to head off in spring next year.

September 21, 2010
Philadelphia Daily News
(Philadelphia, PA)

Also working the jazz/rock crossover circuit with sweet success are the Bad Plus on their most varied, all-originals "Never Stop" (E1, B+) and Blue Cranes with "Observatories" (Blue Cranes, B).

September 20, 2010
Oregon Music News (Portland)
"Blue Cranes successfully Raises Over $6,500 Via to ride the rails on their tour in Spring 2011"

Blue Cranes successfully funded the basic costs of the Blue Cranes Tour by Train, which will take the band into markets they have never played before (namely some combination of Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe). For a complete breakdown of costs and planned routing, see the Blue Cranes Tour By Train Kickstarter project page. Specific details of this tour should be announced by February 2011.

September 18, 2010
Something Else! (Plano, TX)

Although we don't really cover indie rock on our little corner of the blogzine world, I'm often intrigued by musicians who approach jazz from the indie angle. They don't swing and they usually don't try to dazzle with labored technique. Most times the compositions aren't these tedious, multi-sectioned pieces with the intricacies of classical music (otherwise, it would be prog rock). What the indie-inclined crowd do bring to the table is a group collective disposition, an attention to melody and harmony, and a belief in textures and mood.

That could aptly describe the Portland, Ore. quintet Blue Cranes.

Blue Cranes, led by alto sax player and composer Reed Wallsmith, has made fans from Wayne Horvitz to Claudia Quintet leader John Hollenbeck. The reason for this is rooted in playing a kind of music that's probing but is easy to embrace. Last Tuesday, Blue Cranes introduced their 3rd album, Observatories, a self-released undertaking.

Joining Wallsmith is Joe "Sly Pig" Cunningham on tenor sax, Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, Keith Brush on bass and Ji Tanzer on drums. A dual sax front line isn't quite what you'd expect from a band that doesn't swing. It's not just about the band configuration, however, it's how it's exploited. I'd even go on to say that how they capitalize on the two-sax front is the very thing that defines the character of this album.

This band is really good at coming up with circular melodies, layering on it, modulating the sonic space, and tossing in countering lines. The cyclical melodies are evident in Hortvitz's "Love, Love, Love" (video below) and the punchy "Ritchie Bros.," but is executed most masterfully on the melancholy "Maddie Mae (Was A Good Girl)." On this piece, a lone sax states the beautiful melody, joined on the second bar by a harmonizing sax, and then more layers of saxes are added with contrapuntal lines. A violin, viola and cello section comes in, before the acoustic bass and drums finally enter. The layers are washed aside, leaving only the rhythm section, Timothy Young (Horvitz's guitarist), and Sly Pig. Both Pig and Young take turns at solos, with Young's guitar sounding appropriately tortured.

"Yellow Ochre" is a quiet, Americana type tune that Bill Frisell would be rather proud to call his own. Not only does guest guitarist Young sounds a little like Bill, but Wallsmith is just singing the lyrical line on his sax instead of improvising. And for this song, that works just fine. The closing track "Here Is You, Here Is Me" might be the most imaginative track of the whole set. Starting off with some nifty delicate percussion, Wallsmith launches the choral theme with Sly Pig chiming in with a countering line and all seems to be rolling along predictably when the songs stops on a dime and Wallsmith goes berserk with an Ayler-esque freakout. Pig soon re-enters with the theme and the drummer Tanzer and the rest of the band is swayed to follow him back to the song. Wallsmith, meanwhile, manages to get his lines in while he continues to play skronk jazz in the gaps!

It's just that kind sense of adventure that makes Blue Cranes a lot of fun to listen to as they strike the right balance of seriousness---but not too much seriousness---when they get experimental. Best of all, their experimentation is the kind that serves the songs, which is a good strategy, since they are pretty strong in the songwriting department. Blue Cranes' Observatories is one of those records that can get the indie crowd into jazz. Or the jazz crowd into indie rock? Or more likely, a place in the middle where both crowds can come together.

September 14, 2010
Alarm Press (Philadelphia)
"Best Albums of the Week - honorable mention"

September 14, 2010
Classical TV (NYC)
"Strange Yet Seductive: Blue Cranes' Observatories"

Blue Cranes’ Observatories is full of strange yet seductive melodies that push the boundaries of the prog-jazz sphere. It’s the kind of album that perplexes before it enthralls and takes a few listens to embrace the many sonic jumps between tracks. “Grandpa’s Hands” begins with a toy piano melody reminiscent in tone of Sigur Ros with a Steve Reichian precision. Then double saxophones join in on top, providing a rich, lingering counterpoint that takes over the piece midway through with dynamic solos before finishing up with the original piano melody.

The Portland quintet (supported by a handful of additional musicians for the recording) quickly shift gears in Wayne Horvitz’s “Love, Love, Love”, an expansive piece that feels like a slightly atonal klezmer waltz. The notes bend around each other, preferring often to fight rather than groove together. It could easily find itself at home in a Tim Burton film during a decadently macabre ball. The group never stays in one mood very long, but the shifts aren’t so much jarring as thrilling. On one song, they’re sounding like hard-hitting partiers Slavic Soul Party, then an old country band, and then all of a sudden, they’re interrupted by a baby declaring, “I don’t like the music. Don’t like the music. It’s noisy. It’s noisy. Don’t like it.” Where does that come from? It’s so out of place that it almost feels like a subliminal message that only a lucky few get to hear. It’s a welcome whimsy for “serious music.”

Alto Saxophonist and the group’s main composer Reed Wallsmith has played in a number of jazz groups while tenor saxophonist Joe “Sly Pig” Cunningham did time with indie royalty the Decemberists, who have explored the boundaries of a rock group with intricate compositions including the epic concept album, Hazards of Love. Cunningham and Wallsmith have great chemistry and often seamlessly blend their two lines together to form one lush sound. This is highlighted best on “Maddie Mae was a Good Girl”, which opens with a heartbreaking double sax melody the pulls minor sounds through major ones, forming a strained beauty that keeps looping back over itself, weaving through the remaining spaces until it’s filled with a complementary violin and later an electric guitar, giving it a solid fusion vibe. They aren’t afraid of distortion, and this really pays off at the end of the song as all the different parts coalesce.

