In this age of streaming and digital music consumption, where album art is perhaps at less of a premium than in earlier generations, the cover of Brothers, a stunningly intimate and intricate collection by new age music veterans Will Ackerman (acoustic guitar), Jeff Oster (flugelhorn) and Tom Eaton (piano, keyboards, bass) says it all about the project’s timeless aesthetic. The names of the principals are stacked above a stark landscape photo of a prairie with several trees, with the title “Brothers” featured below in the same avant-garde gothic font.
Longtime genre fans will recognize this immediately as classic low key Windham Hill artwork – representative of the legendary vibe of the early releases from the label, which Ackerman launched in 1976 and which set the standard for acoustic new age music for three decades.
Beyond the richly detailed, soul stirring sense of melody, harmony and spacious atmospheres of these eight tracks that harkens back to that gentle, era- defining vibe, Brothers is at heart a celebration of a longtime friendship and the vibrant spirit of collaboration between the principals. Oster, who began playing along to Ackerman’s guitar albums starting in 1979, has lost count of how many Ackerman produced projects featuring Eatons wide expertise as an engineer, mastering engineer and multi-instrumentalist he has appeared on since he met Ackerman in 2003. He estimates it might be up to 60 songs by now.
Their collaborative work includes two recent hit award winning albums by FLOW, a quartet featuring pianist Fiona Joy and guitarist Lawrence Blatt in addition to the duo. The group’s self-titled 2017 debut held the #1 position on the Zone Music Reporter’s (ZMR) Top 100 Radio Airplay Chart for two months and won ZMR awards for Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
Easier to add up are the handful of co-writes Oster has had with Ackerman over the years – and the primary creative thrust of Brothers was to create an entire album of those and by extension, memorialize his nearly 20 year friendship with the guitarist. In a very methodical process he describes in detail in a compelling video interview he did with new age music industry veterans Cindy Paulos and Beth Ann Hilton on their series “The Creators,” the flugelhornist says that he and Eaton created the foundation for six of the tracks, with Eaton creating on piano the parts that would be played later by Ackerman once they went to his famed Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont.
As Oster describes his fascination with the way Ackerman weaved his very precise guitar parts into the tracks: “He was playing, plucking and turning the strings throughout, doing another and another until all the strings were in tune with the piano patterns Tom had created. On some of the tunes, he got close to the original piano part, and on others he went in his own direction. Later in the week we recorded, he brought in two compositions of his own with his melodic guitar parts already done, and I did my own parts over those. Tom took all of these tracks back to his studio and added bass, piano, keyboard, guitar and ambience. Originally, the idea was for the ‘Brothers” to be me and Will, but as the project developed and Tom clearly offered his own artistic beauty, he was added as a brother as well.”
Back in the day, some of Windham Hill’s most popular selections were samplers spotlighting their roster of artists. But the goal of those was always to open a door to explore each artist’s deeper works further – and those albums were always best experienced as a whole. Likewise, Brothers should be heard not as a set of individual tracks to add to a streaming playlist, but as a singular experience expressing the creative ebb and flow, tender energies and textures of three friends deeply committed to the process of sharing their hearts and baring their souls.
Especially after the harrowing, anxiety filled year-plus we’ve just experienced, listeners should dedicate time to sit/lay back, close their eyes, imagine scenes of peace, serenity and joyful hope and open themselves to the seamless musical narrative that takes us from the gentle hypnotic sway of Ackerman’s precise strings and Oster’s wafting horn in the opening moments of “Wild Bird” through the dreamy and elegant meditational flow of guitar, horn and Eaton’s graceful piano throughout “You Make My Heart.”
Each track has a distinctive opening element that sets the tone for the mood it will embody, such as Eaton’s deeply soulful and melodic chords at the start of “The Golden Hour” (which provides a soundscape for Oster, then Ackerman to slowly introduce their softly melodic textures) and “While There’s Time,” a tune that starts with Ackerman’s hypnotic strum before Oster breezes in to carry its quiet spirit of reflection.
When you’re caught in the flow – pun obviously intended, even though Brothers is a very different, less rhythmically inclined and more ambient project – perhaps the individual song titles will be superfluous. Yet for the sake of simple description, the other tracks include the sweetly seductive guitar-flugelhorn-piano ballad “Head for the Sky”; a tenderly melancholy stroll through “Three Trees” and the mystical, immersive and richly emotional “The Confluence,”; and “It Had To Be Like That,” which starts with 30-plus seconds of unadorned Ackerman bliss before the other instruments breeze in to provide lush harmonies behind the guitarist’s lush, intimate motif.
Reflecting on Brothers, Oster adds, “I wanted to capture forever on a record my relationship with Will. For the longest time, I have always described my songs with him as my ‘dream come true series’ and our hope is that these latest pieces add something meaningful to the world. The beauty of these moments, the heartfelt tones and sense of escape we create for all to hear, will arrive at just the right time for the world to enjoy.”