Thursday evening marked the debut of The Clear Blue Pearl, a 10-song musical epic about the hunt for an aquifer amidst a punishing drought. The highly imaginative piece was scored last winter by Portland jazzsmith Ben Darwish during his Caldera residency just outside Sisters, Ore.
For a guy familiar with collaboration, the concept still felt like a stretch. How could Ben Darwish’s jazzy, cerebral ways share the stage with Katelyn and Laurie Shook, a rootsy pair with the vocal pipes of a strong prairie wind? Had Darwish simply lost his mind during a long cold month in the high desert?
The answers, in order, are “through a conscious give and take normally reserved for veteran musicians” and “no, no he didn’t.” Fantasy stories are best told by eclectic voices, and the combination of Darwish’s brainy, math-y, ever-restless piano work and Shook Twins’ pastoral simplicity made for an exceptional narrator.
While Darwish refers to the piece as “fantasy folk-step,” The Clear Blue Pearl is much, much more. In fact, the only sign of dubstep is in the off-beat timing, which gives certain tracks a cool, suspenseful, galloping quality: the musical equivalent of a Steven Soderbergh montage. Bits of jazz, R&B, soul, pop, rock, and funk bubbled up from the hour-long, non-stop performance. In many ways, it was an unlikely and beautiful first date, wherein both parties jump from topic to topic for security’s sake only to find they agree on most everything.
If it weren’t for its troubling connotations, I’d name the genre at play “suburban.” Darwish played the heady role of urbanite, the product of a towering music IQ influenced by the likes of Herbie Hancock and D’Angelo. The Shooks were the shy, self-taught types from somewhere rural. More than a handshake, The Clear Blue Pearl was a warm embrace of these two sides. While Darwish summoned soulful belts from the Shooks in songs like “The Tunnel Of Light,” the Shooks extracted sweeping pauses and folky lyrics from Darwish in “The Drought” and the breathy parting track “Fare Thee Well.” Overall, a supremely healthy give and take.
Darwish’s vocals, typically reserved, took on a high-register, Justin Vernon quality. He sang with the desperation and sincerity of his main character (at times, you could almost feel him digging for water). The highs and lows of survival were expressed through free-flowing funkadelic jams and lengthy, on the verge of gospel, call-and-response howls, respectively.
The full band and conceptual fantasy theme was reminiscent of a Sufjan Stevens album. Yet, Darwish always reverted to his jazzy foundation, blending tracks with long, dreamlike interludes or twisting a time signature as though it were a piece of tinsel. Granted, some parts worked better than others, but the group—also comprised of drummer Kevin Van Geem and guitarist William Seiji Marsh—was unified and more than willing to follow Darwish’s uncharted path.
The band gave credit to the Oregon Arts Commission for making The Clear Blue Pearl possible. Credit to Darwish and friends for reminding us that creativity is king, especially in music.