They’re planning to release an EP cover album of songs by indie artists Blonde Redhead, Red House Painters, and David Bazan, which sounds intriguing but also got me thinking how much I’d love to here them cover some dirty jazz like Charles Mingus’ Moanin’ with Sly Fox {sic} switching down from tenor to bari sax. It would make a great encore for their upcoming train tour (an eco-friendlier take on the traditional bus or van trip) that’s tentatively scheduled to hit twenty cities over the course of a month, hopefully giving the band the wider exposure they deserve.

September 9, 2010
CD Baby - Editor's Pick

"Blue Cranes – Observatories"

Portland, Oregon’s favorite double saxophone-fronted collective works “a thin line between prog-jazz improvisation and indie rock catchiness.” Hip enough for hipsters, cool and accesible enough for the casual jazz listener, and funky enough for the folks who just wanna get their freak on, Blue Cranes have achieved, on their 3rd album, a sound where each individual member’s contribution is vital to the whole. After frequent touring in their current incarnation, the compositions on Observatories have grown up organically around the players, greatly influenced by their unique strengths and attitudes, as well as their comraderie and shared vision. With a vast repertoire and eclectic range of interests, Blue Cranes veer from pop to fusion to avant-garde with natural skill, from soft to jagged to aggressive with grace. If their goal is to “make exploration seem like the most enjoyable process around” then they have succeeded on Observatories.

August 29, 2010
Arts Dispatch

Live Review: "Entering the ether with the Blue Cranes"

At several points during the Blue Cranes CD release concert Saturday night band leader Reed Wallsmith seemed to enter a transition state between body and spirit, hovering in the limbo world between the two. Which makes sense because that's a reasonable description of music, too, I suppose. It wouldn't have been much of a surprise if he'd left us altogether -- his presence seemed that ethereal.

The music itself, the stage full of engaged collaborators (at one point 10 musicians joined together in the Alberta Rose Theatre), the happy crowd -- it's easy to see why Wallsmith might have left his human form behind for, well, something else.

The music of Blue Cranes on the new CD, "Observatories," isn't easy to convey because it's difficult to categorize. Both Wallsmith on alto sax and drummer Ji Tanzer employ experimental, free jazz techniques, and occasionally the sound of the band dips in that direction, but soon it has migrated to lush harmonies and simple, sweet melodies. Sometimes Blue Cranes sounds like the back-up band for a rhythm and blues singer, sometimes like a chamber orchestra, sometimes like those wind-swept post-rock Euro bands such as Sigur Ros. And sometimes they sound like a "where the spirit takes me" jazz band, most often when Wallsmith is soloing.

The heart of the band is the sax duet of Wallsmith and Sly Pig, who can get the creamiest tone from his tenor sax when he wants to or let go with one of those whipsaw blues riffs that we know so well. Their individual playing can be moving, but together they are uncanny, how they insinuate themselves into each other's musical thoughts, the rhythmic lock they have on each other's tempo, their sense of when to enter and when to depart, when to occupy and when to give ground. I watch them and want to be a better partner in all my enterprises.

I'm not going to get into the details of the new CD (Wayne Horvitz's "Love, Love, Love," above is the only cover on the album) beyond what I've already said. It takes me a while to get a fix on new music under the best of circumstances, let alone these, in which the approach is so eclectic. It's hard to talk about the contribution of keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, for example, which sometimes seems limited to providing a chordal bedrock for the songs but then suddenly evolves into a winsome little duet with Tanzer's percussion. Or Keith Brush's bass, which is similarly submerged much of the time, but then steps out, especially when the band invites a string trio onstage (Kyleen King, Anna Fritz and Marilee Hord played on the CD and I'm presuming they were also the musicians on stage). I guess I'm simply saying that my impressions at this point are pretty superficial, so I'll spare you.

I've written about the Blue Cranes once before, a little piece I originally intended as my first column in The Oregonian two Januaries ago. It was too long and maybe too "expansive" for a daily newspaper I suppose, and I substituted a different subject. The column wasn't about the Blue Cranes, really, they just make an appearance at the beginning and then it starts to wander, to deal with the idea of noise, David Schiff's idea of composers as "differently eared," Charles Ives, the city and its sounds. I'm not sure how many people ever read that column, but I liked it, and if you want to take a little side trip, I've just posted it on Arts Dispatch.

Ah, side trips. The Blue Cranes want to tour the continent by train, and they've started a Kickstarter campaign to do just that. Really, American should give a listen, right? If you want to help, here's the link.

I should also mention that Rebecca Gates (Spinanes!) and the Consortium and electronically enhanced sax soloist Jonathan Sielaff were delightful openers for Blue Cranes, and I'll be looking for them in the future.

August 27, 2010
The Oregonian
"Blue Cranes adds variety to PDX Pop Now! festival's indie rock and hip hop scene"

The lineup for the PDX Pop Now! festival is often chock-full of acts that hover around the world of indie rock and hip-hop. But the organizers do like to throw in a few bands from outside the spectrum to stir the pot and expose the attendees to scenes they might be ignoring, such as the city's vibrant jazz culture. And often, as was the case with the Saturday evening set by the electrifying quintet known as Blue Cranes, it can inspire awe and rock-star responses from the young audience.

"Two kids came up to us after the set and they were so pumped about it," says drummer Ji Tanzer, winding down at Produce Row Cafe after the band's PDX Pop set. "If I saw them on the street, I would think, 'Wow, they would hate what we do.' But they told me, 'You made me want to get a drum set and practice 9 to 5.'"

It's an entirely appropriate response to what Tanzer and his band mates -- saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Joe "Sly Pig" Cunningham, keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn and bassist Keith Brush -- do on stage and on the CDs they've released to date. They all grew up playing, studying and appreciating jazz, but Blue Cranes aims for a more accessible and exciting sound that owes as much to the scene that surrounds clubs such as Jimmy Mak's as it does to what is going on at the Doug Fir Lounge or Holocene.

