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Sister Cities

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Album Review

Portland, Oregon creative jazz quintet the Ocular Concern are all over the map on 2013's Sister Cities, although not precisely where you might expect them to be. The album's centerpiece is the four-part "Sister Cities Suite," whose title references Portland's ten sister cities scattered across the globe. But rather than exploring the musical traditions of Portland's sisters from Sapporo, Japan to Bologna, Italy to Guadalajara, Mexico, the suite avoids stylistic references linked to geography — for the most part — with a creative chamber jazz score in which musical notes correspond to letters in the cities' names. The Ocular Concern even tweak expectations further by incorporating tango rhythms and an appearance by bandoneonist Alex Krebs in the suite's fourth movement, "The Island Milonga," seeming to suggest that Portland has a sister city in Argentina (it doesn't). Co-led by electric guitarist Dan Duval and electric pianist Andrew Oliver, the quintet also features Nathan Beck on vibes and, on two tracks, mbira (African thumb piano and national instrument of Zimbabwe, where Portland does have a sister city, Mutare); Lee Elderton on clarinet; and drummer Stephen Pancerev; and on "Sister Cities Suite" the group is joined by aforementioned bandoneonist Krebs and a string trio (violinist Erin Furbee, violist Brian Quincey, and cellist Justin Kagan). When these skilled musicians of varied backgrounds and disciplines tackle Sister Cities' compositions — all of which were penned by Duval and/or Oliver — the results are both wide-ranging and singular.

With contrapuntal layering of the various instruments and repetitive phrasing perched at the intersection of insistent rhythm, engaging melody, and advanced harmonics, not to mention the group's prominent clarinet and vibes, the Ocular Concern's blend of creative jazz and post-minimalism invites comparison to John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet — with some important distinctions. Notably, this band has no bassist, and with keyboardist Oliver covering the low notes, the Ocular Concern possess a fusiony edge that balances the ensemble's chamber jazz qualities. Guitarist Duval is a perfect foil for both Oliver and Beck, often understated in his voicings (or hypnotically looping during opener "Oxygen Lake"), but also exploding from deep twang into a sudden rampage of huge dirty chords ("Sister Cities Suite: Ghost Town City Council"). And while Beck's vibes provide ringing clarity, his mbira is warmly organic, rolling along with Duval's ostinatos and Oliver's walking pulse in the beautiful East African-tinged groove of "Lafayette," infectiously rhythmic even as Pancerev accents rather than locks into the beat. "Sisters Cities Suite" is an ambitious highlight, with the strings and bandoneon fully entwined in the quintet's music, but throughout the album clarinetist Elderton deserves special mention for his lovely tone and phrasing on the melodic themes and his freewheeling solos, suggesting the likes of Chris Speed, Michael Moore, Don Byron, or Ben Goldberg. With their often surprising global stylistic meld, the Ocular Concern seem to celebrate the music of sister cities everywhere, discovering new places that any creative jazz fan would want to visit.


Formed: 2011 in Portland, OR

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '10s

Portland, Oregon-based creative jazz outfit the Ocular Concern began as a trio featuring Andrew Oliver (co-founder of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in 2007) on electric piano, Dan Duval on electric guitar, and Stephen Pancerev on drums. The group made its recording debut with an eponymously titled EP -- featuring electric creative jazz, post-minimalism, and Eastern European/Middle Eastern influences -- in 2011. During August of that year, the Ocular Concern were joined by guest clarinetist/saxophonist...
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Sister Cities, The Ocular Concern
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