On Friday, April 27, at the Wonder Ballroom, as part of their last concert of the 2006-07 season, Portland's Third Angle New Music Ensemble will be performing two pieces by the late composer Jim Pepper. Until reading the evening's program I had never heard Pepper's name, let alone his music. Jim Pepper was a saxophonist, composer, and singer of Native American descent born in Salem, Oregon in 1941. He became one of the pioneers of jazz-fusion in the '60s. His role in the creolization of American cultures continued, as Pepper went on to hybridize aspects of jazz and Native American music over a career that included collaborations with many marquee jazz names, such as Don Cherry, John Scofield, and Hamid Drake. Until his premature death in 1992, Pepper made his home and career in Portland.
The two Pepper pieces to be performed on Friday, "Lakota Song" and "Ya Na Ho," were both arranged by Portland-based pianist and music educator Gordon Lee, who was himself a frequent Pepper collaborator. This means that Third Angle, a local sextet, will perform local arrangements of local compositions. That's three "locals." Throw on top of that the fact that, unlike most Portland bands, Third Angle features several native Oregonians, and you've got four, making Friday's event a strong contender for the most homegrown concert our town has ever seen. So why is this performance by one of the leading contemporary classical chamber ensembles in the Northwest not spoken of by Portland music enthusiasts with the same bated breath as recent concerts by current hometown heroes like the Shaky Hands? Unfortunately, lack of access.
There is very little accessible infrastructure for young people to discover music that falls outside the bounds of what is generally considered "pop music." Inasmuch as the internet has become the primary means of new music discovery for people under 30, contemporary classical is terra incognita, and most young people simply won't pay to hear live music sight unseen, as it were. A search for Pepper tunes on MP3-blog aggregator Hype Machine yielded zero results, and the number of twentysomethings planning a night out who are well-funded and adventurous enough to pay $30 for Third Angle, instead of $6 for a familiar band's show, is quite small. Additionally, Northwest DIY purists who are generally excited about local music may have a difficult time making sense of a contemporary classical group like Third Angle's relationship to originality, given that they commission new works instead of writing them, as is expected of rock bands.
Which is a shame, because Portlanders have revealed themselves in recent years to be aesthetically very open. And what could be more in keeping with our city's predilection for genre-crossing, unusual instrumentation, and all things local than seeing a hometown chamber ensemble play music by one of the fathers of fusion? Let's take a chance Portland, and claim Jim Pepper—and Third Angle—as our own.