Formed in Portland, Oregon in 2004, Blue Cranes are a creative jazz group with a sometimes prominent indie rock sensibility, expressed not only in the band's embrace of rock rhythms and keyboard voicings but in the melodic, songlike themes often played by saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham. In addition to original material, the band has also dipped into music by other Portland artists such as the late Elliott Smith and indie poppers the Kingdom, Nicaragua's Carlos Mejia Godoy, indie rockers Blonde Redhead and singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and Seattle-via-N.Y.C. composer/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. However, despite the appearance of occasional covers, the band's albums have primarily served as vehicles for the compositions and tandem saxophone stylings of Wallsmith and Cunningham, revealing not only an indie mindset but also a wide range of jazz influences from Latin to free improvisation.
The first creative stirrings that would ultimately lead to Blue Cranes began in 1994 when Portland high-school students Wallsmith and Ji Tanzer started up a musical project together, but the band wouldn't truly arrive until bassist Keith Brush joined up with alto saxophonist Wallsmith and drummer Tanzer in 2003 and keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn signed on a year later. This quartet version of Blue Cranes debuted with the independently released Lift Music! Flown Music! in 2007.
The following year's sophomore album, Homing Patterns, saw the group expand to a quintet with the addition of Cunningham, aka Sly Pig, a tenor saxophonist noted for his work with the Decemberists. Guitarist Ila Cantor was also featured as a guest. The dual saxophones would add new strength and power to the lineup, and Blue Cranes would remain a quintet of Wallsmith, Cunningham, Sanborn, Brush, and Tanzer on subsequent releases.
In 2010 Blue Cranes released their third album, Observatories, with most of the group's writing duties now split evenly between Wallsmith and Cunningham. Upon Observatories' release, Wallsmith noted that much of previous album Homing Patterns' music had been conceived for a quartet before Cunningham joined, and that the new album more fully incorporated the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in the expanded lineup. Los Angeles guitarist Timothy Young, a former collaborator with Wayne Horvitz, was a featured guest, and also appearing were members of the Portland Cello Project and Paxselin Horns. In 2011 Observatories was revisited with the remix project Oversea Orbits, featuring remixes of the album's tracks by local Portland artists and a handful of videos. The same year, Blue Cranes released the three-track EP Cantus Firmus, featuring covers of tunes by Blonde Redhead, Red House Painters, and David Bazan.
In early 2013 it was announced that Blue Cranes had signed with Cuneiform, and in June of that year the group's fourth full-length, Swim, was released by the label. Produced by the Decemberists' Nate Query, the album featured the core quintet supplemented by a variety of guests artists on selected tracks, including violist Eyvind Kang, Los Lobos member Steve Berlin on baritone saxophone, the Devil Makes Three's Cooper McBean on musical saw, and a string trio of cellist Anna Fritz, violist/violinist Kyleen King, and violinist Patti King. ~ Dave Lynch