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By Jeff Oster
Label: Retso Records
Released 8/16/2011
Surrender tracks
1. All That Matters
2. Voce Quer Dancar
3. Nikki's Dream
4. The Voice
5. Essence of Herb
6. Surrender
7. 2 Di 4
8. The Theology of Success
9. Beautiful Silence
10. 53 Mirrors
11. Enlightened Darkness
On his new CD, Surrender, trumpet/flugelhorn/keyboard player Jeff Oster has assumed the producing credits from Will Ackerman (who produced his first two efforts). The result is a drastic shift in direction for this talented multi-instrumentalist. Enlisting the assistance of co-producer Bryan Carrigan (who also handles drum programming, synths, and sound design), Oster has morphed his music into a hybrid of jazz fusion and chill-out with a dash of blues and a sprinkling of ambient while featuring a greater emphasis on a more contemporary style than his first two CDs. The result is a reinvigorating of Oster's already formidably stimulating music as he and Carrigan, along with occasional guest vocalist Diane Arkenstone, inject so many new elements that if it were not for his trademark horn playing, one might be hard pressed to recognize this as a Jeff Oster release.

It won't take but a few minutes into the first track, All That Matters, for fans of Released (2005) and True (2007) to realize that they "are not in Kansas any more." The bluesy muted trumpet melody is soon joined by shuffling chill-out beats and sprinkled with iridescent bell tones. A reverbed piano refrain that surfaces now and then injects a melancholic air into the proceedings, even as Oster lays down one bluesy lick after another on his horn. It's a great opening song and portends (correctly so) a lot of good stuff still to come. Voce Quer Dançar moves along anchored by a slinky chill-out rhythm, this time married to overlapping flugelhorn layers supported by subtle synth accompaniment. The song's bridge drops the rhythms and allows Oster to send one pealing flugelhorn blast after another into the aether. Nikki's Dream opens with a solemn flugelhorn lead set against a series of reverberating tones, supported by emerging layers of synth undercurrents, e.g. strings. The mood is wistful and "dreamlike" with occasional subtle trap kit drum rhythms. Oster breaks out some mellow r 'n' b influences for Essence of Herb, with an assortment of horn lines, some serving as lead, some as accompaniment, all of it set against a mellow mid-tempo rhythm. The same r 'n' b flavor gains some sass and sexuality on Surrender, owing not just to the downright slinky beats, but also Diane Arkenstone's smoky vocals (Yowza!). Oster's flugelhorn snakes around her sensual voice in a musical game of cat and mouse. Cocktail lounge jazz elements signal the start of 2 Di 4 with mellow electric piano and blues-tinted flugelhorn, this time draped amongst a laid-back tempo of contemporary electronic beats. The pace picks up on the propulsive pop/jazz/funk fusion of The Theology of Success. One of the best tracks on Surrender, the song underscores the dramatic shift Oster has undergone from previous releases. The quasi-disco beats that pepper the song with liveliness make it hard to resist moving one's feet or (as one former colleague of mine at Wind and Wire was fond of writing) breaking out into some "chair-dancing." A more ambient-fusion approach is heard on Beautiful Silence, as pinpricks of synthesizer starlight emerge from a dark sky, and hazy, drifting flugelhorn notes echo through the inky blackness. The next track, 54 Mirrors continues in an un-rhythmic/quasi-ambient vein but here the music is slightly darker, a tad more atmospheric with a hint of shadow.

Frankly, I could've done without the track The Voice. The music itself is not bad (although not up to the level of quality of the rest of the songs) consisting of jazzy-bluesy trumpet licks against a midtempo rhythm of electronic rhythmic textures, trap kit beats, bell tones and abstract synths. It's the somewhat overly earnest lyrics that grate on me a bit. Part of the song is spoken word (by Oster who wrote the lyrics) while the chorus is sung (and sung well) by Arkenstone. "Message" songs like this one are not bad in and of themselves, and I can relate to the song's theme, but there is getting across a point with subtlety and then there is the heavy-handed approach. For me, this song illustrates the latter.

Despite "The Voice," I can state unequivocally that Surrender is Oster's best recording so far. He and Carrigan make a great team (the tracks were either co-written by the duo or by Oster himself) and the album sounds fantastic from an engineering and production standpoint, not to mention the music which is a breath of fresh air with its blend of jazz, r 'n' b, chill-out, blues, and ambient genres. It hardly needs saying that Jeff Oster is a superb musician whether he is playing flugelhorn or trumpet and both he and Carrigan know their way around synthesizers and drum programming too. Surrender delivers musical enjoyment in abundance!
Rating: Very Good +   Very Good +
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 10/30/2011
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