Friday, September 22, 2006, Oregonian Arts & Entertainment
By LYNN DARROCH
A STRONG SPIRIT -- "I was very much alone in my life," Sean Cruz says, "but in this house, I've never felt alone."
Cruz, the promoter of Saturday's concert by the Jim Pepper Remembrance Band, bought the former Pepper family home in Parkrose four years ago.
You could say the spirit of the late musician saved him.
A saxophonist, singer and composer of Kaw and Creek descent, Pepper fused Native American music and jazz with a powerful, edgy style. One of the most colorful musicians to come out of Portland, he played with legends including Ornette Coleman and younger stars such as John Scofield. His work also was performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Cologne Symphony orchestras.
Though Pepper died in 1992 from lymphoma at age 50, he continues to disturb and inspire, an outcome he prayed for in "Remembrance": "You must not forget me when I'm long gone," he chanted, "because I loved you so dearly."
"I have to credit his music with helping me get through the last four years," says Cruz, whose children were abducted in 1996 in a case that resulted in the Oregon Legislature's SB 1041, called "Aaron's Law" after his son. "His music just uplifts me."
Saturday's shows are designed to initiate a Jim Pepper Music Festival in Portland. The band will include Portland-based artists who worked with Pepper, as well as saxophonist Renato Caranto, who will take Pepper's part in the ensemble.
Pepper was one of the first to develop jazz-rock fusion, but many of his songs drew from his heritage, including "Witchi Tai To," with its mounting chord progression and hypnotically repeating phrases. Based on a chant from the peyote religion of his grandfather, it reached the Top 40 on pop charts in 1971.
His music surged between those evocative chants and hard-edged free improvisation -- often as raucous and difficult as the man himself. At best, it struck with the obsidian flash of a claw and soared with the majesty of his Native American name, Flying Eagle.
"The music is a healing force," Pepper says in the award-winning documentary film "Pepper's Pow Wow."
"When it was good, people felt like they had been through a spiritual experience," says pianist and composer Gordon Lee, who worked with the saxophonist for 14 years. "Funny thing was, he wasn't a very spiritual guy. Jim was an earthy guy."
And angry, too. At times his performances were more raw wound than healing experience. The war dance "Custer Gets It," for instance, which will be interpreted by dancer Luciana Proano, includes a violent, free-form section that expresses another side of the Native American experience.
"He wrote what he thought of as Indian songs like 'Comin' and Goin',' " says Lee, "and he had jazz songs. Jim bridged the gap, and you would get both in any performance."
Lynn Darroch is a Portland freelance writer.