"We've taken some of the things that we like about jazz music, the interaction and playing from an emotional depth, stolen that and applied it to other music that we like," Sanborn says. "I don't see us as a jazz band but our instrumentation dictates that we are considered a jazz group."

This idea comes out most strongly in the band's recorded work. Their latest album, "Observatories," forgoes long flights of instrumental fancy in favor of clean, intertwining melodies played by the two horns, bolstered by Sanborn's wandering keyboards and Tanzer's sometimes steady, sometimes manic percussion work. Throw in the addition of a string trio and the emotions expressed in these songs soar.

There's a playfulness to the band, too, as can be heard on the new album by the small child's voice between songs complaining how noisy the band is, and in their current live staple: a wry take on David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things." And that playfulness is at the heart of the relationship of a bunch of friends who seem to spend as much time laughing with each other as they do worrying over their compositions. For Wallsmith, who started the project six years ago, that's all he's ever wanted.

"My biggest goal is to have more fun than I've ever had playing music and always do that. This band should become more fun every year."

August 26, 2010
Portland Mercury
"Blue Cranes, Rebecca Gates and the Consortium, Jonathan Sielaff"

Yes, Blue Cranes have a couple horns in their lineup, and sure, their instrumental pieces are largely improvised. But to pigeonhole them as "jazz" is not exactly accurate; the Portland five-piece makes use of Ji Tanzer's powerful drumming to pack its punchy swing full of gravity, and the chord progressions recall soul and R&B classics more than fake-book charts. On their third album, the brand new Observatories, Blue Cranes trade heavy math grooves with airy melodies, straying far from the scholarly museum pieces or schmaltzy elevator muzak that make up today's contemporary jazz. (Which raises the question, how did jazz end up there anyway?) If anything, Blue Cranes hearken back to jazz's exploratory days, when anything was fair game except for setting rules. And they do so without sounding at all retro—instead, the music of Blue Cranes is informed by a very vital, of-the-moment Northwest indie mentality.

August 25th, 2010
Willamette Week
"Jazz’s Not Dead: Blue Cranes buck expectations and make music for the people"

Reed Wallsmith, Blue Cranes’ alto sax player, is still a little foggy. Last night his band played a house show in Ashland, and at 10 am, he hasn’t quite woken up yet. He talks about the show as if he’s describing a dream. “There were a whole bunch of new parents with their little kids running around,” he says over the phone from the backyard of a friend’s house, where he laid out a sleeping bag and crashed beneath the stars. “It was pretty fun to have that background noise going on behind our music.”

While one would expect a punk or indie rock musician to embark on a half-booked couch-crashing (indeed, yard-crashing) tour toward Santa Cruz, it’s not generally a tactic associated with jazz musicians. But Wallsmith, whose Blue Cranes have shared basements and festivals with punk rock groups more often than they’ve played stiff, upholstered clubs with other jazz acts, will take a house gig any day. “I kinda like the atmosphere better, because it’s not based around making money for a venue,” he says. “It’s based around people being with their friends.”

For a jazz group (and, while Wallsmith shows some trepidation about overusing that word, “jazz,” the wide confines of the genre certainly allow room for the Cranes’ exciting, experimental music), playing uncompromising music for non-enthusiasts is a bold, even radical, move. There was a time, of course, when jazz was America’s popular music. But these days—though die-hard fans hate to admit it—jazz is a four-letter-word for a lot of mainstream music fans. It stays alive primarily through the support of academic institutions, private trusts and corporate-sponsored festivals. With some notable fresh-faced exceptions, this music—once a refuge for wild-eyed, weed-smoking rebels and stylish eccentrics—owes its life to the establishment.

“We’re not coming from that background,” Wallsmith says. “I mean, we all went to school, but in terms of where we want our music to live, it’s not in that environment.” So instead of playing clubs to jazz insiders, the Cranes—seven-year vets of the Portland music scene—have played the PDX Pop Now! Festival two years running, where they’re often the first exposure to jazz that young people have ever gotten. “People have told us that, that we’ve been their first live jazz band,” Wallsmith says. The players don’t see that as a burden. “I don’t feel like we have the responsibility to uphold jazz—we don’t want to be in a position where we have to make sure jazz reaches a younger audience.”

The music certainly isn’t kid stuff—that’s clear from Rebecca Sanborn’s delicate opening keyboard flourishes on “Grandpa’s Hands,” the first track of the Cranes’ new disc, Observatories. The tune, penned by Wallsmith about the muscles in his piano-playing grandfather’s hands locking up until he could no longer play, is a fitting introduction for the group: Funky with a hint of math-nerd obsessive compulsiveness, it splits wide open in the middle to allow Wallsmith and tenor sax player Joe Cunningham some deeply soulful, moaning solos that eventually twist around drummer Ji Tanzer’s nods towards hip-hop breakbeats and complex, Max Roach-esque patterns.

The whole disc—from the sepia-toned Wayne Horvitz waltz, “Love, Love, Love” to Tanzer’s epic first composition for the group, the slow-building “Maddie Mae (Was a Good Girl)” and Wallsmith’s video game-inspired closer “Here Is You, Here Is Me”—walks that line between carefully constructed jazz composition and wild, indie-rock abandon. The Horvitz track is the album’s only cover, a testament to the quintet’s resistance to pandering, even after it gained interest by playing a pair of Elliott Smith tunes earlier in its career. That said, the band’s next EP will feature three cover songs—the Cranes will take on David Bazan, the Red House Painters and Blonde Redhead. “We’re just trying to play whatever music comes from our heart,” Wallsmith says. Who knew such a simple approach could feel so revolutionary?

August 24, 2010
Oregon Music News
"Reed Wallsmith on the Blue Cranes’ new album ‘Observatories’"

Portland’s Blue Cranes are almost ready to make the leap to national recognition. This will not be news to those of us here who have marveled at their playing for several years. They are: Reed Wallsmith, alto sax, Sly Pig, tenor sax, Rebecca Sanborn, keyboards, Keith Brush, bass, Ji Tanzer, drums.

Their Observatories CD release is Saturday, August 28, Alberta Rose Theatre, doors 8pm, show 9pm, $10 advance (or $20 advance w/ cd). $12 at the door, 21+. Rebecca Gates and the Consortium and Jonathan Sielaff will open the show.

