The Open Air Ensemble consists of Steve Vidaic (keyboards/The Motet), Joe Russo (drums & percussion/Fat Mama/Electron), Erik Deutsch (keyboards/Fat Mama), and Jonti Siman on upright electric bass, and bass guitar. Techtonic Movements examines a palette that is quite broad rhythmically, harmonically, and texturally in a way that it seems to have very “open” yet directed feel. It is almost as if the players were “directing” the air (or the sounds occupying that air) that surrounds them. The pieces range from driving in your face grooves to luscious open sound canvases. This group has certainly tapped into something new. In this instance the performance of the individual players matches and propels the performance of the group as a whole, which is a facet that often evades today’s young gifted musicians.
Opening with an infectious urban groove in the time signature 9/8 (separated into a group of 4 beats then a group of 5 beats to wrap the phrase around) laid down by Joe Russo and Jonti Siman “Into The Outbound” encompasses what type of journey you are in for. Simple vamps are one of the best ways to open up the harmonic spectrum, and this track not only sets the tone for the album, but also establishes the fact that these guys have something to say. The groove in this particular song is difficult to point your finger at. In the time signature of 9/8 it loses symmetry, but the groove is so deeply rooted that it is easier to verbalize than count. (A quality that carries itself throughout the album, and exudes the freedom of The Open Air Ensemble.) “Jangle Fuzz” drops right in from the opener and moves seamlessly along. Continuing with the same vibe as the first tune but moving to a symmetrical time signature of 4/4 this piece pushes forward from the opening track and further establishes the special form of communication that these musicians share with each other. “Jangle Fuzz” holds a bit more form than the first tune, and moves the pedaled ostinato around harmonically before dropping into a luscious electronic landscape of analog synthesizers for the opening of the next part of the journey: “Souls Fly Free.”
Transitioning seamlessly from the previous track this time the pivot point is an electronic soundscape. In “Souls Fly Free” Jonti and Joe Russo once again take control of the feel and hit it with an open, but directed shuffle backbeat groove that is very melodic. I really admire the way Steve and Erik can move through or imply different harmonies over the pedaled bass lines that Jonti lays down. This track involves a bit more development in form from that of the previous. The previous tracks had the feeling of a complete breath together where as this track feels more composition oriented. Though not pinned to a certain form the track seems to embrace the communicative type approach that permeates this entire album, but on a higher level in the fact that the playing is very directed. The track ends just as it begins fading into the deep soundscapes that Steve and Erik are obviously so good at. Moving along further in the album you realize that the group is quite able of keeping your attention with the diverse and soulful feels that are provided by Jonti Siman and Joe Russo. The group is obviously very comfortable improvising, and this tune exploits that with hairpin turns that completely redirect the groove. “Bells To Bubbles” features Matt McDonald and Martin Moretto on electric guitar, and the group steps into some wide-open conversation oriented ambient sounds. Steve and Erik have an astounding range of colors from their arsenal of keyboards, and often it is very difficult to discern who is playing what.
Jonti opens “The Messiah Vs. The Music Box” with a heavy syncopated bass line, and the group jumps back into more familiar waters, with a nasty organ lead. Harmonically ambiguous this tune is a high-energy rhythmically driven groove machine. If you were ever a Fat Mama fan this tune will certainly be up your alley. “Bergen Pines” moves very gently along as Joe Russo provides a relaxed feel to the piece with mallets and spacious outlines. “Whale Songs” features some spoken word that seems to float around the space provided by the musicians speaking about reflected sounds and the capability for ocean going mammals to communicate through sound. Not only are they able to communicate through sound, but also that sound or “communication” is somehow aimlessly floating around in the depths of the oceans. This idea truly captures the feeling that the entire album gives the listener. The idea that the group is somehow “pulling” the sounds from the air, and that this action embodies a different type of communication that allows the musicians & listeners to communicate on a different level is truly what OAE has accomplished with this album. Growing into an Afro Cuban groove which closely reflects the feel for the first half of the piece “Whale Songs” allows for more electronic experimentation while Russo holds the foundation and then some before moving into a great drum solo that involves some extra percussion by the other members. Moving from the fantastic drum solo the section that wraps up this electronic exploration once again brings back the spoken word. Lasting roughly 20 minutes, this piece is certainly the most ambitious of the album, and the journey delivers!
The closing track entitled “The Essence of Butterfly” is a beautiful piece that opens with a surreal organ-based foundation. “The Essence of Butterfly” utilizes a very solemn guitar conversation that seems to grow very slowly and seems to be riddled with a sense of hope. Once again this piece explores the ambiguous harmony that embodies the entire album, but seems to end a bit short and incomplete, and even if it wasn’t intended to end so abruptly “The Essence of Butterfly” leaves the listener wondering where he or she will travel next under the musical wings of the “Open Air Ensemble.”
Techtonic Movements explores an open canvas of sound where concept and execution both play heavy roles. It is not often that a group of musicians can collaborate on a level that neither creativity or execution are compromised and this album is a great example of that. Reminiscent of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in its electronic urban oriented approach, OpenAirEnsemble has a sound that speaks timelessly.
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