Some things change; some things stay the same. As Oregon celebrates its 42nd year of existence with the release of Family Tree, it also reaches another milestone: its longest period of stability. Of course, the group already trumps any other contemporary jazz group, with three of its four members—guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless and bassist Glen Moore—dating back to Oregon's official start in 1970. Oregon would, in fact, still likely be exactly the same today, were it not for the tragic car accident that killed original percussionist/sitaris Collin Walcott, during a German tour in 1984.
Two other percussionists followed, but it wasn't until 1996 that Oregon recruited Mark Walker. The relatively young drummer/percussionist had already racked some serious accomplishments in the Latin sphere with clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. More significantly, however, Walker participated on McCandless' third solo album, Premonition (Windham Hill, 1992), and subsequent tour, leading to splitting duties with Arto Tunçboyaciyan on Oregon's Northwest Passage (Intuition, 1996) and proving himself absolutely capable of the kind stylistic and pan-cultural flexibility Oregon's music demands. Since then, Walker has even garnered a Grammy nomination for his "Deep Six," the opener on Oregon's 1000 Kilometers (Cam Jazz, 2007). Now, 16 years after the sessions for Northwest Passage, he's as much a definitive voice in Oregon as the rest of its members.
Returning to Ludwigsburg's Tonstudio Bauer, where the group recorded three albums for ECM in the 1980s—Oregon (1983), Crossing (1985) and Ecotopia (1987)—as well as its most recent In Stride (Cam Jazz, 2010), Family Tree, stands out as Oregon's best-sounding recording, and amongst its most consistently vibrant performances from the get-go, as the sound virtually jumps out of the speakers, from the hand percussion and classical guitar that introduces "Bibo Babo," the first of five new Towner compositions and two reprised lesser-known tunes. "Tern" is a veritable scorcher, taken at a brighter clip than the version on Towner's Japanese-only duo record with pianist Marc Copland, Songs Without End (Jazz City Spirit, 1994), while the mid-tempo "Creeper" features one of McCandless' best moments of the set on bass clarinet, with Walker's firm, snare-driven backbeat resulting in a far more compelling version than on A Closer View (ECM, 1998), Towner's second duo recording with bassist Gary Peacock.
In Stride was Oregon's first record not to include any free improvisation since 49th Parallel (Portrait/CBS, 1989)—a cornerstone of the group's modus operandi since inception. Family Tree's three spontaneously created miniatures—the atmospheric, synth-driven stasis of "Jurassic," the rhythm-centric "Stritch," and jagged, electronic landscape of "Max Alert"—all act as palate-cleansers between its eight composed tracks.
Moore and McCandless contribute one track each- the bassist's lyrical "Moot" a little less idiosyncratic than usual, while McCandless' more change-heavy "Julian" follows, Walker's gentle pulse bolstering restrained yet impressive solos from Towner (on guitar) and McCandless (on oboe). While Towner has always lent Oregon much of its compositional voice, if for no other reason (and there are, in fact, many) than percentages, contributions from others members have always introduced a greater diversity into the mix. Here, perhaps for the first time ever, McCandless and Moore have contributed tracks that, while distinct enough to be recognizable as from their pens, seem to fit somehow more seamlessly within the broader context of Family Tree's hour-long program.
The result is one of the group's most cohesive efforts ever. Oregon is undeniably a different beast than it was with Walcott or Gurtu; still, with Family Tree this sixteen year-old incarnation has delivered an album that easily stands up to recordings like Winter Light (Vanguard, 1973) and Out of the Woods (Elektra, 1978), as one of Oregon's very best.