Guitarist Dan Balmer is one of the busiest and most accomplished figures in the Portland jazz scene—scores of recording credits and a dozen albums as bandleader to his name, hundreds of gigs under his belt, world tours with the Tom Grant Band, Diane Schuur, and Pink Martini in his rearview mirror. He's a member of both the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame and has a legacy of education that stretches back two decades and counting, as even now he's an instructor of jazz guitar and jazz combos at Lewis & Clark College.
Yet even Ballmer isn’t immune to the creeping scourge of creative inertia, especially at a time when recording and releasing a record isn’t as professionally or financially beneficial as it once was.
“In the old days, if I wrote a song, it would appear on a Tom Grant record. We’d be on the road, and I’d hear my song on the radio in Houston. There’d be checks coming in for airplay. There were Dan Balmer slots in every Tower Records in the country,” Balmer told the Mercury. “Now, making a record is like spitting in the ocean.”
So Balmer found a new reason.
With a handful of new songs in development, he booked time in an east coast recording studio and asked an old friend—world-renowned organist Gary Versace—to help him make an album. It was Versace who suggested they bring top-shelf jazz drummer Rudy Royston into the sessions.
“By committing to record with these high-level artists, buying a ticket to New York, and renting the studio, I basically forced myself to, y’know, finish the songs. I made it so I had to think about them and figure out their final form,” Balmer said with a chuckle.
The result is Balmer’s 13th album, When The Night, a nine-track collection of typically engaging, guitar-forward tunes that crackle with energy as they bounce around from tender ballad to bluesy jam to frenetic jazz-rock. Even without vocals, Balmer and his band tell a story, with the song titles—“Love Ballad (Two Words Say It All),” “The Wander Years (Ages 1-100),” and “It Felt Like Drowning (My Last Divorce Song)”—acting as signposts along the way.
“Like everything I do, it’s a variety of different styles that reflect my life,” Balmer said. “It sounds great and the guys were great and I’m just thrilled with it.”
Balmer is releasing When The Night through PJCE Records, a local label that documents original music made by Portland-area jazz composers. An offshoot of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, the label focuses on releasing music by a diverse and wide-ranging roster of adventurous artists, including lesser-known names, up-and-comers and even local heavy hitters like George Colligan and Darrell Grant. Putting out When The Night, however, pushes PJCE Records to a new level, said Ryan Meagher, artistic director of the PJCE and director of the label.
“(We are) thrilled to partner up with Dan Balmer to put this album out. I feel like it gives the whole label a little more depth, and impact on our community,” he said. “Dan is a legend, and for him to be on our humble little label means a lot to us. It also shows our ability to punch a little above our weight with a release that has Rudy Royston and Gary Versace on it.”
On Friday night, Balmer and PJCE will partner up again on an album-release show at Lewis & Clark’s Evans Music Center Auditorium, where the evening will consist of two sets: The first will feature Balmer playing music from When The Night, backed by pianist Clay Giberson, bassist Bill Athens, and drummer Jason Palmer. For the second set, the PJCE has commissioned five composers to expand Balmer’s tunes with new arrangements, and those will be performed by the group.
Those new arrangements range from extrapolations of his melodies to entirely new sections of music inspired by his work. Hearing and rehearsing them, Balmer said, has been “heartwarming” and “cool,” and just the latest chapter in his renewed appreciation for the importance of the creative process—not just for the creation, but for the creator as well.
“If I didn’t do this, then I’ll have played 150 gigs this year and made a good living. I’ll have played a lot of guitar but there wouldn’t be much to show for it,” he said. “If you stop doing stuff, it’s easy to ossify, and I’m not ready for that yet.”