The Story behind Genre Greats Will Ackerman, Fiona Joy, Lawrence Blatt and Jeff Oster Discovering Fresh Musical Synergy, Beauty and Transcendence with Their Soulful New Ensemble FLOW and their eponymous new release.
Will Ackerman, Fiona Joy, Lawrence Blatt and Jeff Oster Take an Open Approach to Musical Discovery, Embracing Friendship While Building Organic Songs for FLOW
By Jonathan Widran
Deep in the West River Valley in Southern Vermont, there’s a galvanizing new array of sounds emerging from Imaginary Road Studios, the longtime creative home base of legendary Grammy winning acoustic guitarist Will Ackerman and musical centerpiece of a 282-acre property in Windham County that’s become a hotbed of acoustic excellence over the past 25 years.
Musicians come there not only to feel removed from modern life while they’re creating, but also to partake in the legacy of Windham Hill Records, the iconic new age label Ackerman founded in the late 70s that defined a powerful yet peaceful sonic aesthetic that remains influential over two decades after he sold the label to BMG. Ackerman has produced more than 25 Gold and Platinum selling records in the U.S. and overseas.
Forty years after Windham Hill became a catalyst for the global musical phenomenon, its bountiful legacy of best-selling solo works (George Winston, Liz Story, Alex DeGrassi, Michael Hedges) and Grammy winning ensembles (Shadowfax) – extends into a truly new age with FLOW – a new four-piece ensemble comprised of Ackerman and three of today’s most acclaimed independent award-winning artists, Australian pianist Fiona Joy, acoustic guitarist Lawrence Blatt and flugelhorn master Jeff Oster.
Formed out of mutual and collective long-term friendships and a history of working and playing together over the past eight years, FLOW is not only an unusual anagram of their names (Fiona, Lawrence, Oster, Will) but also reflects the foursome’s seamless organic vibe and the graceful atmospheric and rhythmic ease with which each of the 11 tracks streams into the next.
The project was created in two blocks of primary recording time, each about a week and a half, at Imaginary Road, a classic-styled gray and brown wood structure with a vaulted ceiling and an array of pane windows that allow the musicians who record there to see the miles of peaceful green acreage just beyond the doorstep.
“As you can imagine, we’re all quite busy, but we set aside the time to work together because we knew we were on to something we felt would be extraordinary, and we couldn’t wait to lay down our four parts on each of the songs,” Oster muses. “Fall in Vermont was a nice incentive. It’s definitely Will country, so to speak, but Fiona and I have homes there as well.”
As officially announced, the concept of FLOW had its origins in 2015, when Blatt invited Fiona and Oster to join him at Imaginary Road to create an album inspired by the iconic Windham Hill sound and ensembles. Ackerman had already produced several of Fiona Joy’s and Oster’s albums plus Blatt’s recordings The Color of Sunshine, Emergence, and Latitudes and Longitudes featuring Oster on horn; Blatt and Fiona met while recording a special project on Blue Coast Music.
The four principals bring extensive solo recording catalogs and musical achievements into this extraordinary new venture. Fiona’s evocative piano and ethereal vocals have earned her numerous awards, including IMA’s, IAMAs, 7 programmer-voted ZMR Awards, a song on a Grammy-winning album in 2015, and a nomination alongside Pete Seeger for a Best LIVE Performance Album.
Blatt has been playing acoustic guitar for over 30 years, is a multiple award winning artist and chart topper at ZMR, and has earned numerous IMA and IAMA nods. He performs his original compositions for finger-style-guitar in the San Francisco Bay area, and he’s played on media outlets throughout the world. His music consists of layers of guitar work decorated with luscious melodies and percussive moods, and he often plays in open tunings with a single guitar used to create the rhythm, bass and lead melody all at once.
Oster’s musical vibe has been described as Miles Davis meets Pink Floyd, and his sound is a unique combination of New Age beauty and his passion for progressive rock, with some jazz/funk thrown in for good measure. Over the years, he has earned numerous awards – including the ZMR Album of the Year (4x winner), multiple #1 albums on NPR’s Echoes, and he was a two-time winner of Best New Age Song in the Independent Music Awards. His music receives steady airplay on Sirius/XM, Music Choice, and a variety of other programs worldwide.
Interestingly, it was Blatt’s passion for jazz fusion that sparked the idea. “The inspiration comes from Chick Corea’s classic 70’s all-star band Return To Forever with Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola, who joined forces, wrote music and produced a sound that was more powerful than any of their individual works,” he says.
“That was the idea, bringing great musicians together with this kind of concept,” Blatt adds. “When I started thinking about who it might be, my thoughts turned naturally to Jeff and Fiona. We got together at my place in San Francisco, where I have a grand piano. Jeff brought his horn and we began riffing on ideas. We knew pretty quickly that this was going to develop into something. We talked with Will and previewed some of the ideas we were working on. His involvement as a producer and then as a full fledge member was a natural outgrowth of the process we started in my home.”
