Part two in a series exploring cutting-edge modern Jazz in Portland and the musicians that make it.
The Ocular Concern, a Portland-based three-piece indie-jazz band comprised of Andrew Oliver (electric piano), Dan Duval (electric guitar), and Stephen Pacerev (drums) create minimalist, genre redefining music (The band’s website describes their music as “Indie-Jazz and other curiosities).
I recently sat down with Dan and Andrew to discuss the Portland jazz scene, upcoming projects, and some of their favorite jazz records.
Ashawnta Jackson: Can you tell me a bit about how The Ocular Concern started?
Andrew Oliver: We started in April of last year, so a little over a year.
Dan Duval: Sounds about right. It sort of evolved from some more casual playing situations that had been happening off and on.
AO: We’d been playing some duo, just guitar and piano, and Dan, you’d been playing with Dan in some other group, and that eventually stopped happening, so we just put them together, I guess. We really just wanted to augment the duo, but we didn’t want to add bass, we went with drums because it was a little more atypical.
DD: Everyone was really happy when Steven [Pancerev] moved back to town. He’d spent five years in Rhode Island and before he left for Rhode Island, I had met him and played with him one time and then when he came back everyone was excited to work with him again. Andrew and I were some of the first people to monopolize his schedule. It was good timing that way. We manipulated the situation as well as we could [laughs].
AJ: You two are fairly young, and for jazz musicians, that’s got to be kind of interesting, to be so young and so involved in the jazz community. Do you find that jazz community here, especially for young people, is a growing thing, a nurturing kind of community?
AO: I think there are a lot of good musicians here. More than in a lot of cities of this size, I would imagine. The cost of living is not so high and it’s a good climate for artists of all kinds, and that certainly has created a situation where there are a lot of great musicians. There are a lot of opportunities to play with people and to try new things. But, there’s not necessarily as much of a demand as there is a supply, and that’s the hard part. It is possible to make some waves in the music scene and to get people to pay attention to what you’re doing, but it is difficult. I guess that’s the hurdle, but it’s not a lack of talent, that’s for sure.
DD: I think you make a good point that the jazz world often is not a youth culture these days, but there’s some notable people trying to address that. Our friend, Ben Darwish is a great local musician who doing sort of jazz youth outreach, you could say, by having a sort of funk band and all kinds of other thing that aren’t you typical boring, college jazz activities.
AO: There’s certainly some movement in that direction in town people trying to be more open minded about how they define jazz.
DD: The Blue Cranes are very interested in playing in non-traditional venues; house parties, basements, warehouses, art galleries, rock clubs, anything, and a lot of these people are involved in the more traditional forums for playing jazz like the schools or concert halls. So it’s nice that there’s so much cross over in Portland.
AJ: You mentioned that people are really interested in redefining what jazz means; it doesn’t have to be what people have traditionally thought of it. So how do you, personally, define what jazz is?
DD: I’m not so sure I know what it means, or if I even play jazz, but it seems to be the word that’s more appropriate than other words for what we do. It’s by default maybe.
AO: Yeah, I think so. It’s become such a broad thing, you know, and at the same time jazz has progressed, especially since the 60s, post 60s-
DD: Yeah, post Miles [Davis] fusion.
AO: It has become so broad that no one- it can mean so many things and I think that some people have a very narrow definition of it, musicians and non-musicians. And some audience members and people will have totally bizarre conceptions about what jazz is based on the numerous things that have happened in the last hundred years. So it’s hard to say as easily as it would have been in say, 1959, to say that you play jazz and everyone has an idea of what that sounds like. Whereas now it ranges from what we play in The Ocular Concern to some sort of jazz-funk thing to old-time jazz and swing. The lack of good defining genre terms is a constant frustration- for me anyway.
DD: We’ve all [jazz musicians] have had the experience of going to some gig and talking to an audience member or to a cocktail party or something and saying “I’m a jazz musician” and they say “I love jazz! I have two Kenny G records” and you realize you’re not on the same page. We’ve all had that experience. That’s why I’m reticent to use the word; I don’t want to make people think that I’m doing something that’s got nothing to do with what I do.
AO: Or they say “Every time I’ve heard jazz, I’ve hated it, except this was a really interesting concert.” What does that mean, what have you heard? [laughs]
DD: With all that variety out there, people have often only heard one random album from all that variety and they think that’s what it is.