I sat with Reed Wallsmith and found I had to get into the now-somewhat-tiresome question of what exactly are they. Note: When Reed talks about Joe, he is talking about Joe Cunningham who is known in the band as Sly Pig because there is another Joe Cunningham who used the name first. A friend said he was a “cunning ham” and therefore a “Sly Pig.”

I started using the term “Indie Jazz” a while back. What’s interesting about the Cranes is that you play PDX Pop Now! and Holocene and places where you might think a Jazz band wouldn’t go.

I wanted to play in front of our peers. I wanted to play at shows that people at the house I lived in would go to…with bands that we were all listening to. That’s who I wanted to play for. Since then we’ve expanded to play for a lot of different audiences. We still don’t know what to call it. Last time we went on tour we had a sheet of paper and people could write what they thought it was…someone sent an email said you were not-Jazz/not-not-Jazz.

On their website, they call it Jazz/not-Jazz.

It’s hard because people want to categorize you…so people know what it is. So people innocently ask, “What kind of music do you play?” And we go, “Uhhhhhhhhhh….sorry we didn’t mean to bring you into this. It’s not your fault.”

It could all be defined very well as Jazz because Jazz is always changing.

This is an old fight. I got a phone call at KMHD while I was playing a tune by Monk telling me that wasn’t Jazz. People bring different sets of ears to everything.

Let’s go through the tunes on the album. Is “Grandpa’s Hands – for Frank Wall” about a real grandpa?

It’s funny when I write a song, it’s notes…it’s a feeling…but it’s about my grandpa who is really the only one in my family who is a musician. When I was young he gave me a keyboard. When I had written that song, it was right at the time when he and my grandma were moving out of an apartment and she made me take his keyboard because he has this thing where your fingers curl up and you can’t open up. It was so sad. He can’t play it anymore. It was so sad to watch that he knew that he couldn’t….it was just heart-wrenching to me.

So it’s about him and what that was like. It’s a very piano-intensive part (sings it). I was thinking about the agility of hands when I wrote it.

Do you write at the piano?

I do. My favorite way to write is at an acoustic piano.

Ever written any other way?

Some of the string parts I wrote using Finale software. Especially with counterpoint lines, it’s nice to be able to have a computer play them. I’ll work it out on the piano and then when it gets to hard to play all at once, I’ll transfer over to computer. Then I’ll hand write it out on to a chart. It’s easier to communicate stuff if it’s handwritten.

I feel like I should say that this is the first album I feel like has been a really collaborative compositional process. I think we’re going to get even more for the next one. Some of the songs are mine and some are Joe’s and Ji wrote one for the first time. It varies a little between us all how that works. Generally, we’ll bring a melody.

“These Are My People” (by Ji Tanzer), Ji woke up with this melody in his head and he sang it into his phone right away…and that’s the melody (sings it). We were at this lodge outside of Grant’s Pass and there was an old piano there and he figured out what it was on the piano. That really started as a sketch.

Someone might bring in a head and we’ll work with it and then they’ll take it back and add another part to it. “Broken Windmills,” Joe pretty much had an idea of what he wanted it to be. But all of these songs, they end up…one of us will write and then they completely metamorphosize once we’re working with it as a band…we Blue Cranify it. Whether it’s something one of us wrote or whether it’s a cover of someone else’s song, that group process of making it ours happen. ... [read more]

April 20, 2010
Circle Into Square
"Not Quite 20 Questions with Blue Cranes"

Portland, Oregon's, jazz-based instrumentalists Blue Cranes were kind enough to answer a few questions while they were on the road. Keep an eye out for their upcoming release 'Observatories' this summer. If it's anything like their earlier releases, it'll be stupifyingly beautiful.

HL: Can you introduce the band members and talk about how the Blue Cranes started?

Reed: Blue Cranes started as a trio in 2004. Ji and I had been playing together since 1994, and we got together with Keith, who I had played with in a few different groups, to perform some songs I had written on a four-track. Becca joined in 2006, and Sly Pig in 2007. I think from the beginning our goal has been to play honestly from our hearts, pulling from the variety of places we draw musical inspiration, but without really trying to "be" something in particular.

HL: Since you're on the road, where are you headed? What sort of places do you find Blue Cranes playing in?

Reed: We are headed down the coast to Los Angeles and back. This tour we are playing a lot of house shows. House concerts have become an intimate and fulfilling way for us play for the first time in a city. We're also playing at more traditional venues, which vary from rock clubs to jazz clubs to coffee houses. Last tour we played at a punk festival on an organic goat farm outside of Ashland, which was amazing.

HL: Do you find yourself playing with jazz bands? Does that matter to you?

Rebecca: We do play with jazz bands, but I like it best when we play shows with other kinds of music. It gives the audience something different for their ears. Too many similar bands on a bill can be exhausting to listen to. Also, when we play with rock/punk/noise bands, it tends to give us all permission to push every boundary and, as they say, "go for it."

HL: Who do you think will be the first to crack from the pressure of touring and how will it manifest?

Rebecca: The person who will crack under the pressure of tour will be ME! And I think it will manifest in the delightful form of double pneumonia.... Also, keep the pita bread away from me.

HL: Can you talk a bit about your composing style? Does someone usually bring in the melody/chord progression? Do you all contribute? Is it a mixed bag?

Reed: The way it usually works right now is that one of us will bring a song that is somewhere between a sketch and a finished composition to a rehearsal, and we will work it over and come up with an arrangement as a group. Lately we've been moving more and more towards a collaborative approach to composition. We recorded a song for a split 7" with the Davis, CA post-punk band Elders last year. Sly Pig had a beautiful sketch of a song, and we took it to the nine person double group and everyone contributed parts and melodies to bring it to completion. On the horizon for us is a band retreat to focus on composing together for a few days.

HL: I really like the mix of traditional elements with noise skronk and rock/fusion beats as well as some post-rock leanings. Could you talk about what influences you in terms of music?

