We spoke with Jeff Oster about trusting the first take, the role of the trumpet and flugelhorn in the sonic spectrum, the rewards and challenges of working in a group setting and what he’d tell any listener who is suspicious of new age music.
The combination of breath and brass that I have has landed in a meditative place, as opposed to hitting you over the head with it.
Being a musician myself with lots of non-musical friends and family, I’ve spent a lot of time explaining what I do in the most non-niche way possible. It’s actually helped me be a stronger writer and communicator. So, how would you explain what you do – and the value and beauty of trumpet and flugelhorn – to a curious yet nonmusical person?
Well, I focus mostly on the flugelhorn. If you have a nonmusical ear, think of the trumpet. You think of it being very bright, piercing and loud on top of things. For me, the natural place I’ve landed as an artist has been in the tone of the instrument, because I’ve always been known for that. Since I started working on my own albums, and especially working with Will Ackerman who’s all about melody and sounds, the combination of breath and brass that I have has landed in a place that is – and I’m told this by lots of people who hear it – very meditative. It speaks to sort of a deeper place, to the soul of the person who is listening. It’s subtle and enveloping in terms of the sound, as opposed to hitting you over the head with it.
It’s very vibration-focused, which is actually how I am, and the horn speaks my truth for me. I can’t use words when I’m playing because the mouthpiece is on my mouth, so the sound of the horn is really my heart that you hear. That’s what gets shared as I play.
From there, I’d like to explore your collaborations with the best of the best – Will Ackerman, Bernard Purdie, Nile Rogers and many others. Can you tell me an intriguing piece of advice you’ve learned from a fellow player in a studio setting?
“Trust the first take.” Another one would be “Always hit record.” A third one would be “Play you,” as opposed to trying to play someone else.
I say all this because there are different kinds of studio musicians. There are studio cats whose job is to play whatever the producer wants them to play. They can be sitting there playing Latin on one date and doing classical music later that afternoon. I’ve done a lot of that, but my world isn’t in that. I tend to get hired now for what I do, for the sounds I’ve provided on some of my previous recordings.
I believe I have six albums, except for the live one. Almost all of those are prepared in some way before I show up at the studio. In that sense there’s structure, as opposed to almost every Will Ackerman session. I don’t need to hear the music before I go in – I write the parts as I’m playing them with Will and Tom Eaton. It’s this process of “Oh, that sucked,” or “That’s awful, don’t do that one again.” But if it’s good, we keep it and it builds from there. Sometimes it’s straight grooves, but other times we build it that way.
When my parents asked me as a child why I wanted to play the trumpet, I said “Because I want to play the melody.”
I’d like to rewind to the first moment you knew this was what you wanted to do. Is there any moment, event or thought that sparked your musical interest as a child? How did you act on it?
I started playing trumpet when I was eight, so that’s 52 years I’ve been playing the horn. I remember being in Highland Park in the north of Chicago in third grade. They took me in the band room and into the instrument closet and everything was there – saxophones, trombones, trumpets, all this other stuff. And I picked the trumpet. When my parents asked me why I wanted to play the trumpet, I said “Because I want to play the melody.” So that was sort of the moment, when I literally touched a trumpet for the first time.
As I went on, there were all sorts of other formative experiences that anchored it for me. I took lessons, and those were hard for me sometimes, but I learned. But one of the biggest and best experiences that I had was in high school in Coral Gables, Fl. Back then, the high school band marched 200 people and had a concert band of 100, so it was very significant, one of the best bands in the state of Florida at the time in 1973-1975. And then all 200 people would go to Europe. We’d play a concert under the Eiffel Tower and march down the streets of Holland and on the grounds of Warwick Castle.
All these things were ridiculously impactful on me – the camaraderie of traveling with all these different musicians, sitting in that 100-piece band playing the William Tell overture with seven trumpets going [mimics sound of finale] and all that stuff, it was ridiculous. It sounded like one big instrument! So to that extent, those are all things that kept me going. The first band I ever played in was a power trio, playing Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” The whole thing sort of went from there – I ended up in Oregon and then in L.A. for 20 years. So that’s sort of how I started building my career.
New age music is associated so much with a certain scene and era that I think many folks don’t realize it still carries a very unique beauty. What would you tell someone suspicious of the genre that they’re missing out?
I would say that from a marketing perspective, genres are somewhat necessary in order for a listener to have some sense of what they’re about to hear before they play a particular track or album. I would also say that new age music has a perception of somebody gazing at their navel, some yogi or yogini with crossed legs and crystal bowls, mantras and stuff like that. And that’s all true. Those are all versions of that.