AJ: It seems that people are afraid of jazz sometimes. What do you think that comes from?
DD: I think jazz musicians often behave in a very insular way and it makes other people feel isolated and if you’re not “in” they’re looking down on you. Much of jazz culture is self defeating in that way.
AO: And I think people are also afraid, or wary, of something they think might be pretentious, or not accessible.
DD: Or not fun.
AO: Yeah, maybe not fun and not accessible depending on what they’ve heard.
AJ: What brought you to this music? Who are some of your influences?
DD: [Points to Andrew] Jelly Roll Morton for you.
AO: Yeah, I started with early jazz, 20s jazz and ragtime, because I played classical music for many years and started discovering that music from ragtime. Then I moved into jazz from there in a chronological way. That was pretty interesting because every so often I’d become less dogmatic “Oh hey, maybe music from the 40s is ok.” “Maybe music from the 50s is ok” [laughs} so I’ve gone through in that way, but by no means comprehensively. And recently I’ve been exploring a lot of African music over the past five years or so, West African music specifically, and trying to bring that in a little bit as an influence in composing but now I’m also trying to be more conscious of things that people want to hear it’s possible to be artistic and also not hit people over the head too hard. And sometimes when you’re in a jazz school, for example, or an atmosphere like that, the level of complexity that you hear on a regular basis is quite high and sometimes can actually be unpleasant from a certain perspective.
DD: It can be overbearing.
AO: Yeah. I’ve been trying to listen to my music and other music a little more objectively trying to get outside from a musician’s perspective and see what elements are of interest from that point of view. Just try to ground it a bit more. So, that’s been another sort of side interest for a while. Not dumbing it down, just thinking about who you’re writing it for.
DD: I did roughly the opposite of what Andrew did; I went backwards chronology when it came to discovering jazz as a young person. I grew up on rock and pop music and also studied music and played a little piano and guitar, so I had a framework. Then eventually I found out about Bitches’ Brew. It was the first jazz album I ever had. I heard John McLaughlin play the guitar, and was like, “Whoa, I want to know what’s up with that!” And then I heard Herbie Hancock and Miles and different things from the 60s and kind of going back from there. I had to keep asking teachers questions and they kept saying, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about because you haven’t listened to this other, older record.” And so, all right, I guess I better listen to that. Always, of course, I ended up loving it.
AJ: What are you listening to now?
AO: I’ve really become interested in really straight-ahead west coast jazz of the 50s. As strange as that may seem. The west coast jazz scene was much maligned by the east coast jazz scene, and by extension, at least in my experience, in jazz school. Even here [in Portland], no one is really listening to a lot of that stuff…. there’s a certain attitude that seems to go with that scene. So I’ve recently been discovering all of the great things that took place in LA music scene, and I’ve really been enjoying checking all of that out. There’s some really great arranging. I’ve also been exploring the improvised music of the 70s and 80s more, aside from the fusion movement. Jazz fusion became the most prominent form of jazz in that time period, but there’s a lot of great acoustic music that was sort of underground because there wasn’t so much of a demand for it. Artists such as Waddada Leo Smith, the AACM guys, Paul Bley, Woody Shaw-
DD: Anthony Braxton.
DD: For jazz, I’ve been listening to the Refuge Trio, which everyone should get a copy of. And also, I’ve been listening obsessively to Donuts by J. Dilla because in February we’re doing a tribute show to him on his birthday, so that’s kind of a fun project on the horizon.
AJ: Ok, last question. If you had to give someone just one album to introduce them to jazz, what would it be?
AO: That’s a good question. Of course, the stock answer would be Kind of Blue, or something.
DD: Yeah, that’s the stock answer.
AO: I was so bored by that record for so many years before I learned to like it, I don’t think I would ever start anyone on jazz with that record.
DD: Maybe the current Blue Cranes release?
AO: Ah, yeah. Observatories. It depends on what their background is, you know?
DD: Yeah, what else do they like to listen to?
AO: It depends on what they like to listen to. If they like to listen to, like, modern rock or contemporary indie rock, then I would go in that direction- Claudia Quintet or Blue Cranes
DD: Claudia Quintet may be a sort of litmus test to see how much sophistication they can stomach.
AO: At first listen, it might be a bit much.
DD: It’s one of my favorites, though.
