By Brad Bynum
“Along the Mountains in the Sky,” the first song on Portalis, the new album by Reno bassist Zack Teran, begins with a moody electronic soundscape, punctuated by understated saxophone and trumpet, like something from a sci-fi noir movie. Then the piece opens up into a couple of big melodic themes before settling into a jazz fusion groove that will appeal to fans of the Chicago post-rock band Tortoise. After a terrific trumpet solo, the sax returns alongside what sounds like a dramatic rock guitar solo but is actually played on bass. The melodic themes return briefly, and then the piece ends with a syncopated, ska-like rhythm that slowly fades out.
The song covers a lot of musical ground. So do the album’s other nine tracks. And covering a lot of ground was an inspiration for the album.
“A lot of the songs were written based on outdoorsy travels that I’ve done—hikes in the mountains,” Teran said during a recent interview.
Sometimes the inspiration would take the form a melody that would occur to him while on the hike, but often the process would just include him sitting with his instrument and writing music while reflecting back on his outdoor adventures.
“I don’t know if meditating is that right word—just thinking about that experience. … The space that that moment puts you in for writing music,” he said.
Teran was born in Mexico, grew up in Reno, and graduated from Reno High School and the jazz program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He’s played in local rock bands, like the Stops and Frendo, and in a wide variety of jazz gigs. He was a touring member of the world music group Sol Jibe, and he’s been a member of the literary indie act the Novelists for a decade. In that band, he learned two things: recording techniques, which helped him engineer Portalis, and improving his singing.
Most of Portalis was recorded in one day with help from Anna Santoro, using equipment borrowed from the Novelists. He wrote most of the music beforehand, but included solo sections for each of the players to improvise.
“I try to leave the music open enough so that the musicians who are playing it can also have some input and some say,” he said.
The players include tenor saxophonist Chris Gillette and trumpeter Brandon Sherman, both of whom Teran met through UNR.
“What’s great about their two styles is—to my ear, they blend really well, but they’re improvisational styles are completely different,” Teran said. “Chris—he can just shred on the saxophone, which is completely awesome. Brandon also can do that, but he’s much more colorful. He can play around with strange notes or colors on the trumpet.”
And the drummer on the session was prolific local player Miguel Jimenez-Cruz.
“He and I play all musics together—blues, jazz, funk,” Teran said. “He just started playing with the Novelists.”
Teran’s goal for the album was to write music with the same clarity of mind that comes after a long hike.
“I equate music to … going hiking and spending time outdoors,” he said. “You get this sense of connection to things that are happening around you that maybe are obscured by modern lifestyle. I wanted the music to also be a portal for listeners to either be introspective, or think about things in a different way, or just focus on music, or be meditative and feel connected to something else that they don’t usually feel connected to. I think music does that for people.”