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State of Mind: Oregon plays Kuumbwa on Monday night.

Oregon's Odyssey

The jazz quartet's 40-year journey through the musical universe ends up at home.

By Andrew Gilbert

Long before world music became an established marketing niche, Oregon was creating a potent synthesis of far-flung musical sources. One of the first improvising ensembles to wholeheartedly embrace a global aesthetic, the group evolved out of the Paul Winter Consort in 1970 as a quartet featuring reed master Paul McCandless, guitarist Ralph Towner, bassist Glen Moore and percussionist Colin Wolcott. Over nearly four decades, through tragedy and technological shifts, Oregon has created a complete musical universe steeped in the jazz tradition but largely eschewing blues feeling and swing in favor of various non-Western musical forms. Oregon plays two shows on Monday at Kuumbwa.

"I think the emphasis now is for people to demonstrate the diversity of the music that they're employing, and to show the reference very clearly," says McCandless. "With Oregon, it might have a certain flavor, but there are no direct references to any specific world music. We continue to try to synthesize our influences so they don't come out the way they came in."

Oregon was born out of a commitment to improvisation. While the Paul Winter Consort was one of the first jazz groups to systematically incorporate elements of African, Asian and South American music, it eventually began focusing on through-composed material. Despite the fact that the market for acoustic jazz had all but evaporated in 1970, the four musicians decided to strike out on their own to develop an ensemble improvisational approach suited to their unusual instrumentation.

In a stroke of good fortune unimaginable today, Oregon landed a 10-album deal with Vanguard Records, giving the group the security to experiment and explore. Towner wrote most of the band's material, but the band developed a sound so seamless it was difficult to tell where his writing stopped and the band's improvisation started. On albums such as Music of Another Present Era, Distant Hills and Winter Light, the combination of Towner's crystalline classical guitar, Moore's elastic bass, Wolcott's tabla and McCandless's oboe and English horn created a pristine, introspective sound, full of transparent, shimmering textures.

By the early 1980s, Oregon was a world jazz institution, but a 1984 car crash in Germany killed Wolcott and the band's road manager. The group took three years before deciding to re-enter the studio with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, who had been a close friend of Wolcott's. When Gurtu's involvement with guitarist John McLaughlin's trio started demanding all of his time, the group expanded its instrumental palette and began working more as a trio.

McCandless replaced the oboe on many tunes with soprano sax, and Towner increasingly divided his time between guitar and piano. Most surprising was Towner's ability to introduce synthesizer into the band's all-acoustic format, adding orchestral colors while retaining the group's improvisational edge.

In the 1990s, Oregon was re-energized by percussionist Mark Walker, even as the band turned into a part-time project. With all the musicians involved in various other projects--Towner records extensively for ECM and McCandless toured widely with banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and the Flecktones--Oregon has kept a low U.S. profile, releasing the first new studio session in seven years last summer, 1000 Kilometers. Born out of an impulse to explore the world, Oregon has evolved to the point where the players feel perfectly comfortable coming home.

"In the very beginning, we didn't play anything that had a jazz time feeling," McCandless says. "Our music always had more of an even eighth-note kind of a time feeling, which is in tune with a lot of ethnic music from around the world. But in addition to all this incredible coloristic music that we can play, we've now found Oregon's voice in the jazz style after many years."

OREGON performs Monday, May 5, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $23 adv/$26 door; 831.427.2227.

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