Fiona recalls, “We always knew Will would produce the album. Part of having Will produce is the addition of his guitar on our tracks – just as he had done in our previous recordings at Imaginary Road. It seemed logical that he would also write something for the album as well, and in doing that, it made sense that he would become the W in FLOW.”
In the promotional video on FLOW’s website, Ackerman says, “The amazing thing about it was that I thought it would be four individual people writing their stuff and bringing it to the middle, where each person would play their part. But it ended up being this wonderful synthesis where four people got together and really created together – far more than I ever imagined we could. I was absolutely delighted to be invited to be a part of it.”
Oster remembers that each of them brought two or three songs to the project to which they added their parts under the guidance of Ackerman’s longtime production partner at Imaginary Road, Tom Eaton. The group likens Eaton’s multi-faceted role in the success of the project as that of “The Fifth Beatle.” He says, “Tom, engineer, musician and producer along with the rest of us is everywhere in this recording. His musical talents, his patience, his kindness…this recording might as well have been entitled FLOWE. We wish to thank him for all he gave us in the making of this collaboration, which means so much to all of us.”
Once the quartet had recorded the basic tracks, they listened back carefully and decided which tunes would benefit from additional overdubs (by guest musicians Jeff Haynes, Eugene Friesen, Sam Bevan, Tony Levin and Marc Shuman). “The main focus,” the flugelhornist says, “was to maintain our four voices in the music. We all decided which songs would fit the overall feel of the album, and those were the ones we kept and built upon. As it grew in scope, Will’s accepting of our invitation to become an equal part of FLOW was a beautiful development which elevated this to those Windham Hill-type group collaborations that happened during the label’s heyday.”
Fiona adds that when FLOW first gathered in Vermont, they had not officially written or recorded any of the album. “Being there was just an invitation to bring the idea to life and do something together, fully together; shared, co-written, cohesive and as a group,” she says. “We all came into the studio with ideas and the songs developed from there. You can clearly hear the influence of our individual styles on each piece, but the evolution of each song was very collaborative.”
For longtime new age and Windham Hill fans who have been following Ackerman over the course of his 40-year career, another magical aspect of FLOW will be the often easy to overlook reality that the guitarist has never formally been part of any group, save for the various additions of Windham Hill artists on his solo recordings. Oster says, “The fact that this is a first for Will, in a career full of firsts, is in and of itself, very elevating!”
While fully embracing his “undramatic, unscripted” transition from producer to full-fledged group member, Ackerman admits the process took some artistic adjustment as he watched two songs he had written on a recent trip to the Amalfi Coast of Italy – including the graceful and reflective “Rosita and Giovanni” (named after his Italian hosts) take on new life with the other members’ contributions.
“I sort of sat there for a moment, liking the sound I was hearing, and made this decision, like ‘Yes, let’s go!’ While that shift was a bit matter of fact, there was a part of me that sat there stunned as I heard my songs. I always had input from other people, but ultimately, I made all the decisions on how my songs should sound. What took place with FLOW was a revelation for me, the first time I was on the other side of the glass, being produced. I was listening to my compositions being dramatically changed, and I confess it was unnerving, even somewhat threatening. I felt resistance at first, but that gave way to this lovely moment where I realized that I was listening to a beautiful blend of four unique talents as opposed to someone just sprinkling fairy dust on each other’s compositions. We were really creating an incredible new sound together.”
One of the unique dynamics inherent in the quartet involves the individual roles played by Ackerman and Blatt’s acoustic guitars. Both have deep melodic sensibilities but Ackerman’s forte is starkness, space and introspection while Blatt’s vibe is driven by rhythm. The ambient track “Free Ascent” offers a perfect example of how they can co-exist on different parts of a track to create different emotional textures. The meditative “And The Sky Was” finds Blatt’s guitar flowing thoughtfully over Fiona’s piano as Oster’s muted trumpet provides harmonic echoes; Ackerman’s strings provide gentle color and his incidental “scrapes” on them are unmistakable.
One of Ackerman’s favorite pieces on the album is the folky, easy loping “Waiting For Sunshine,” which came about spontaneously as the two were doing an hours long photo shoot for the album on a gloomy, rainy day. They were sitting outside and getting very tired from all the waiting around. Blatt started playing a seductive chord pattern, and Ackerman grabbed his guitar and started playing a lead melody. The four built upon those foundations during their subsequent days in the studio.
“All of this was a fascinating learning process,” Blatt says. “When you have two acoustic guitars, you have to find space for both of them to make sure they’re not doing the same thing. When you try fingerpicking melodic lines, it doesn’t work. Will and I had to find a place for us to exist together. On the two songs Will wrote, I switched to nylon string so I wouldn’t collide with him.”
