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.

 

What was it like working with Nate Query on this album? Was he a very hands-on presence or did he kind of take a back seat and let you all do what you wanted to do?

It was an all-around great experience working with Nate. This was our first time working with a producer. We asked him if he would produce the album a while back, and were thrilled that he accepted. I think one of the main reasons we asked him is because we all trust him as a person and a musician. We were looking for someone to be at the recording and mixing sessions who we could bounce ideas off of, especially if we got stuck. We weren’t looking for someone to come in and tell us how to make an album–we already know how to do that. Nate took more of a back seat, which felt right to him and to us, but his insights made this a better, more cohesive album; and his presence made the whole process more fun, too.

There’s so much emotion wrapped up in this album, both audibly in the songs and from what I’ve read about its creation. Was it a cathartic experience to write and record these songs? Is it even more so when you play them live?

The last few years were a really intense period of time for us, in both horrible and wonderful ways. On the horrible side of things, we lost two people very close to us from cancer—Rebecca’s best friend of all her life, Jill, and my amazing sister-in-law, Franya. On the wonderful side, we had two fantastic weddings (Keith’s and mine) and my wife gave birth to a baby girl–the first baby in our band. Writing and recording these songs was an important outlet for me (and I think all of us) to process everything that was going on. Some of the music has become a central part of our sets, and does feel cathartic to play live. Other parts of the album have so many emotions attached to them that they are a little bit harder for me to revisit live.

You also brought in a bunch of guest players to flesh out many of the songs here. Was it easy to incorporate them and their ideas into the fold or did that take some extra work?

It was fun collaborating with so many talented people, and it was a gift to incorporate ideas they had in addition to the parts we had written. I think this was because they are all such fine musicians. It was our first time working with violist Eyvind Kang. We’ve heard him for years on records by Laura Gibson, Laura Veirs, Bill Frisell, and Wayne Horvitz. He is truly a master improvisor. For about half of the album we are joined by a string trio made up of Patti King (Radiation City), Anna Fritz (Portland Cello Project), and Kyleen King (Swansea). Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Noah Bernstein (tUnE yArDs / GRAMMIES) and Chad Hensel (Paxselin) played additional reeds on several songs. The final track of the album is a collaboration we did with our good friends in Davis, California–the art-punk band Elders, which includes Cooper McBean (The Devil Makes Three) on musical saw, and Eric Redpath, who does all of our screenprinting (Papercut Press) on drums. It was so fun to have all of these friends involved in the album. I think having all of their voices on it makes it unique and distinct from our live shows–which is nice.

How does it feel to be considered such a huge entity in the jazz world of Portland and beyond? Did you ever anticipate you would strike the chord that you did?

Ha. Well, I think we’ve got a long way to go still and lots to learn–there are so many musicians all around us who have set the bar very high for composition and musicianship–thank goodness! That said, it feels great to play in front of enthusiastic, listening audiences, and to feel like we are reaching people on a deep level. It’s also nice to have a receptive audience here to whom we can present friends’ bands from out of town. The support we’ve received means a whole lot to us, and we’re very grateful for it.

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