Rebecca: These aren't albums or anything, but I feel like a huge musical influence on the band has been the acquisition of both the toy piano and especially "The Baldwin Discoverer." When we started using the little analog synth on a lot of the tunes, it was impossible to go back. The Discoverer really defined how we hear the chords swell, and it provides textures that the soloists can use as another kind of springboard. Plus, it's so damn cute. I'm serious, it has the best color scheme of any keyboard I've seen.

Reed: It's hard to make a master list of our influences for the whole band—we all have different tastes in music that we gravitate towards. I think this variety is nice-- everyone brings something different and unique to the table.

HL: How do you see the Portland jazz experience [I really don't want to use the word scene, but that's what I'm getting at] as compared to other cities?

Reed: Speaking in broad terms, I think there is a lot of collaborative energy in Portland, including in the music world. There are many people here that are down to get together and work on songs or on a new project that someone has an idea for. This isn't unique to Portland, but I do think it is one of this city's strong points.

HL: What are you passing right now?

Ritchie Bros. large equipment auctioneers.

HL: Who would you defend more, Wayne Shorter or Wayne Horvitz? Philly Joe Jones or Spike Jones/Jonze [I'll let you pick between the band leader and director]?

Ji: Defend? I'd fight all of them... at once.

HL: Any other tours/projects you'd like the readers to know about?

Reed: We are releasing our new album, 'Observatories,' late this summer, and will be doing regional and national touring to promote it. It features some great guest musicians, including Timothy Young on guitar from Wayne Horvitz's groups, Anna Fritz from the Portland Cello Project, Kyleen King (viola), Marilee Hord (violin), and Mary Sue Tobin (alto sax) / Chad Hensel (bass clarinet) from the avant-jazz group Paxselin. We've been working on this for so long-- I'm excited to bring it to completion.

March 16, 2010
Oregon Music News


Jimmy Mak’s was standing-room only when the Blue Cranes took to the stage ... The power and beauty (and majesty) of the Cranes filled the room...

...Blue Cranes news: Their new album, due this summer their new album will feature long-time Wayne Horvitz band mate, guitarist Timothy Young, a string section of Marilee Hord on violin, Kyleen King on viola, Anna Fritz on cello, and the Paxselin horns (Mary Sue Tobin on alto sax and Chad Hensel on bass clarinet). That was your mouth going “WOW!”

March 12, 2010
Ashland Daily Tidings (Ashland, OR)

The Portland jazz band Blue Cranes not only has an improvisational sound but spontaneous touring tactics to boot.

"One thing I'm really psyched about on this tour is that we're playing three or four house shows," said founder Reed Wallsmith during a recent stop in Ashland. The band agreed to play for a Tidings Café (see and plans to return for a show during its summer CD release tour.

Popular in New York and L.A., house shows are concerts played for free at people's homes. Concertgoers don't have to pay cover charges, can bring their own beverages and donate to the band's tour fund or buy band merchandise.

"Especially if you're going into a town where you don't know a whole lot of people, it's been way better shows when it's a friend or a friend of a friend that wants to invite people into their home," said Wallsmith.

As band members put it, they don't want to play to an empty room, even if it is a paid gig. House shows provide a more intimate setting and guarantee a crowd. And the audience members feel they have been let in on a special happening.

Founding members Ji Tanzer and Wallsmith went to high school together, then reconnected in 2003 to perform. Self-proclaimed jazz band geeks, they've played at the Portland Jazz Festival twice.

On keyboards is Rebecca Sanborn, Tanzer's wife, who started playing piano and composing her own music when she was 5. Reminiscent of her early playing is her use of a toy piano.

"Ji and I were on our way home after our shift and we were at a six-way stop and the car in front of us was a station wagon jam-packed with plastic plants and shoes and a toy piano."

Sanborn stopped the car and bought the piano from the driver and has used it in almost every show since. When Sanborn is not playing with the Blue Cranes, she works at her family's breakfast restaurant in Portland along with her husband.

On tenor saxophone is Joe Cunningham, otherwise known as "Sly Pig," a pun on his last name. Cunningham started out playing alto sax and switched to tenor sax in college after his alto sax was stolen from his locker.

Wallsmith is the alto sax, band promoter and tour manager of the "inside-out jazz" band. Wallsmith became interested in the sax as a high school student. "My dad took me to Fred Meyer and let me pick out any tape I wanted. I asked for a saxophone recommendation and they suggested Kenny G," said Wallsmith.

"When I started listening to it, I just hated it. So we went back and Fred Meyer took it back and I was able to get a saxophone compilation." It was this compilation that introduced him to Charlie Parker, one of Wallsmith's influences.

Keith Brush, who plays upright bass, was inspired when his high school orchestra played at his elementary school in fourth grade. "I remember there were like 9,000 violins, 40 violas, and this one guy in the back playing this big huge instrument," said Brush. Of course he knew he had to find out more about it.

Tanzer also discovered a hugely influential musician through the help of the Fred Meyer music department. The bargain rack is where Tanzer and his father discovered a Max Roach cassette. "I took it home and it blew me away, because I had been listening to a lot of loud rock drumming. There was a lot of mystery in it and it kind of matched my personality," said Tanzer.

One of the songs on the upcoming album sprung from a melody in a dream that Tanzer had while staying in the Applegate. Cunningham explained that inspiration comes from everywhere and that he already had ideas for the next album.

The Blue Cranes' upcoming summer release is its first actual studio recording. The past two albums were recorded in Tanzer and Sanborn's bedroom.

The Blue Cranes just finished mastering its third album at the beginning of March. The album is due out early this summer but is, as of yet, unnamed.

"That's our goal: to come up with a name for the album on this tour," said Brush. Wallsmith remarked that naming the album is the hardest part.

"If we can't think of a name by the time we come home, we're not coming home," Cunningham said...

March 5, 2010
Santa Barbara News-Press
"Jazz Coming Down the Coast — Portland's intriguing indie jazz band Blue Cranes plays at Mercury Lounge on Monday"

In recent years, Santa Barbara's club scene has been privy to a healthy, steady flow of fine bands passing through town from the indie rock world, and many of them hailing from the fertile Portland scene. Portland band Blue Cranes, making its area debut at Goleta's Mercury Lounge on Monday, is indie at heart, but from the jazz division.

