Featured Musician - November 2009

Name : Reed Wallsmith

Reed Wallsmith

Instrument:  alto sax

Early Years/Education: I grew up in Portland and started taking piano lessons in the third grade. What happened was my good friend started taking lessons before me, and I became so jealous I  convinced my mom to rent a piano and get me lessons too. In middle school I started playing clarinet. I wanted to play the saxophone, but there were no more school saxes. My dad had a clarinet that he taught himself to play, so I just used that. At the end of middle school a sax became available, and I switched instruments. I remember going on a camping trip with my dad around that time. We went to Fred Meyer to get me a cassette of saxophone to listen to on the trip, and I picked out a Kenny G tape. I didn’t know who Kenny G was, but I was so upset after listening to it that we turned around and returned it. We walked out with a compilation, “The Best of Jazz Saxophones,” that had Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt on it. Sonny Stitt was playing “My Little Suede Shoes,” which led me to Charlie Parker.  I studied privately with Clark Bondy (of the Shanghai Woolies) from the age of thirteen. He was a great teacher, very supportive and engaging. After high school, I went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota and majored in Latin American studies. I wrote my thesis paper on a Nicaraguan musician named Carlos Mejia Godoy who was highly influential during the Sandanista revolution in the ‘70s. His brother and he were exiled during the dictatorship, but their music made it back into the country on underground mix tapes. Carlos was part of the Latin American nueva cancion (New Song) movement, and he became Minister of Culture under the FSLN government. I lived in Managua during my junior year and got to play music with his sons. 
After college I moved to Rhode Island for a year to play in a rock band. This is where I learned a lot about songwriting through writing as a group. We toured East Coast citie, and this is also where I learned how to run a band. I returned home in August 2001 and started playing in a group led by drummer Jimmy Bennington. That's where I met bassist Keith Brush. Keith and I also played together in the Tone Sharks, led by drummer Dave Storrs. I learned a lot from Dave about improvisation and free playing.

Blue Cranes: When I came back from Rhode Island I started writing music. I made an album on a four-track of these songs, which eventually became Blue Cranes songs. In 2003 we first worked as a trio made up of my musical partner from high school, drummer Ji Tanzer, and bassist Brush.  A year later we added keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn, and in 2006 we added tenor saxophonist Sly Pig and became a quintet. As the band has progressed, we've all started contributing our songwriting, and I feel we are really solidifying as a group. Something exciting happens when a group plays together a long time. In our group, time has allowed us to get away from reading music, which has had a profound effect on our ability to communicate with each other. There's a lot of improvisation built into what we do. We don't know what's going to happen, and the audience doesn't know what's going to happen. I think that brings people in. As a band, we focus less on soloists and more on the group sound. What a group can do together is a lot more exciting to me than an individual’s virtuosity. This is not unique in jazz—there are lots of bands doing this—but historically I think this genre has been more focused on soloists.
I also play in a free ensemble with drummer Tim DuRoche, tenor saxophonist Sly Pig, bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff and bassist Fred Chalenor, called Better Homes and Gardens. One thing that's important about “free” playing is a lot of times people associate this with freaking out. I get tired when that's all someone is doing. Truly playing free can cover the full spectrum of music: soft and melodic, loud and chaotic—it should all be on the palette. I think we attempt this in this group.

Musical Influences: Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Silvio Rodriguez, Happy Apple, The Bad Plus, Elliott Smith, Reid Anderson, Lê Quan Ninh, John Coltrane, Mono, Radiohead, Sade, Steve Lacy and Keith Jarrett.

Most Satisfying Experience: I just came back from Berlin. I went there to play several gigs with a quartet made up of players from Norway, Denmark and Berlin. We had several shows and did a studio recording as well. I also played in a trio with German guitarist Johannes Haage. Johannes was an exchange student at Grant High School when I was there, and we've continued to play together over the years. One of the places this trio played in Berlin was the East/West gallery -- part of a project by Portland’s Gallery Homeland to set up galleries around the world for a few months at a time to promote Portland artists and to bring artists from other countries to Portland. Another satisfying experience I had recently was playing the Portland Jazz Festival and the Pop Now! Festival in a combined group that included the Blue Cranes and Paxselin Quartet called the Chamber of Commerce.

Favorite Recordings: Bill Frisell - “Ghost Town”; Paul Motian - “Garden of Eden”; Manu Chau - ”Clandestino”; David Friesen - “Four to Go”; Carlos Vives -”La Tierra del Olvido”; Silvio Rodriguez - “Al final de este viaje”; Happy Apple - “Body Popping”, “Moon Walking” and “Top Rocking”; The Bad Plus - “Suspicious Activity”; Elliott Smith – s/t; Reid Anderson - “The Vastness of Space”; Lightning Bolt - “Ride the Skies”; Lê Quan Ninh - “Le Ventre Négatif”; and The Kingdom – “K1.”

Discography: With Blue Cranes, two full-length albums -- “Lift Music! Flown Music” (2007) and “Homing Patterns” (2008), and an EP we put out as a trio when we first started. We’re working on a split 7” record with a band in Davis, California called Elders. We’re finishing our next full-length album, which will include string arrangements and feature Timothy Young on guitar (Wayne Horvitz).  In the works: an album with the quartet from Norway/Denmark/Berlin, a trio album with Chris Mosley and Tim DuRoche, and a duo album with Sly Pig.

Gigs: October 31, w/Claudia Quintet (John Hollenbeck's NYC-based group) at the Redeemer Lutheran Church, 7 pm; November 7 in the Art Bar (Performing Arts Center), 8 pm; November 28 at Crush; January 5 at the Mission Theater.

Future Plans: I want to travel more with the Blue Cranes, perhaps to Japan or Europe. I'd also like to play in more free and composed ensembles in Portland and other places.

Other Comments: There's all these different scenes happening in Portland, and a lot of these people don't know each other. Mary Sue Tobin and Johnathan Sielaff are doing things to merge the jazz community and the noise/free improv community. Jazz musicians often approach improvisation differently than noise musicians, and I think both communities have a lot to learn from each other.

-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2009, Jazz Society of Oregon