But new age music has also ended up being defined as a catchall for instrumental, acoustic, quiet music. It’s much broader than you would think it would be, based on the media definition of what new age is. I think I have a quote in some of the stuff that we’re talking about for this album, where it’s “every age music.” It’s music that’s not four-on-the-floor dance and it’s not grunge or indie rock or singer-songwriter, it’s none of that. It’s not classical, while it has roots in much of that.
It’s a place where artists who communicate heartfelt acoustic music gather and are presented to the public. It’s way more than incense and gongs – and there’s nothing wrong with incense and gongs at all. It’s just as valid as guitar and flugelhorn, but it’s a much broader palette than you might think, based on the public perception of what new age is.
You don’t get into the music business for money. You get into it because you create and share your heart through song.
A lot of people I know in this industry have complained that there is simply too much music to sift through, an ocean of it that’s kind of flattening their appreciation. I think it’s important to remember that music is miraculous! How have you come to appreciate the gift of music more as the years have passed?
It takes me to places in the world that I never would have been able to go. It even introduces me as an artist and player to people all around the world where I’ve never gone. There’s been a metamorphosis of recorded music distribution since it was shared from the top down, being controlled by a relatively limited group of corporations. You signed a record deal, you put it out, you had relationships with radio stations where Top 40 music was (and still is) played over and over again, which led to sales and touring and support for those sales. Media, magazines, TV, all that stuff.
It still exists today, but there’s an entirely opposite aspect that has developed, which is from the bottom up. This is the social aspect of music. If Dick Clark told you that this song is great, millions of people would think the song is great. They’d be exposed to it and many of them would like it and buy it.
Today, your friend is Dick Clark, and he or she tells you that via a link, text or share. If you liked it, you’d tell your friends and it ends up happening in the viral aspect of things. Yes, it’s way more diffused than it has been. The firehose is wide open all the time. So, the trusted curator becomes your neighbor, your bro, your girlfriend, someone you work with. The way I’ve defined it for myself now is that, in the end, it’s one fan at a time. Like, I’m sending this out today and I don’t know who’s seeing it, but if one more person hears it and likes it, that’s all I can do. It’s a very, very long tale now, for me.
And musically and financially, it’s much more difficult too. Ridiculously more difficult now. That being said, if you break through – however you do so – you can make a living at it. Whatever the living aspect is. But anybody who gets into the music business for money? That’s not why you do it. You get into the music business because you create and share your heart through song. That’s the only way you can hold it in the face of challenging financial circumstances.
In my particular case, I’ve played on Lawrence, Fiona and Will’s albums as a session player, mostly through my relationship with Will and his studio. I’m sort of like the house flugelhorn player. But almost three years ago now, I I was accepting an award for Lawrence at the ZMR Music Awards down in New Orleans. And he said to me over text, “I want to make an album with you and Fiona and I, and I want Will to produce it. Are you interested?” And I said “Totally, absolutely, I am.”
It felt like the way it was going to be was that all of us would show up with songs and we’ll add other parts to it, and have an album. But what ended up happening when we finally got together, was that we all showed up with our songs and started playing, adding parts to it. At this time, Will had gone from being a producer to actually being a part of the group, and he’s never been in a group before. He’s been a solo artist who had people play on his songs, but he’s never taken a song of his and given it to three other artists to rearrange it in some way!
Which is what happened here. As we started adding our parts, it actually changed the nature of each song. It also developed a group sound, which was unexpected by all of us. Much of it has to do with Tom Eaton and his production, a sort of “fifth Beatle” kind of idea. But all of us ended up in this place where, as we started listening back to this stuff (even from the very first track!) we were like “Wow, this vibe here is very different than any of our songs individually.” It was a wonderful surprise how that happened, and it represents a growth experience for all of us.
It wasn’t without its challenges, because you want things a certain way and it’s different when you get yourself in a group. You’re having to give up certain things. But at the same time, I really believe that our voices came out. You can hear the voices of the artists in it. It was important for everybody to get heard. And it wasn’t like “Hey, I’m not getting heard,” but the focus was definitely on the four of us.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: October 23, 2017
Total questions: 6
Word count: 2018
Reading time: Seven minutes
Years spent: 52
Group setting: Challenging
Heart music: Flugelhorn
New age: Every age
artist, Bernard Purdie, bright, Chicago, classical, communicator, crystal bowls, Dick Clark, Eiffel Tower, England, Fiona Joy, flugelhorn, gongs, group, heartfelt, Highland Park, Holland, incense, Jeff Oster, Latin, Lawrence Blatt, loud, Louisiana, magazines, media, melody, Neil Diamond, new age music, New Orleans, Nile Rogers, Paris, piercing, Pink Floyd, sound, surprise, Tom Eaton, trumpet, TV, value, Warwick Castle, Warwickshire, William Ackerman, Windham Hill Records, writer, yogi, yogini, ZMR
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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