Another compelling feature of FLOW’s music is the way their songs often ease from ambient to rhythmic and back again, a true reflection of life’s mix of frenzied chaos and peaceful transcendence. The opening track “Arrival” opens with Fiona’s gentle melody, which slowly gains momentum and groove as Oster, Ackerman and Blatt join in. It reaches a crescendo and ends in piano/flugelhorn contemplation. “Rumors and Whispers” opens with Oster wafting above a soft atmospheric soundscape before Jeff Haynes’ locomotive percussion kicks in, giving ground to Blatt’s sliding electric guitar. The piece then reverts back into quiet starkness with Ackerman’s ambient guitar, and then, after what Oster calls “Pink Floyd-ish sounds landing on a lotus flower,” it picks up with a four on the floor outro.
Other highlights are the classically tinged “Waters Gather” (featuring the dual hypnosis of Fiona’s ivories and Eugene Friesen’s cello) and the hypnotic elegy “Rest Now My Friend” featuring guest guitarist Mark Schulman, otherworldly Eastern Indian Flavors and Fiona’s gentle choral vocals.
When the surprise success of Ackerman’s independent debut album In Search of the Turtle’s Navel led him to found Windham Hill in the mid-70s, the U.S. was just coming out of the Vietnam War and years of protest that inspired a generation of musical statements and innovations. Because the successful carpenter built the label one step and one artist at a time – starting with his cousin and construction business partner, finger stylist Alex De Grassi – he wasn’t aware that he and the label were contributing to and becoming a catalyst for a whole movement of new age music that was a gentle response, a balm to the anxiety that was part of the Zeitgeist of the era.
Just as Ackerman’s solo work and the bestselling albums by George Winston and others became essential listening and the soundtrack to hundreds of thousands of lives in the late 70s and 80s, FLOW embraces the contemporary equivalent of this aesthetic as a necessary and soothing response/escape to the increasingly frenetic, politically volatile world of the 2010s.
“I know we were putting out some great music in those days,” Ackerman says, “but trying to figure out exactly how and why it became a phenomenon would be pure speculation on my part. In my generation, we had been through political assassination, Vietnam and had seen a lot of ugly things. California guys like me coped with the chaos by getting back to the land, hiking in the Sierras, surfing and being outdoors where we got our inspiration from nature. This was reflected in Windham Hill’s covers featuring trees and landscapes. We weren’t ignoring the urban landscape, but the music was pastoral and meditative. It never came up in my thinking as Windham Hill grew, but I later realized that people who embraced that environment wanted to feel their feelings in quiet places of meditation, and with rare exceptions, no one else was really creating music that was conducive to this.
“But while music connecting to nature was a natural response to violence and chaos, my criteria was always simpler than that big picture,” he adds. “The music I created and musicians I worked with had to connect with me emotionally. My question was always, ‘Does it move me?’ Obviously, I appreciated the mastery of an instrument, but my focus was always that it had depth and something meaningful to say. When I listen to music, the first orientation I seek is ‘Do I believe this person?’ ‘Am I hearing the truth of someone’s heart? If I feel that I am in the presence of someone’s truth, it reaches me in a way that no other element in music does. That was our standard at Windham Hill, and that remains as the most important aspect of the music I compose, record and produce for myself and other artists to this day. And obviously, FLOW is the perfect ‘yes’ response to all of these questions, because with these three friends and accomplished artists, I tap into the breathtaking beauty of realizing that I’m in the presence of the truth.”
Like Fiona and Blatt, Oster didn’t become a full-fledged recording artist under his own name until the mid-2000s, but his historical insights on the need for artists like FLOW in any generation are the perfect complement to those of Ackerman. He says, “Music takes all kinds of forms. It has a purpose – protest songs, love songs, dance songs, angry songs, songs of rebellion, songs of loss and sadness. All of that and more is the expression of various human emotions. What have we created here? Now, in 2017, and in 1975, and 1875 and 1075, there is a peace that music like ours brings. A harkening back to a simpler time, a place of no cares, a close your eyes, breathe deep and relax and dream place.
“When has that not been needed? Certainly, now more than ever, but if you look back into any time of human existence, this need for peaceful breathing and listening has always and will always be deeply important. It’s not only New Age music, it is EVERY AGE music! Timeless in that it speaks to something we all desire. Ease. A deep breath. A smile. Happiness. A bottle of wine, a blanket and some wine and cheese with your love, a quiet night in the darkness listening. That is what this music is, those places are where it lives and belongs. New Age music for ALL ages.”
Like her colleagues, Fiona is excited about the long-range prospects of FLOW and excited about the expansive possibilities of focusing their very successful individual artistic visions and a combined 100+ years of musical experience into one. Beyond the beauty they are creating and the personal and creative fun they are experiencing as a group, the pianist adds, “Music has its own power. It can touch people, give solace, heal…All we can do is offer the music to our audience and hope there is something positive they can take from it. What is given is never the same as what is received. Each listener will take something different. They will take from it what they want and need. Hopefully, they will hear it with the honesty and integrity with which it is given.”
Visit FlowTheGroup.com to pre-order the album.