Artist: Jeff Oster
Quick, can you name your top three favorite ambient flugelhorn players? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably no. All of which gives Jeff Oster, who also plays trumpet, a distinction that not many others can claim. As I wrote in my feature article on Jeff’s previous album, Surrender: “While there is some precedent for this with artists like Mark Isham, Jon Hassell, David Hoffman, and even Miles Davis (particularly on his classic “In A Silent Way” album and subsequent “electric” period, Jeff is charting new sonic territory in his expansion of these instruments into a context of electronica, down-tempo grooves, and loop based electro-orchestral tracks.” Although Surrender was one of my favorite albums when it came out (and I still love it), this new release, simply entitled next, certainly takes it to a whole new level, for many reasons, as we’ll soon see.
Readers here may be familiar with Jeff from his various solo albums, but they may have also heard his eloquent horn playing on the numerous recording sessions he has participated in which were produced by GRAMMY winning producer and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman. Out of the over 250 albums featured on Music and Media Focus, Jeff’s name probably appears on more of them than anyone, other than maybe Will. However, Jeff’s style is so smooth and dreamy that listeners may not have even been aware they were hearing a flugelhorn or trumpet as it’s gracefully drifting ambience integrated with other orchestration or synthesizer tracks. But I’m certainly looking forward to adding my name to that list of artists and featuring Jeff’s heavenly horn tracks on my own next recording project.
On next, Jeff has assembled what can only be called an “all-star cast.” While that phrase is often overused and could be seen as hype, Jeff has the names to justify it. In addition to some of the great new age artists on the album, which I’ll mention in a minute, Jeff has enlisted a trio of the most famous studio musicians in the music industry to play on his album. Up first is guitarist/ producer Nile Rodgers, who first became known with the R&B group Chic, and later went on to play with Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross and many others, as well as being a prolific A-list producer. He was also recently featured as a music industry mentor on American Idol.
Playing drums on next is Bernard Purdie, who holds the title as “The World’s Most Recorded Drummer.” His credits include Aretha Franklin, James Brown, B.B. King, Hall & Oates, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles to name but a very few. It has even been written that he overdubbed some of the drum tracks on early Beatles recordings. Holding down the bass on Jeff’s album is Chuck Rainey who has played on literally hundreds of sessions including Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Jackson Browne, Bette Middler, Joe Walsh, and numerous well known jazz artists. And the above-listed credits for these three artists barely begin to scratch the surface of their resumes. If this isn’t the rhythm section made in heaven, I don’t know what is.
With regard to the aforementioned new age musicians, many of whom are frequent contributors at Imaginary Road Studios the list is also quite impressive. Among them are bassist Tony Levin (who tours with Peter Gabriel), fretless bass maestro Michael Manring, guitarists Will Ackerman, Todd Boston, Shambhu, and Carl Weingarten, pianists Philip Aaberg and Catherine Marie Charlton, and recent GRAMMY award winner Ricky Kej on synthesizers. This being only a partial list. The album was recorded at a number of different studios, foremost of which was Will Ackerman’s famous Imaginary Road Studios, and included top engineer/ producer Tom Eaton who also played keyboards, bass, and percussion, as he does on so many of the sessions he works on with Will. In addition, Tom did a fantastic job on mixing this recording – not an easy task, considering how many tracks and musicians it includes.
And to truly put the icing on the cake, the album was mastered by legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, whose credits range from Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who, to Tony Bennett, Mariah Carey, and Paul McCartney, and many more. While this feature article, thus far, reads like a Who’s Who of the music industry, when I mentioned that Jeff has taken this album to a whole other level and that it features an all-star cast, it was important to back that up. And as they say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” The fact that Jeff was able to magnetize such high level artistry to his project speaks volumes about the quality and creativity of his music and his stature in the music world.
While Jeff is well acquainted with being a session musician, this album is all about stepping out front, as well as about taking risks. In an exclusive Music and Media Focus interview, Jeff shared: “We made a conscious decision before Will Ackerman, Tom Eaton, and I began working on this record, to have my horn PLAY OUT, finally BE HEARD, featured, ON TOP and very present. It was time to show what’s next in terms of my development as a player. To let people HEAR me. I think we did succeed at that aspect of the record. I’m proud of that.” He goes on to say: “This is also about risk – asking for what you want. I ASKED for Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, and Nile Rodgers to be a part of this. The risk in that is obvious – they say no or never respond at all. But that’s not what happened…all three became a part of this record, this music.”
