A little over a year ago, when I first got wind of the newly formed new age/contemporary instrumental super group FLOW, I immediately felt it would be like hearing an inspired gathering of longtime musical acquaintances.
I had written individually in the past about Grammy winning guitarist and legendary Windham Hill label founder Will Ackerman, pianist Fiona Joy and guitarist Lawrence Blatt – and had reviewed one of trumpeter/flugelhornist Jeff Oster’s albums. I had the unique opportunity to hear the album in its entirety, months before its October 2017 release, in the presence of Fiona and Jeff. It drew me in from the get go, with a soulful, inviting blend of ambience, melodic grace and infectious rhythmic textures.
Over the next few months, I listened so intently to the 11 tracks that they became a part of me. FLOW became my “go-to” instrumental “mellow jam” when I needed to chill and clear my head from any stresses. From the critical and consumer responses they were receiving, I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling so transported by the music these masterful musicians played together. I was blessed to interview each member, write extensively about them and the album – and truly wished I could be in NYC when they made their live debut at an album release celebration in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.
Seven months later, on Saturday, May 19, I finally had the wonderful opportunity to see FLOW – now a two time Zone Music Reporter (ZMR) Awards winner - live in the intimate 200 seat Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum. My favorite aspect of the generous, nearly 2-hour show (divided into two sets) was the fact that it wasn’t a static group of four musicians simply running through the album’s tunes verbatim. Rather, while the majority of those songs were performed throughout the evening, there was ample creative mixing and matching with the group’s solid guest musicians, guitarist Todd Boston, FLOW’s producer (and Ackerman’s longtime engineer and musical partner) Tom Eaton on various instruments and percussionist Jeff Haynes.
So for instance, after the core group of Fiona, Lawrence, Oster and Will (that spells FLOW, everyone!) and Haynes eased through “Arrival” (which starts out with a haunting ambience before slowly introducing a creative soul grooving vibe) and the elegiac “Rest Now My Friend,” Will left the stage. They introduced Boston, and he and Eaton provided subtle classical flavored accompaniment to the hypnotic, piano and flugelhorn driven piece “Waters Gather.” Then Will returned to launch “Rosita & Giovanni” – a thoughtful romantic piece with that trademark, strumming Ackerman sparseness – with an anecdote about rediscovering his compositional gifts in Italy, where a couple with those names were celebrating their 70th anniversary. This song typifies the best of FLOW. Their songs are often led by one lead voice, with the emotions fleshed out with the harmonic contributions of the other members.
Will then stayed center stage for more lovely anecdotes (including a story about his friend Michael Hedges, an influential Windham Hill guitarist) and graceful strolls through “Unconditional” and “Hawk Circle,” two beautiful classic catalog gems whose thoughtful, intricate melodies perfectly define the Ackerman aesthetic. Then, also typical of the unique personnel interchange, Fiona joined Lawrence on his lush, meditational tribute to the capital of Switzerland (“Bern”), which he prefaced with a shout out to the great work the Grammy Foundation does in the field of music education.
With Lawrence and Eaton providing accompaniment, Fiona’s solo work entered the spotlight with the alternately haunting and hopeful, “locomotively” hypnotic “Invisible Train,” from her Signature Synchronicity album. The first set wrapped with everyone on board for my absolute favorite song from the album, the infectious and rhythmic, guitar driven swirl of optimism, “Waiting for Sunshine.”
The second set began with Will absent for the first three numbers, which featured Fiona’s spotlight song “Contemplating” (from her new solo set Story of Ghosts) sandwiched seamlessly between two more FLOW songs - “Tenth Life,” a dreamy reverie she composed for a beloved departed feline friend, and the sensually swaying, gracefully melodic title track “Flow.” Will joined back in for the expansive, gently drifting “And the Sky Was” and stayed on with Haynes to play two more of his solo classics, “The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit” and “Last Day at the Beach.” A lot of the buzz about FLOW’s emergence as a performing and touring group centered on the chance longtime Will fans will have to see a true acoustic guitar god in action, and Will, with gratitude and humility for his fresh new outlet and ensemble, delivered with grace and beauty every step of the journey.
After “Hyde Park Bench” and “Open Fields and Running Water,” two engaging pieces from Lawrence’s Longitudes and Latitudes that showcased his ease with both contemplative and joyfully rhythmic compositions, Will returned the for the grand finale.
It was not a rousing jam session like rock and rollers often conclude with, but the uplifting, ambient “Free Ascent” whose wide open contemplative spaces – punctuated by Oster’s transcendent horn melody and nature soundscaping - provided the perfect backdrop to passionately recall all the warmly eclectic music that filled this very special night.