Profile: Glen Moore – October, 2006

He arrives at his studio off Grand Avenue on a bicycle, carrying only a small bag. Glen Moore’s bass, made in 1715 and topped by a carved griffin’s head that towers seven feet above the floor, is waiting for him in Milan, Italy, where he’ll soon perform with the chamber jazz group, Oregon, which he co-founded in the early 1970s. On this Fall morning in Portland, though, a few days before his 65th birthday, Moore is anxious to get his hands on a piano.

I’m interested to see what the things I’ve taken in during the past 12 hours will do to the way my fingers go now, he says. And then the Jazz Society’s 2007 Hall of Fame inductee begins to play .

Now you’ve entered the landscape of improvisation, as Moore calls it. That territory — a challenging, playful and invigorating place — is the locus of the lively, complex music that pours out of the bassist, pianist and composer. And though he’s lived a lot of places since growing up in the small town of Milwaukie — from a farm on the Siletz River to a crack-infested neighborhood in New York City, in the bosom of family or on the road with musical colleagues — he is never far from the territory where his music is born.

 

From Johnson Creek to New York City

That territory was first revealed to Moore by the radio, during the late 1940s and 50s, when he was moved by all the jazz and popular music on at that time, and by the pictorial immensity of what came out of the piano. I got goose bumps listening to a Bach violin piece or a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. My idea of a good time was a piano in a room with the lights out.

Radio opened the doors for many a small-town kid in those days, including Bend native Ralph Towner, who Moore would meet at the University of Oregon in the early 1960s, where the two first began playing with vocalist Nancy King.

Moore didn’t just listen, though. He was trained classically on both piano and bass, which he took up because there were too many piano players  in the school band, and Moore was tall enough to handle the big instrument. He traveled the state with a variety show called The Young Oregonians, which featured the late saxophonist Jim Pepper, who performed both tap and Native American dances.

Though radio and records brought the music to Moore, his vision developed at a distance from the world he dreamed of. That, he thinks, contributed to the uncompromising artist he has become.

Living here, I couldn’t see many musicians live, so I listened to records over and over again and just imagined all those things you do when something is mysterious and makes your spine tingle. That made me stubborn, he adds. When you feast on a record for a year, hold onto it as an ideal, you don’t let go of it easily.

Moore soon learned the wisdom of flexibility, though, after he left Eugene with a degree in History and, following a year of bass studies in Copenhagen, landed in New York with Towner and other like-minded peers in 1967.

A lot of us had come there to play with Miles [Davis], or the musicians who played with him, More recalls. White guys like me, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea. We grew up listening to Miles.

By the time they arrived, it was too late: Davis had abandoned his music of the mid-1960s and was on his way to the churning electronics of Bitches Brew.

All the people who came to play with Miles had to do something else, says Moore. So we formed groups like Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Oregon. And with guitarist Towner, reedman Paul McCandless and multi-instrumentalist Colin Walcott, Oregon added, to the rhythmic energy of jazz, their classical sensibilities as well as new influences from Africa and India.

They didn’t become the jazz players they had dreamed about beside the radio, but they found another way to make music that would open up new genres and lead more deeply into the landscape of improvisation.

 

Propelled into the future

Adaptability is one of the qualities that allows one to dwell in that landscape. Moore needed it, too, in order to apply classical guitar technique to his instrument perhaps the defining element of his approach.

Using the technique of classical guitar in order to expand the vocabulary of pizzicato bass is probably the thing I’ve spent most of my life learning and teaching, says Moore. Not jazz as just an African-American form, he adds, but also with an understanding that the great classical composers like Bach and Beethoven were wonderful improvisers.

For Moore, improvisation is key.

There’s a confusion between transmission and tradition, he says, a false notion that, in order to continue the tradition, one would learn the Bach piece or the Coltrane piece, and, by playing it the way it has come down, you would keep the tradition going. But that’s just a transmission. Take the Coltrane or the Bach and then make something of it using its elements. That’s the way tradition propels us into the future.

