on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2019 1 Jun

Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless @ Soda Rock Winery

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 8 Comments

I was lucky to see the first duo performance ever by Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless, two of the founding members of Oregon last night at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. It’s interesting to note that Oregon is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which has to be some kind of record. Yet considering the enormous influence this group has had, it’s surprising and sad to realize the short shrift they have received here in the States. They haven’t performed on the West Coast for nearly 10 years, and amazingly, they have never graced the stage at the SF Jazz Center. With Ralph having turned 79 this year, and Paul not that far behind him—it is anyone’s guess whether there will be another Oregon tour or album. All of which is to say that seeing these guys perform together is a very precious and rare thing.

I’ve been a follower of Oregon since I was a teenager. I was lucky enough to see the original lineup featuring Colin Walcott on numerous occasions. I am an unabashed Oregon completist, having tracked down virtually everything they ever recorded (except for the elusive Oregon Trio’s Music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream.) No, it’s not all essential, but it all tells something of the Oregon story, a long strange trip of a very different sort.

The history of that legacy was palpable in the elegant, light-filled room at the Soda Springs Winery last night. The crowd was mix of local concert supporters and Oregon fanatics, those of us in the latter category seeming to immediately gravitate towards one another. One guy had traveled from Sacramento to see the duo; another had come all the way from New Jersey. I recognized amongst the fanatics, music journalist extraordinaire Anil Prasad, who has a wonderful website (and a great book) where one can read interviews with cutting-edge musicians from the jazz, pop, and prog worlds. There is a fairly recent McCandless interview and at least one major Towner interview ( We shared a bottle of wine and the stories began to flow. We started to talk about our most memorable concert experiences. I realized that many of mine belonged to those performed at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. In its heyday, amidst its excessively ornate, velvet-Victorian beauty—the building once housed a brothel—the stage hosted some of the greatest jazz acts of the mid to late 20th century. (The Great American has since become a boring venue which hosts mostly mediocre rock and pop acts.) It was there in that intimate hall in 1977 that I saw the original Pat Metheny Group. They played “San Lorenzo” and all the white album stuff, threw out new tunes from the yet-to-be-released American Garage. It was here that I saw Eberhard Weber and Colours play the entire Silent Feet album, with the added bonus of “T on a White Horse” for quartet. (Imagine my surprise to find the entire concert was recorded and is up on YouTube.) And it was here that, around 1976, I saw Gary Burton with the Passengers lineup sharing the bill with none other than Oregon. While Gary and Ralph were playing duos between band sets, my date asked Paul to come over to our table and share a blunt. That was the first time I met Paul. He now lives in Healdsburg, and we are friends.

Last night, Ralph first appeared on stage solo and played a lovely set comprising old and new tunes, mostly off of the latest album. The title track, “My Foolish Heart,” was given a tender and detailed rendition. A new as yet unrecorded tune called “Flow” (Ralph spelled out the title to make sure we understood it wasn’t a woman’s name,) was presented. A spirited performance of “Saunter” followed, along with a lively version of “Dolomiti Dance” and a very sweet rendition of “I’ll Sing to You” (which Ralph forgot the title to for a minute, but, hey, he remembered all the notes).

Paul came on stage, armed with just his soprano sax and bass clarinet, and the two launched into a set of classic and lesser known Oregon tunes, all Towner compositions, including Duende, Anthem and The Prowler. It was a beautiful set, and a deeply emotional experience for me. As I mentioned, I grew up listening to these guys, and here they were, still playing, exploring and taking chances, leaning into the moment some 50 years later. The duo received a warm welcome and undivided attention through the set. After the the classic Oregon closer “Witchi Tai To,” on which Paul played penny whistle, the duo came out and played an encore of Towner’s “Celeste,” a delicate tune written for his daughter. Afterwards, I spoke with Paul about the show. He told me the fact that the duo had never performed before made the music feel very fresh for both artists.

