For more than a decade now, Jeff Oster has been one of new age music’s most transcendent anomalies, carving out a major, multiple-award winning niche in the genre while playing lead instruments (trumpet and flugelhorn) much more common to and associated with jazz.
His music has long been the place where Miles Davis jams with Pink Floyd, and his many accolades (including four Zone Music Reporter Album of the Year wins and many #1s on NPR’s influential “Echoes” program) – and the many projects he has worked on with his longtime producer and Windham Hill founder, Will Ackerman – reveal that his uniqueness is powerfully celebrated by the musicians and fans of his chosen genre. Most recently, he scored a Top 5 Billboard hit with the self-titled debut album from FLOW, the ensemble featuring him, Ackerman, Lawrence Blatt and Fiona Joy.
Considering that there has always been a noticeable disconnect between his adventurous stage performances the tightly structured production on his hit albums, it’s not total surprising that as his life enters a new phase (an empty nest being one of the personal elements), he would dig deeper into this musical soul and challenge himself to – title alert – Reach for something fresh. Yet the new collection isn’t simply extraordinary because he and his Grammy winning producer Ruslan Sirota (best known as pianist of The Stanley Clarke Band) create a freewheeling fusion of chill/ambient new age and sexy, grooving jazz/world fusion. It’s because in their musical world, the possibilities are endless.
Yes, in many ways, they redefining the concept of instrumental pop music’s endless sonic abilities – but the magic lies in not just that they’re doing it, but how they’re achieving it. Suffice to say, it took a Skype session of hipster downtempo listening, some of L.A.’s top studio cats jamming and fashioning new coolness off established grooves, a bunch of track compiling and comping, and allowing Oster to improvise melodies and harmonies over all the wild imaginings.
The deeper story is how Oster and Sirota created Reach, but even if you didn’t know all that, you could still enjoy what amounts to a compelling musical travelogue – one based on themes that hit Oster after he heard what they had collectively created. The opening track “Onward” starts with echoing Native American flute and becomes more dramatic (think “Braveheart”/Genghis Khan conquering dramatic) as the haunting ambiences and Oster’s powerful melody drive, weapons drawn, across the plain. Next, Oster takes us closer to home, with a floating ambience, playful jazzy piano and hypnotic percussion taking us to the end of the A-Train line to “Far Rockaway,” New York. Then we’re off on a jaunt to hipster-heavy Paris on “Le Caveau” whose jazzy trumpet melody, exotic rhythms and Oster’s later blend of flugelhorn melody and trumpet harmony are exactly the sounds you might hear if you venture into the cavern-like atmosphere of Le Caveau de la Huchette.
Oster heard – as we will – some ancient Chinese mysticism once Sirota introduced Jenni Asher’s haunting yet powerful erhu on the song that came to be called “Five Great Mountains” as an ode to the country’s best known landmarks and travel destinations for royalty. The song is pure soul-jazz exotica at its core, but is pulled ever Eastward with the erhu and its sizzling interactions with Oster’s two horns and some moody vocal textures. “The Lotus Within,” named for The Lotus Temple in New Delhi, is an expansive dreamy chill delight, an opportunity for self-reflection via deep ambiences, easy electronica grooves and Oster’s floating flugelhorn melody.
The perfect choice for Reach’s first single, the uber-infectious “Troppo y Boffo,” briskly ponders what might happen if Antonio Carlos Jobim zipped along over a 100 mph percussion groove with a flugelhorn and trumpet trading lead lines over a snazzy horn section at his back. Oster called “How Familiar” just that because he thought it was the closest in vibe to his trademark sound up till this point – with him playing a heartfelt melody over a gently exotic soundscape and then increasing the pop-funk-jazz fusion as the piece goes on. Reach’s final tracks are the hypnotic, steel guitar and sparkling piano laced “Velvet and Smoke” – which Oster says is an invitation to “lie back and dream” – and a final whirlwind of haunting exotica, “The Pink City,” whose wistful Indian flutes and floating guitar carry us off to “The Pink City,” where the culture of Jaipur, India blends with NYC styled experimental free-jazz.