Goodbye blue skies, hello Blue Cranes

After so many years of mainstream hornless four-piece rock ‘n’ roll bands, one starts to get a little worried about the livelihood and whereabouts of all our jazz musicians.

After so many years of mainstream hornless four-piece rock ‘n’ roll bands, one starts to get a little worried about the livelihood and whereabouts of all our jazz musicians. Hiding away as studio artists or busking on downtown street corners, roaring saxophonists seem to be in less and less demand these days. 

Fortunately, Blue Cranes is making headway, smashing misconceptions regarding the restrictions of jazz and namely what it means to have a horn section. Consisting of five core musicians—Reed Wallsmith on alto sax, Sly Pig on tenor sax, Keith Brush on the upright bass, Rebecca Sanborn on the keys and Ji Tanzer on drums—Blue Cranes released its third album, Observatories, on Sept. 14. The album also features guitarist Timothy Young, violist Kyleen King, cellist Anna Fritz (of Portland Cello Project), violinist Marilee Hord, alto saxophonist Sue Tobin and bass clarinetist Chad Hensel. 

The album opens with what sounds like someone flying a kite with a kinderklavier, the childish toy piano sound a perfect compliment for the deep sassy timbre of the wailing saxophones. “Grandpa’s Hands” sounds like balloons and rolling hills passing through the frame of an old train window. The horns often create a new age jazz-infused Baroque counterpoint, melding the two eras of music in a cast of modernity that creates an exciting experience for any seasoned listener. 

What makes Blue Cranes truly stand out is the group’s incredible ability to glide through drastic musical transitions, changing from an uproar of animalistic howls to a melancholic wandering solo so suddenly and smoothly that the listener has no time to question the change—only to appreciate and wander with it. It also has something to do with the storytelling quality of the saxophones; one listens to that leading element as one might listen to a weathered traveler telling a story of dancing women and harrowing battles rather than a man behind a crimson horn blowing out a sweet melody. The orchestration is flawless.

Each song on this album has a personality, a romantic or childish or sophisticated dance it wants to play with your ears, but a definite triumph of a song and one that stands out more than the rest is the Blue Cranes cover of “Love, Love, Love” by Wayne Horvitz. Sanborn is so graceful in her reproduction of the despairing tune. The delicate sustain of the horns is like little wisps of clouds brought down from the ether for our ears to caress and explore, wisps that transform into torrents of resonating storm clouds that you can’t help but be swept into by the ebb and flow of their passion.  

Two other impressive tunes from Observatories are “Broken Windmills” and “These Are My People,” both of which are original compositions. The former begins with a tenor sax solo by Pig with such a sweet guitar accompaniment that it makes you want to cry. It sounds like crystallized ice breaking and becoming fluid again, flowing down the most pristine of mountain peaks, or like winds carrying tufts of seeding dandelions through an open meadow. 

The latter contains a most unexpected, yet pleasant, change of pace. Beginning with a sophisticatedly rumbling drum solo, leading into an elated progression of melodic harmonies, the song finally breaks ever-so-deeply into a wonderfully sporadic explosion of piano banging and soldier-boy snare drumming. Free-form jazz doesn’t quite capture the manic mayhem Blue Cranes indulges in here—it is more like all the seasons recorded and put on fast forward, or a swarm of bees buzzing around your head. This is Sanborn’s most successful moment on the album and listening to it is instant gratification. Tanzer’s drumming throughout the album is delivered with the ease of a jazz percussionist; only his style has a certain breakbeat quality because of its technicalities. On this song particularly, he reveals a refreshing rambunctious freedom that is both impressive and subtle. 

In the finale of the album, “Here is You, Here is Me,” both Wallsmith and Pig rip up the song in closing, really letting the crane loose from their horns. The only vocals of the entire album are chanted here, “Here is me, here is me!” followed by a tiny child’s voice that wraps the album up—a neatly packaged bundle of aggressive, progressive, suggestive and expressive indie-jazz. ?