AO: If they like things that are swinging, then maybe- I don’t know, such a tough question….
DD: Bitches Brew was a great first jazz album for me. But maybe that’s just more about me then about jazz, though.
AO: What about Soul Station by Hank Mobley?
DD: I don’t know that record.
AO: That’s the best straight ahead record.
DD: Or Body Talk by George Benson? It’s a great, accessible funk-jazz record from the 70s.
AO: Something like Soul Station would be good because it’s a absolute bible of straight ahead playing. The most swinging record.
DD: Or any Bill Evans-
AO: Oh, Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard, that would be great. Well, I guess there’s not just one answer [laughs].
DD: Yeah, there’s ten answers for you [laughs].
You can catch The Ocular Concern Sunday, August 7 at The Blue Monk.
-Ashawnta Jackson, KMHD Blogger
Editors note: This is the first in a series exploring some of the cutting-edge modern Jazz sounds and the musicians that make it in Portland.
Equally at home in the jazz, punk, and rock scenes, the Portland based band, Blue Cranes hit the road recently in an unusual take on the U.S. tour. The band, comprised of Reed Wallsmith (alto saxophone), Sly Pig (tenor saxophone), Rebecca Sanborn (keyboards), Keith Brush (acoustic bass), and Ji Tanzer (drums), completed their first national tour entirely by train.
I caught up with Wallsmith recently to talk about the band’s tour.
Tell me a bit about the train tour. How did the band come up with the idea? Was it something in particular about train travel that appealed to you?
Our original reason for going by train was that we wanted to tour nationally, but didn’t want to cram into a van all the way across the country and back. So it was an idea based in comfort, really.
Trains also opened up the possibility of easily traveling with more than five people (our van’s capacity is five), which opened up the possibility that friends could join us to help out and have fun. The amount of comfortable workspace on a train seemed like it would make it possible for those of us who could work remotely via laptop to continue doing our day jobs too, which made it possible to consider being “on the road” for a longer period of time.
The more we thought about it, the more train travel seemed to really make a lot of sense, and we couldn’t figure out why more bands weren’t doing it. The main obstacle to us was cost, which is why we needed to launch a big fundraiser nine months before we left.
Touring by train also had political meaning for some of us. We wanted to help promote a form of travel that has so many environmental and social benefits, but has been so decimated by competing financial interests–the automobile industry chief among them. It was our hope that by raising public awareness around the country about our rail system, we could contribute in some small way to it being better funded and more accessible someday.
In reading your tour diary, there is something quite nostalgic about the experience- and not just because of the train travel. There’s something really sweet and sort of maybe, quaint, about the whole adventure. The way that you and your band mates connected with people in random ways; the way people opened their homes for you; those sorts of things feel like they don’t happen often. Did you find that to be true?
The limitations of traveling by train led to some of the coolest parts of our trip. We ended up being very dependent on other people throughout our travels. It’s a common goal in American culture, perhaps even more so amongst those of us who are men, to want to be completely independent and self-sufficient; to not need help from anyone. Throughout this month, we were the antithesis of this goal. Traveling on trains while carrying lots of baggage, coupled with not having a lot of money, meant that we were highly dependent on establishing relationships with people in each city for help with rides and places to stay.
Through meeting all of the people that we squished into cars with, tied down gear onto a flatbed truck with, figured out public transportation with, and stayed with (not to mention rode on a train with), I think that we had a much richer experience in each city.
It’s amazing to think about how different, and in many ways limited, our experiences would have been had we rolled up to each venue in a van guided by a GPS, and stayed comparatively isolated amongst ourselves in motels after each show.
Have the connections with the people and places you’ve experienced on the trip changed the way you think about your music?
I have come away from our first national tour with a recognition that what we are doing is really important, and that who we are, what we know, where we live, and what we play is, on some deep level, enough. That’s not to say that there are not ways that I want to grow, things I want to practice, places I want to explore, etc… but, I think that what I feel very profoundly now is that we don’t have anything to hide. We are who we are, we’re good at what we’re good at, we’re not good at what we’re not good at, and that’s okay. Musically, I think this tour helped deepen our sense of confidence as a band to open up on stage, to challenge each other, and to take more risks.
Catch the Blue Cranes at the Washington Park Ampitheater for a collaborative show with the Northwest Dance Theater on Friday, August 12.
Ashawnta Jackson, KMHD Blogger