It was hard and a little embarrassing for this fan nerd to do, but I had brought the cover to Ralph’s newest solo disc and was determined to have him sign it. When I approached him, he smiled disarmingly as if he recognized me. I reminded him of a workshop the original lineup of Oregon had given at Sonoma State University back in the late 1970s. I had taken a composition class with Ralph and recounted how he had sat at the piano and asked students to throw out chords for him to play at the piano. He wrote them down and attempted to find melodic common ground, a thread that might bind together these random chords. (It was almost as if the students were messing with him, suggesting the weirdest possible succession of chords.) He remarked, “Hey, that was a cool idea. How did it go? Did I succeed?” “Not really,” I told him and we both broke out in laughter. But it was a fascinating exercise in getting a glimpse at his composition process: Start with a couple good chord voicings, which hopefully suggest a melody on top, and then keep at it until a tune emerges. It was a revelation for me personally: His process was no different than that of the rest of us mere mortals; he just had a better ear and perhaps a lot more determination and patience than we did.

After the performance, Ralph and Paul hung around, and no one seemed to want to leave. Pictures were taken. I got my precious autograph and drove home, thinking of all the musical gifts I had received from these two masters for the last five decades.

This entry was posted on Samstag, 1. Juni 2019 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    The first duo performance ever? Wow.

    My first Oregon album was, no wonder, from the early 70s, DISTANT HILLS, and it can still thrill me.

    Lucky you.

  2. Brian Whistler:

    Music From Another Present Era, Distant Hills, Winter Light, In Concert and Moon and Mind form some of the best work of the Vanguard years. And they hold remarkable well today. I go through Oregon phases during which I go through the Vanguard years, or the two wonderful Elektra recordings, or the ECM gems. They bounced around a lot of labels after that before landing at Camjaz. There are a lot of post-ECM albums worth listening to for sure. But I always seem to come back to those mysterious early recordings. They have such depth and a certain feeling of being out in nature.

  3. Michael:


    I wish I‘d been there.

    I saw the legendary quartet around 1975 in Münster, and it lived up to my expectations with the early Oregon records played over and over again at home. At one point they did a kind of round dance in which everybody went to the next place and took up the instruments of the other ones, full circle.

    When it comes to time traveling, I had always in my mind to land at the UFO club in London in the summer of 67, lead a real hippie life with the good drugs and the greatest girls of Hampstead but not being fuckin‘ 12, BEING SWEET EIGHTEEN (and not so much stuck in dreaming mode)….

    … but meanwhile I think, I would just love to re-live 1975, one more time – taking some bolder options and not missing a single Oregon concert in Germany – or Keith Jarrett in Kronach and Köln… at that time, I was a bit too romantic, and even slightly shy, only having an eye on the most terrific girls in town (which didn‘t make it any easier, haha) – looking back I nearly don‘t recognize shades of my earlier self… but I always had that appetite for the most beautiful and mind bending music of the world (to be honest, it ALL happened in the 70‘s, for me, at least.)

    Except The Beatles, John Coltrane, and Gustav Mahler. You can‘t have it all, dont ya?

  4. Hans-Dieter Klinger:

    That’s a wonderful narration about wonderful musicians. Oregon’s recordings take up a lot of space in my collection – I own about 15 albums.
    Instead of listing my favorite albums I refer to some of my favorite tunes:
    – The silence of a candle
    – Yellow Bell
    – Waterwheel
    – Vessel
    – Yet to be
    – Anthem
    – The Glide (listen to the Kronach performance from October 1984)
    – Kronach Waltz

  5. Brian Whistler:

    Great list of tunes Hans!

  6. Brian Whistler:

    Michael – I remember they did that round robin switch of instruments back then as well. What a talented group. I wonder if they will make one more album for their 50th, which is actually next year according to Paul McC. Hoping for one more.

  7. Michael Engelbrecht:

    A propos 50 …

    Today I talked to my CEO at the jazz department at my radio station, and we made a deal, my radio night on the third saturday of August 2019 is really offering a time travel of its kind: 5 decades of ECM Records, and every of the five hours will be dealing with one decade. I know to put the 70‘s in one hour is mission impossible, but big fun, too.

    And of course it did not all happen in those golden years 😉

  8. Brian Whistler:

    I am lo9king forward to hearing this show Michael. PleSe keep me posted. .

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