Consider the band a brainier kinfolk to the indie rock scene, and with influences from rock and other areas, but with a solid foundation in the vocabulary of jazz.

Alto saxist Reed Wallsmith shares the front line with tenor saxist Sly Pig, bassist Keith Brush and drummer Ji Tanzer in the rhythm section, along with keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn. Sanborn is the only "non-unplugged" musician in the unit, but she uses her electronics tastefully, sometimes in ways reminiscent of acclaimed Seattle-based jazzer Wayne Horvitz, whom with the band has shared the stage.

Last Saturday, the band performed in the Portland Jazz Festival, which has become one of the more respected American jazz festivals in the several years of its existence.

To date, the band has released two albums — "Lift Music! Flown Music!" in 2006 and "Homing Patterns" in 2008 — and is set to burst forth with a new one. While they have toured down the West Coast and elsewhere, much of the focus has been in the Northwest so far, including the PDX Jazz Fest, Seattle's Sounds Outside and PDX Pop Now!

In an interview the day after their PDX show, Wallsmith effused about his hometown, that "there is a lot of amazing music happening in Portland. In music, and the arts as a whole, there is a strong culture here of collaboration and curiosity. I feel very fortunate to live here and to be able to listen to and collaborate with many open-minded players and bands."

Seeds of the Blue Cranes were sown by Wallsmith and Tanzer, who met and played together in high school in the early '90s. Fast-forward to almost a decade later and a band was ready to be born.

"We originally formed to play some songs I had written for a four-track project," says Wallsmith. "I had just moved back to Portland after playing in a progressive rock group in Rhode Island, and my mind was full of compositional and arrangement ideas. Ji and Keith and I originally played as an alto sax-bass-drums trio and later added Rebecca on keyboards and Sly Pig on tenor sax."

In terms of a stylistic identity, early influences included such flexible and left-of-center examples as Minnesotan trio Happy Apple — featuring Bad Plus drummer Dave King — and music by the great drummer-composer-thinker Paul Motian, whose fluidity of expression can be heard in the Blue Cranes' sound.
Wallsmith explains that "the main framework that has tied the group together over the years has been to focus our energy on melody, composition and working together as a group, rather than on individual virtuosity. There is a lot of room for expression and improvisation within this."

Along the way, heeding the self-reliant "indie" way has been critical to the band's achievements so far and on into the future.
As Wallsmith comments, "doing things DIY has been a necessity for us in order to build an audience for our music. It's been freeing to not wait around for a record label to do anything or be tied to someone else's vision for how our music should be produced or how it should be promoted."

From a more purely musical perspective, Wallsmith sees his band as part of a generational phenomenon among musicians approaching jazz as a rich and progressively creative genre.
"I think there are many young musicians influenced by the huge breadth of jazz-improvisational music of the past century and are creating exciting new stuff, in and out of the jazz genre," Wallsmith says. "Some people are saying that jazz 'needs' to expand into different musical realms to attract a larger audience. I'm not so concerned about whether jazz expands or not. What is exciting to me is people making new music that is from their heart, whatever it ends up being called."

March 4, 2010
Santa Barbara Independent

For the left-of-jazz-inclined, check out the wily, lyrical, evocative and bright Portland band Blue Cranes, at Mercury Lounge on Monday. Wayne Horvitz has been known to play along. Check ’em out.

February 14, 2010
Crappy Indie Music

Then Blue Cranes played. Oh. My. God. They are so good. They played mostly material that will be coming out on an album this summer (June?). It was beautiful. Every player in the band (two sax players, stand up bass, drummer, and piano/keyboard player) was so expressive in the way they played their instruments. It truly was like the instruments are extensions of themselves. The set seemed way too short, but they ended up playing a quiet encore so as not to upset the neighbors.

November 2009
Jazz Society of Oregon (Portland, OR)
"Featured musician of the month: Reed Wallsmith"

Click to here to read interview.

October 28, 2009
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Claudia Quintet, Blue Cranes"

Any Cranes show is a guaranteed delight, but this early-evening double bill with John Hollenbeck’s great New York-based Claudia Quintet (featuring sax great Chris Speed and former Oregonian Gary Versace on piano) is really special—and still leaves you time to make it to late-night Halloween revelry.

October 19, 2009
The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
Front page of Living section
"A comet in the sky for Portland's jazz scene"

Sometimes, even in the confusion of our culture, the signs and portents seem to point in a particular direction.

In the Portland jazz scene, the signs and portents are starting to point up. The historical forces are aligning. A lightning bolt has shattered the stillness. A saxophone cries out in the dark.

In recent weeks, the following phenomena have been reported:

Lynn Darroch, the indefatigable jazz journalist, historian and deejay, interviewed local musicians Darrell Grant and Ben Darwish one week, then Andrew Oliver and Reed Wallsmith the next, on his Friday afternoon jazz show on KMHD-FM.

Those performers then packed Jimmy Mak's jazz club for two consecutive Friday nights. The audience was younger than usual, just like the personnel in the bands.

The Portland Jazz Festival kept its momentum going away from its near-death experience last fall by hiring well-connected jazz veteran Don Lucoff as executive director and announcing a slimmed-down but interesting lineup for the 2010 festival. The festival is in talks with KMHD to figure out ways they can partner.

So, the four ingredients you need for a healthy jazz scene are coming together: Great young players. Good jazz clubs. A radio station that's reaching out to the local community. A jazz festival that brings important jazz artists to town -- and with them jazz tourists, who will spread the word about the scene here.

These things couldn't be more interrelated.

Here's Wallsmith of the Blue Cranes talking about the jazz festival two years ago, the one that featured the free-thinking music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor: "I have not seen avant/free music promoted on that level in Portland in the whole time I've lived here," he said. "I started crying hearing Ornette perform at the Schnitz and seeing the thousands of people give him a standing ovation. The festival as a whole gave me an emotional/spiritual lift for quite a few months afterwards."

Matt Fleeger, assistant programming director at KMHD, says, "Before I got to Portland, the first thing I had on my radar was the Portland Jazz Festival." Fleeger came to KMHD from San Antonio, where many of the donors to his radio station travel to Portland for the festival.

