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Portland's Blue Cranes take wing on the rails

April 23, 2011 |  7:07 am

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With gas prices headed into orbit, launching a cross-country tour is more difficult than ever for an up-and-coming band. In a move that's as consistent with jazz tradition as it is a departure from 21st century practices, Portland's Blue Cranes set aside the musty Econoline cliché and instead turned to the rails in organizing its first national tour, which swings into the Townhouse in Venice on Sunday.

Helped by a recent fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter, the group purchased a 30-day rail pass on Amtrak that allowed for 12 stops across the country, which took the band to hotbeds such as Chicago, New York and New Orleans before winding back to the West Coast. Though the band intended to highlight train travel as a viable transportation option for bands and vacationers alike, it had to make some compromises to allow for Amtrak's luggage restrictions.

"We actually had to make some modifications to instruments," said tenor saxophonist Jim "Sly Pig" Cunningham. "Ji [Tanzer], our drummer, built a new set where he can put all his toms into his bass drum, sort of like one of those Russian dolls. It's working out."

Though its mode of transportation may be a throwback, the Blue Cranes isn't a group otherwise concerned with tradition. A self-described "jazz/not jazz" band, the group's 2010 album "Observatories" mixes two saxophonists, keyboards and a propulsive rhythm section that together emphasize rich melodies and dynamic interplay over acrobatic soloing. The group released an EP earlier this year with covers of indie rock groups such as the Red House Painters and Blonde Redhead, exposing roots that lay well outside of "Take the 'A' Train."

After the jump, a conversation with Sly Pig about the Blue Cranes' experience on the rails and blurring the lines between jazz and indie rock.

How did this idea of touring by train come about?

You know, we keep trying to figure that out. It was a combination of things. We brought it up a couple years ago sort of jokingly, and then a friend of Reed’s [Wallsmith, the band's alto saxophonist] brought it up again and then we started to seriously look at the possibilities. [The question] was mostly just about the gear, whether we could get the gear on the train and what the weight restrictions were and how much it was going to be. But, yeah, it’s been great so far.

Are you covering more ground by rail than if you were touring by van?

Not necessarily. Ultimately I think we decided to do it because we didn’t want to drive. We’ve all done it, and we’re older and realize what a pain it is. People falling asleep in the middle of the night trying to get home or trying to get to the next gig, it’s dangerous, you know? That was sort of the beginning of the idea: Rather than hiring a driver, we thought we’d just jump on the train. I guess that’s kind of like hiring a driver.

You guys are hitting a lot of generally indie-rock-oriented venues; has it been tough to find a place to play with what you do?

No, actually, kind of the opposite. Because we sort of cover so many genres, we can play in a jazz club, we can play in a rock club, we can play in a punk club. So it’s actually a little easier for us because we’re not limited to jazz clubs.

What’s your background musically? Were you guys studying jazz as you came up and then started incorporating other sounds into that, or was it the other way around?

It depends on who you talk to in the group. I was jazz full-on from the time I picked up my horn in seventh grade. Some friends of the family hipped me to the smooth jazz of the day -– Tom Scott, Grover Washington Jr. and [David] Sanborn.  Then I worked my way pretty quickly into Phil Woods, and that led me to Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I’d always listened to rock too, but for six or seven years I was fully into jazz.

When I moved to Detroit, that’s when I got into a lot of free improvisation and started playing with DJs. I had a group called Joe’s Garage and we did a lot of Zappa and Mahavishnu stuff. It was gradually getting further and further from the jazz thing, which I’d put a lot of time into, so I felt like it was time to see what else was out there. ... From then on it was just good music is good music and that’s all I care about.

Rebecca [Sanborn] on keys, I don’t think she ever dove into the jazz thing, which has been really interesting and fun for us. I tell people at clinics to start a band with your best friends, no matter their level of expertise. Those sort of limitations are the things that help you create your own sound. She’s only limited in that she didn’t study jazz and bebop the way the rest of us did, but just that one limitation keeps us from trying to do any bebop or swing. Plus we’re kind of not interested in doing that, and to be honest with you I think it’s because we’re just not that good at it.

I guess we consider ourselves jazz musicians, but we’re not trying to show off. We improvise, but not a lot, and when we do, it’s sort of a collective thing. It’s not about the individuals with us, it’s about writing good, strong melodies and songs and doing whatever those songs want us to do.

How has the response been on the road?

It varies. It’s been interesting. We stopped through Detroit and they really loved it and people are very vocal. But then before that at Chicago, we played this cool room and Mike Reed was there and Jeff Parker from Tortoise was there, and there was this amazing audience that sort of made us focus a little bit more. You just couldn't tell. It was an experimental jazz place and people go and they’re just sort of stone-faced. We still walked away from that experience wondering. One of the guys was saying, "That's how they react to everything."

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-- Chris Barton

The Blue Cranes, the Townhouse Basement, 52 Windward Ave., Venice. Sunday, 8 p.m. $10. (310) 392-4040.

Photo: The Blue Cranes: Reed Wallsmith, left, Ji Tanzer, Joe "Sly Pig" Cunningham, Rebecca Sanborn and Keith Brush. Credit: Jen Downer / She Saw Things Photography.

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