Blue Cranes play the Tidings Café

The Portland jazz band Blue Cranes not only has an improvisational sound but spontaneous touring tactics to boot.

"One thing I'm really psyched about on this tour is that we're playing three or four house shows," said founder Reed Wallsmith during a recent stop in Ashland. The band agreed to play for a Tidings Café (see and plans to return for a show during its summer CD release tour.

Popular in New York and L.A., house shows are concerts played for free at people's homes. Concertgoers don't have to pay cover charges, can bring their own beverages and donate to the band's tour fund or buy band merchandise.

"Especially if you're going into a town where you don't know a whole lot of people, it's been way better shows when it's a friend or a friend of a friend that wants to invite people into their home," said Wallsmith.

As band members put it, they don't want to play to an empty room, even if it is a paid gig. House shows provide a more intimate setting and guarantee a crowd. And the audience members feel they have been let in on a special happening.

Founding members Ji Tanzer and Wallsmith went to high school together, then reconnected in 2003 to perform. Self-proclaimed jazz band geeks, they've played at the Portland Jazz Festival twice.

On keyboards is Rebecca Sanborn, Tanzer's wife, who started playing piano and composing her own music when she was 5. Reminiscent of her early playing is her use of a toy piano.

"Ji and I were on our way home after our shift and we were at a six-way stop and the car in front of us was a station wagon jam-packed with plastic plants and shoes and a toy piano."

Sanborn stopped the car and bought the piano from the driver and has used it in almost every show since. When Sanborn is not playing with the Blue Cranes, she works at her family's breakfast restaurant in Portland along with her husband.

On tenor saxophone is Joe Cunningham, otherwise known as "Sly Pig," a pun on his last name. Cunningham started out playing alto sax and switched to tenor sax in college after his alto sax was stolen from his locker.

Wallsmith is the alto sax, band promoter and tour manager of the "inside-out jazz" band. Wallsmith became interested in the sax as a high school student. "My dad took me to Fred Meyer and let me pick out any tape I wanted. I asked for a saxophone recommendation and they suggested Kenny G," said Wallsmith.

"When I started listening to it, I just hated it. So we went back and Fred Meyer took it back and I was able to get a saxophone compilation." It was this compilation that introduced him to Charlie Parker, one of Wallsmith's influences.

Keith Brush, who plays upright bass, was inspired when his high school orchestra played at his elementary school in fourth grade. "I remember there were like 9,000 violins, 40 violas, and this one guy in the back playing this big huge instrument," said Brush. Of course he knew he had to find out more about it.

Tanzer also discovered a hugely influential musician through the help of the Fred Meyer music department. The bargain rack is where Tanzer and his father discovered a Max Roach cassette. "I took it home and it blew me away, because I had been listening to a lot of loud rock drumming. There was a lot of mystery in it and it kind of matched my personality," said Tanzer.

One of the songs on the upcoming album sprung from a melody in a dream that Tanzer had while staying in the Applegate. Cunningham explained that inspiration comes from everywhere and that he already had ideas for the next album.

The Blue Cranes' upcoming summer release is its first actual studio recording. The past two albums were recorded in Tanzer and Sanborn's bedroom.

The Blue Cranes just finished mastering its third album at the beginning of March. The album is due out early this summer but is, as of yet, unnamed.

"That's our goal: to come up with a name for the album on this tour," said Brush. Wallsmith remarked that naming the album is the hardest part.

"If we can't think of a name by the time we come home, we're not coming home," Cunningham said.

The group plans to tour as much as it is able, hoping to create a footprint fan base, with the bigger goal to tour nationally.

Mandy Valencia is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at

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