Darroch, who has always had deep contacts with the Portland scene, says the station is also encouraging him to make use of those contacts to bring local musicians into the studio to talk (along with touring jazz musicians).

For his part, Fleeger is evidently getting out into the local clubs, too. "Those Blue Cranes are ..." -- and I interrupted him, quoting a line from "High Fidelity" where a customer in Rob's record shop listens to the song on the shop audio system, turns to Rob (played by John Cusack) and remarks how good the song is. Rob smiles and says, "I know." Yeah, the Blue Cranes are good.

For the first time I can remember, it seems as though everyone on the local jazz scene is working toward the same thing. "We're at a point where jazz needs to appeal to different audiences in order to survive," Darwish says, which happens to be what the folks at KMHD, the jazz festival, the clubs and the musicians are saying, too.

That's the fifth ingredient of a good jazz scene -- an active, involved, hungry audience. And that's the one we're hoping the other four help create.

Not that more can't be done. Wallsmith suggests that the festival figure out a way to comp local jazz musicians into the festival concerts, which tend to be beyond their means, for example (all we need is a sponsor!). Darwish is hoping that Jimmy Mak's and the jazz festival reach an understanding that allows the festival and the city's most important jazz club to embrace each other. "It's rude not to," he says.

As Darroch points out, the spirit of the scene right now is cooperative. It's collaborative. It's building on the hard work done the past two decades in the jazz programs at local middle and high schools, community colleges and Portland State University.

At the moment, the signs are all good.

October 7, 2009
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Jazz on the Rise"

"... another of the city’s most torrid and creative young ensembles, Blue Cranes"

October 5, 2009
The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"Blue Cranes and Andrew Oliver Kora Band at Jimmy Mak's"

We received an email from Reed Wallsmith (OK, it was part of an email blast), who is back from Berlin "in one piece, after having had an amazing time there performing and recording with improvisers from Norway, Denmark and Germany. We are in the process of mixing an album - stay tuned." This means that Blue Cranes are back in full working order for an 8 p.m. performance at Jimmy Mak's.

August 15, 2009
Murfins and Burglars (San Francisco)
"Blue Cranes at Bluesix"

Oh, man, this band. Blue Cranes is an experimental sax-fronted quintet out of Portland. And they rule. Seriously. Sam Howard, an old friend of mine from UMiami, subs on bass with them quite a bit, and has actually been down this way on tour before, but I hadn’t seen them until Wednesday night. Before the show, I was asking him what they sound like, what the term “Indie Jazz,” which he’d used to explain their sound to me in the past, really meant.

“You know when Britney Spears shaved her head? It sounds like that.”

So... pretty much like this?

Blue Cranes’ setup involves a fairly standard jazz rhythm section – upright bass, drum kit and keyboards (both standard piano sounds and a synthesizer) played by Sam, Ji Tanzer and Rebecca Sanborn, and fronted by Joe Cunningham (”Sly Pig”) and Reed Wallsmith on the tenor and alto saxes, respectively.

What is less than standard about the band is the music they play, and the way they play it. Basically, they play inside, triumphant pop melodies mixed with free-jazz explorations. It’s not the template of all of their tunes, but several times, I was struck at how effectively the band would pivot from a driving, lyrical section of ones and fours and fives straight into a wide-open free-blowing situation, bringing things sometimes to an utter standstill before building them back up. It was incredibly well implemented, particularly on their second tune of the night, “Love, Love, Love,” (by Seattle composer Wayne Horvitz), which came down to an almost impossibly sparse improvisation by Sly Pig and the band before building its way back to a ferocious ending. You can see a video of them performing the tune here:

What’s more, by adding Sanborn’s Hanne Hukkelberg-esque synth (or, if you prefer, Napoleon Dynamite-ish), they really do get a sort of “Indie” sound that, when combined with the strong saxophone melodies, makes for a listening experience that is quite unique. Other highlights from the set included an inspired cover of Sufjan’s “Seven Swans,” a punk-rock tune that played like an exercise in rhythmic displacement (Drums and bass on two and four! Now one and three! Now two and four! Now back!) Sam mentioned to me that they’ve been doing a lot of shows with punk bands, and that when they do a lot of this material, it’s about 200% louder than it was at Bluesix.

Which is cool, but man, as much as I dug the playing, and the writing, perhaps the thing I enjoyed most of all was the dynamic contrast that Blue Cranes brought. From the quietest whisper to the loudest, fullest saxophone roar, it was just so engaging to listen to music that displayed so much contrast. A good deal of this owes to the great room – I’ve never been to Bluesix before, but it is an absolutely fantastic place to see live music. It’s quite a bit like the Red Poppy, actually – a listening room/art gallery with a small wine bar and a close, warm vibe that encourages focused listening. I have never been to a bar where Pig’s solo on “Love Love Love” would have been possible.

Bluesix is run by bassist/rennaissance man Joe Lewis, a big, super-nice guy who plays around town with a ton of groups. His dedication to music, and to running a room where great, uncommon music is possible, really shows – I really loved the club, and hope to play there soon.

I am, of course, not really doing either of these groups justice with my writing, but I hope that by telling you a few of my thoughts and impressions that you’ll check them out. Spaceheater plays all over the city and features really groovy writing and some amazing horn arrangements. Blue Cranes comes to town not infrequently and are doing some of the most interesting, rewarding, and exciting acoustic jazz I’ve seen in a long time. Check them out, support them, and go see ‘em live!

August 13, 2009
Chico News & Review (Chico, CA)
"Player's Night"

Portland, Oregon's Blue Cranes (pictured) create works of experimental jazz that one press clipping likened to "some David Lynch style basement jazz hallucination." The Cranes go live at Cafe Coda Thursday, Aug. 13.