So without further adieu, lets take the “next” step and delve into some of these all-star tracks. The album opens with the title song featuring, not only the guitar of Nile Rogers, but first and foremost the incredible horn playing of Jeff Oster taking front and center spotlight. As the track kicks off, the mood is smooth and the groove is chill providing just the right mix of mellowness and motion to make you want to kick back, yet still tap your foot or nod your head in time to the beat. Jeff calls this alchemical blend “new age ambient funk.” Drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Chuck Rainey do what they do best in grand style, while Nile Rogers supports the music with tasteful jazzy guitar riffs, muted picking, and volume swells as Jeff’s lighter than air horn phrases soar above the mix.
On “Night Train to Sofia” Jeff not only plays flugelhorn and trumpet but also does percussion, sound design, and loop programming, as he does on many of the tracks. The piece does evoke the feeling of riding on a train, and I especially appreciated the intimate interaction between the flugelhorn and trumpet that played like a musical conversation. Another nice touch was the Enya-like vocal track by Melissa R. Kaplan that added an ethereal atmosphere. A composition called “Gardens of Varanasi” blooms with exotic sounds such as the haunting strains of the sarangi, a bowed instrument usually found in Hindustani classical music. Unlike the previous tracks, this one is primarily without drums or percussion except for a short rhythmic interlude towards the later part of the song. One of the most interesting an unexpected gems on the album is a cover of “I Cant Make You Love Me,” a song made famous by Bonnie Raitt. As much as I’ve always loved this song, for me, it is one of the saddest songs ever. Although this is an instrumental version, Jeff’s plaintive flugelhorn playing captures the poignant intent of the lyrics in a way that is visceral. The track also features elegant piano work by Philip Aaberg.
Another song that has a bittersweet feel and story behind it is “On Mother’s Day.” According to Jeff, “The song was written with Shambhu, literally on Mothers Day last year, He sent me his guitar tracks from San Diego, and I made the horn parts that night – essentially unchanged on the record.” Sadly, Jeff’s mom passed away unexpectedly a few months after writing the demo for this song. The day after her funeral, Jeff recorded Shambhu’s final guitar tracks at Todd Boston’s northern California studio and calls it “a tribute to her, to all she gave me, the sacrifices, the sweetness, and the love.” It’s a quiet and understated small ensemble piece that in addition to Jeff on flugelhorn and Shambhu on acoustic guitar has Tom Eaton providing subtle synthesizer support. An interesting feature I’ve rarely seen is on a track called “Ibiza Sunrise.” The credits list two different bass players on the piece – and incidentally, two of the finest bass players in the business, Tony Levin and Michael Manring. Tony plays the main bass line which beats the heart of the song, while Michael adds his atmospheric fretless bass to a dreamy section in the middle that once again showcases the heavenly wordless vocals of Melissa R. Kaplan.
As much as I generally like to mention all the musicians who play on an album or particular song, in this case, there are so many and they vary from track to track, there just isn’t room to go into detail about all their wonderful contributions, although they can be read at Jeff’s website. However, one that Jeff particularly features on a composition entitled “Heroes” is saxophonist Jeff Taboloff, who cuts loose with a high-flying solo towards the end. It is quite an interesting piece with many movements and elaborate orchestration that creates a cinematic feel. This brings us to the final track, which provides a real yin/yang contrast with the preceding song. Entitled “And We Dance,” it is the quietest, most gentle track on the album, and is a duet with Will Ackerman on fingerstyle acoustic guitar and Jeff on flugelhorn. Although it is different than anything else on the album, it is actually a fitting tribute to the close and long-standing collaborative partnership between Jeff and Will, and evokes a classic Windham Hill sound. In Jeff’s words: “Will is the first “star” that I took the risk to reach out to back in 2003. I’d listened to him since 1979, and was and am a HUGE fan. It was a risk, and I KNEW that I wanted to write a song with him. We’ve done four songs by now and I call this my ‘dream come true” series of recordings.’ Will is truly one of my closest friends, along with my most important musical guide and mentor.”
For me, as a huge fan of Jeff Oster, this was a most eagerly awaited album. As the saying goes: “good things are worth waiting for,” and this is certainly true in this case. As I read the liner notes and credits, watched Jeff’s behind the scenes “making of” videos, and listened to the music, it is obvious that a monumental amount of time, energy, creativity, and resources went into the production of this recording project. I know that Jeff wanted this album to reflect his risks, rewards, and role as a leader, and he has certainly succeeded. This recording is a remarkable achievement that furthers Jeff Oster’s stature as one of the foremost musicians of the genre.