In performance, discovering the future requires risk. A recent solo concert Moore played at Portland State University, for instance, where he is an adjunct faculty member, offers a model of that process.

The call came in at 6:30 a.m. the scheduled performer was sick and they needed a substitute for the noon concert. Moore was thinking about the decimation of African elephants because of an article he’d recently read, and he began the concert talking about it. Playing solo bass, he soon developed a musical motif in response, and delivered a freshly improvised piece.

If I’m open enough to the experience to say, OK, for this concert I’m going to make up a song about whatever I’m thinking, it ends up being a pretty powerful thing, because a lot of things are unleashed.

The songs he heard his mother sing, the jazz, pop and classical music on the radio, the sound of a piano in a darkened room — Moore draws on it all when he plays or composes. The process doesn’t always yield a uniformly polished result. And though he’s worked productively with Towner and McCandless for 35 years, a debate among them still goes on about how much of the process an audience should hear.

 

The roller coaster ride of life

You can’t just pick the good stuff and edit out the turmoil, Moore insists. That’s what Ralph and Paul want to do when we record a free piece. They say, Let’s take out this part and that part .’ But free pieces replicate the roller coaster ride that is life, and moments of resolution are hard-won. We have to work to get those. There should be some turmoil in there, and we have to give the audience credit for being able to work that out on their own. If they’re not moved to do that, we’re just spoon-feeding them something that’s kind of fake.

Don’t mistake disagreement for discord, however. The group’s sound remains remarkably integrated, a model of freedom and cooperation. That’s due in part to the musicians’ ability to change over the years while not losing their trademark sound: light percussion; a classical, acoustic touch despite the use of electronics; the vocal melody carried by McCandless’s wind instruments; and the extended compositions of Towner, which comprise nearly 90% of the group’s repertoire.

The circumstances under which they perform, however, are different today. First, they’re scattered over the world, and only come together for month-long tours several times a year. And audience expectations have changed.

Now Oregon’s thing is about hitting it from note one, Moore explains. You got 90 minutes, and people didn’t come to hear you wander around. There’s a lot more pressure. And putting a synthesizer on stage for a more stadium-oriented sound, that was an enormous change, too.

He misses the old days, when music and circumstances were more low-key and relaxed. But Moore is always moving forward, the only direction allowed in the landscape of improvisation.

I liken playing jazz bass to a kind of plumbing, he says. You’re connecting pipes together, but there’s already water in the pipes. So you have to just grab the next thing and say, Well, this will work here, maybe this will work there’ his voice speeds up ‘yeah, that’s all I can do here’ . It’s all very busy.

 

Balance

All very busy. Besides his work with Oregon, and the teaching that has become close to his heart, Moore is always composing (his Firebat Suite was performed by the Philadelphia Symphony, for instance, and many of his compositions are featured on duo recordings with vocalist King as well as Oregon discs), and he performs in a variety of setting, from solo concerts to shows by the Jim Pepper Reunion Band. He has made recordings with Lebanese oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil, as well as his former student, Portland pianist Dan Gaynor, and toured with Celtic pop singer Loreena McKinnet. He even improvises along with poetry readings.

Art like Moore’s, made equally from meditative solitude and active engagement, requires balance, and Moore has managed to find it by moving between country and city, home and the road, between his need to enjoy the natural world as well as an urban area that keeps his ears and fingers alive.

That balance has been assisted by Moore’s wife, Samantha, a musician and lyricist who wrote the words for most of the tunes on the three CDs he recorded in the early 1990s with King. At that time, Samantha Moore was the first woman member of the Operating Engineers local and driving heavy equipment.

Hey, I hear you’re becoming an artist with that grader, I said.

Yeah, but I’m quitting, Samantha replied, explaining that she needed to be home with their child so Glen would be free to pursue his career.

A lot of people can drive heavy equipment, she said, but there’s only one Glen Moore.

Look! There he goes now, on a bicycle through the landscape of imagination.