August 7, 2009
Sacramento News and Review (Sacramento)
"Blue Cranes say ‘Eff you, elevator jazz'"

Maybe jazz, in the context of contemporary music, has been relegated to the confines of hip-hop samples, public radio and elevators for a reason. Perhaps it’s being punished for stubbornness—for keeping to tradition for almost 100 years without much room to wiggle. But as the punishment subsides, new jazz acts with something different to say are emerging. Take into account “Broken Windmills,” from the Portland, Ore., quintet Blue Cranes: Drums exist within the natural momentum of wildly interesting orchestration, rather than simply to dictate a pace. Yet there’s a sense of excitement and urgency within the band’s strangely arranged melodies, which is not always the case when discussing experimental jazz. Rock critics are even using words like “polished,” “unique” and “innovative” to describe the band’s textured sound. But the band also conveys a certain old-time romance, reaching middle ground between structure and playfulness. Whether it’s the jarring Latin polyrhythm of “Awesome Hawk” or the punk rock bassline on “X,” Blue Cranes provide a new amplification of jazz, allowing listeners to hear a stream of water pass through a storm drain thick with sediment.

"That was the best fucking music I've ever heard in my whole goddamn life... and I'm including Mozart and Brahms in that. I thought you guys were going to be crappy and boring." - Leb's dad

August 5, 2009
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Beat Off feat. Blue Cranes"

[JAZZ BEAT] Tonight, the popular Beat Off beat battle—wherein, to remind you, fledgling producers must work with a handful of samples to quickly churn out an earth-shatteringly cool beat—gets sophisticated. This time around, the beat doctors will use samples from local jazz institution Blue Cranes’ recent studio visit, making for instrumentals we hope fall into the Premier/Dilla category rather than that of Us3’s “Cantaloop.” The Cranes themselves will also make an appearance. It's good to see Portland’s jazz set embracing sampling rather than taking its practitioners to court.

July 31, 2009
Portland Mercury (Portland, OR)
"Beat It"

Rather than battling with their own selection of juicy samples, the DJs at Holocene's Beat Off competition will be using studio samples from the Blue Cranes' latest album-who also happen to be kicking off their national tour and playing a live set while beatmasters oil everyone up with sexy tunes. It'll make you so excited you'll wanna... you know.

June 26, 2009
Oregonian A&E (Portland, OR)
Five Live Top Pick #1: "Blue Cranes"

This jazz combo, led by sax player Reed Wallsmith, has the moxie to cover songs by indie icons such as Elliott Smith as well as crank out bristling noir-ish originals.

June 24, 1009
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
"Blue Cranes, Gojogo, Walking Home"

"One of the Northwest’s most fascinating progressive jazz bands will present new material."

February 18, 2009
The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"Lessons Learned From The Portland Jazz Festival"

[on "Crane," a piece arranged for the Portland Jazz Composer's Ensemble by R. Wallsmith]: "Crane" by Reed Wallsmith of Blue Cranes fame was the most polished piece of music on the program, especially for this setting and this band. (I've written about the Blue Cranes before.) It started with a low saxophone note and a murmur of Paul Mazzio's trumpet joined in, which would swell into a lonesome theme. Then, he created a dynamic change to a swift, swinging little section with a very cute tune, before taking it back down for orchestral chords and solo passages, which continued that plaintive idea. It was all very noir-ish, very "LA Confidential." And Wallsmith at the podium kept shushing the band so the individual strands could be distinguished. Smart.

January 28, 2009
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)

"Portland’s most exciting neo-jazz band"

January 13, 2009
Art Scatter
"Looking At Noise, Or Why We Love the Blue Cranes"
BARRY JOHNSON (Oregonian arts editor)

We walk or drive around Portland, and we are bombarded – by signs, buildings, sound, traffic, information of all sorts, every possible corner filled with the cultural stuff of the modern city, the air a battlefield of warring noises. We rush by it and through it all quickly because we couldn’t possibly pay attention to all of it, maybe any of it, if we want to focus on things that matter.

Which is all another way of saying: The city sometimes sings out to us in unexpected ways.

A few days before the Great Christmas Whiteout of 2008, I found myself listening to the new CD by the Portland jazz band Blue Cranes, “Homing Patterns,” as I walked to work. I like the energy of the band, the collage of blues, rock and noise, and I like the melodies Reed Wallsmith and Sly Pig wander through on their saxophones. Every now and then, the horns in the band collide, often in a chord, an interesting chord, that expands into another chord and then another, each one pushed to the limit of breath, to the point of honking.

Anyway, I had reached the pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks on Portland’s east side (about where the photo above was taken), right before you get to the Esplanade and the Steel Bridge. The rail line at that place curves deeply, and as I approached a long freight train, with graffiti-embellished boxcars and flatcars, lumbered underneath. They do not do this silently. They grumble along, of course, but because of the curve, they also squeal sometimes, a teeth-gnashing vibration that makes your fillings hurt.

But here, at this particular intersection, something happened: The screech of that train finished off one of those bleating Blue Cranes chords. Slid up the scale a little and finished it off. It was exactly the right note, somehow, and it pulled me up short as the delight of it all dawned on me. Amazing. The perfect sonic accident.

I crossed the Steel Bridge, the chord still in my head, and started walking along the Willamette River, passing the new Mercy Corps headquarters, where construction was underway and a jack hammer was at its business. But now the song had changed, and the hammer’s staccato picked up the tempo of the new tune, the chattering in time to the snare on the CD, on and between the beats. And then I noticed that the two trucks chugging along Naito Parkway created a deeper, more rhythmic bass line.

My ears were on fire. And I wondered, idealistically, is this always the way it is when you’re truly attuned to the outside world? It becomes something “symphonic”? But then it all fell apart as the CD and random noises took different paths; the city stopped playing along with Blue Cranes.

I didn’t know quite to make of it, this moment of alignment, of private meaning, my city and its jazz band united in my head,and my head only, to make something special...

[click here to read the rest]


January 8, 2009
Willamette Week (Portland, OR)

[BURGEONING JAZZ STARS] If you've not familiarized yourself with the work of Blue Cranes, you'd better get on board quickly. This arch and artful jazz combo already has listed on its website shows with keyboardist extraordinaire Wayne Horvitz and a showcase at this year's Portland Jazz Festival. My point is that you can pay a nominal fee to see them in a small venue like the Doug Fir now or, once the jazzheads that descend on our city once a year get ahold of them, end up losing half your paycheck to see them on a big stage in six months' time. The choice is yours.


....[click here to read older Blue Cranes press]