What: Dan Balmer Extravaganza featuring The Dan Balmer Trio, Trio Uncontrollable and Caminhos Cruzados
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: Riverhouse Jazz, Riverhouse on the Deschutes, 3075 NE Third St., Bend
Cost: $49.50 plus fees
Contact: riverhouse.com/jazz or 866-453-4480
Though he started out learning classical guitar at 11, Dan Balmer’s first musical loves were rock ’n’ roll artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
So it makes sense that Balmer discovered jazz through guitarist and “godfather of fusion” Larry Coryell. When Balmer was about 14 or 15, his older brother brought home a Coryell record after seeing the guitarist’s band at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
“Here was music that wasn’t about the lead singer; it wasn’t about short songs,” Balmer said recently while taking a break from teaching a jazz combo at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, where he’s taught since graduating from the school (with a degree in economics) in 1980. “It had the energy of rock and all that excitement of funk, but it was long improvisations, and it was electric guitar, and it was effects and all that. That got me going into that kind of jazz.”
By the time Balmer graduated, he had played with Northwest musicians such as bassist David Friesen and saxophonist Jim Pepper, and he spent most of the ’80s on the road with vocalist and pianist Tom Grant. He continues to play regularly with musicians such as Portland drummer Mel Brown and with multiple ensembles, three of which — his eponymous trio, Trio Uncontrollable and the Brazilian-flavored Caminhos Cruzados — will be featured at the final Riverhouse Jazz shows Friday and Saturday at Riverhouse on the Deschutes.
The show, billed as a “Dan Balmer Extravaganza,” will showcase the guitarist’s many musical interests. Trio Uncontrollable, featuring bassist Damian Erskine (nephew of drummer Peter Erskine) and drummer Jason Palmer (sitting in for Alan Jones), features collaborative improvisation, while The Dan Balmer Trio — also featuring Palmer and keyboardist George Mitchell — focuses on Balmer’s compositions. Caminhos Cruzados also includes percussionist Israel Annoh and flamenco guitarist Nat Hulskamp. Each band will play a 45-minute set, but the groups will probably end up blurring at the edges a bit.
“That’s what’s gonna be interesting,” Balmer said. “That’ll be the fun part, is seeing Damian the bass player come play with Caminhos Cruzados, and then Nat the flamenco guitarist play with Trio Uncontrollable and so forth.”
With the loss of one of Bend’s dedicated jazz series after two years in operation (Jazz at the Oxford, Jazz at Joe’s and Tuesday night jazz at Northside Bar & Grill will continue), fans and musicians alike might be thinking about the state of the genre in Central Oregon and beyond. It’s not just Bend jazz that’s struggling — in December 2016, Portland’s only dedicated jazz club, the longstanding Jimmy Mak’s, closed after 20 years.
“Jazz never created the economic model classical music has, which is to basically function on grants and patronage,” Balmer said. “No symphony pays for itself; no opera pays for itself. These things have huge amounts of government subsidy and huge amounts of grants. And jazz has always tried to make it as — we’re fighting it out with blues and alternative pop and hip-hop in the clubs, and that’s not a good economic model. More and more places are doing things like nonprofit jazz. There are a whole string of nonprofit jazz clubs around the West Coast that people go play that have a board of directors and funding and put on concerts.”
Riverhouse Jazz announced in February that it would not return for a third season. Despite most shows selling out or coming close to it, Riverhouse on the Deschutes was losing money on the shows, according to series founder Marshall Glickman. Glickman, who also founded Jazz at the Oxford, said he has looked at other places around town and beyond to host the series going forward, including the Tower Theatre, Tetherow, the Bend Golf and Country Club and Elevation at Cascade Culinary Institute, but nothing has been the right fit.
Glickman said he is proud of the shows the series has brought to Bend — highlights over the last two years have included the Yellowjackets, Ravi Coltrane, Kandace Springs and Regina Carter, among others — as well as the support given to the student artists who open each show.
“To be able to have these kids play in front of a lot of people on a nice, professional stage, that was super cool,” Glickman said. “And then in addition to that and most fun, they get to go have dinner with the pros — we have a little greenroom across the river where they can talk to these guys and hang out. That’s magic, seeing that, and that’s the thing that I think has made this series really special.”
That mentoring relationship between professional and student was a big part of Balmer’s musical training, and something that Balmer, as a teacher, has noticed falling by the wayside.
“Back then, most jazz musicians were self-taught,” Balmer said. “Nowadays most people go to jazz camps and they have special jazz instructors and they go to special jazz colleges. But when I was growing up, you hung out with the old guys playing jazz and went out late at night and listened to anybody you could hear and tried to play with people you looked up to. It was a much more organic kind of process.”