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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/9/2014)
Last week, we reviewed a CD by Umphrey's McGee, a great jam band who on their new release, turned toward their progressive rock side with more elaborate arrangements. This week we have a group what outwardly might seem like an electric jazz trio, but turn out to be the epitome of a jam band on their new CD. They are Michael Bellar and the As-Is Ensemble, and their new release is called On No Oh Wow.
Michael Bellar is a New York based keyboard man and multi-instrumentalist who has worked frequently as a sideman either recording or accompanying in live performance artists including Amos Lee, Art Garfunkel, Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers and Ryan Montbleau. He also works as a producer and operates a studio. He has performed on his own for a number of years, including some recent solo performances, but the As-Is Ensemble has been going since the late 1990s. The band's first release came in 1998, and the group has been releasing recordings roughly every five years. Oh No Oh Wow is their fourth release and probably the first to get some national promotion. The group is an instrumental trio with Bellar on a bunch of vintage keyboards like Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, plus some accordion and mandolin at times. The As-Is Ensemble also includes bass player Rob Jost, who performed backing up Bjork and is the house bass player for the Sesame Street Public TV series. The drummer is Brad Wentworth, who had a stint with Aretha Franklin, among others.
Although the As-Is Ensemble is very much into improvisation, they start with often tricky compositions with quirky but funky rhythms. The general point of origin for a lot of the musical influences on the album is soul and funk.
Bellar specializes in vintage keyboards such as the Hammond B3 organ and the two electric piano models that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s in everything from soul music to jazz-rock fusion. But Bellar also plays some acoustic piano on the album, though generally as a texture element, rather than basis for the group's sound.
The new CD features mostly original tunes, based on a rhythmic grooves, but there are two creative cover versions -- the group's take on tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
But the CD opens with its title track, Oh No Oh Wow, which rather epitomizes the sound of the band with its quirky rhythm and mixture of acoustic piano and vintage Wurlitzer electric piano. Though five-minutes long on the CD, one could easily imagine this appealing tune turning into an extended jam in performance. <<>>
A different aspect of the group comes out on Biscuit Baby, which is a slow Gospel-influenced waltz. Bellar gives it his best African-American Gospel organ treatment. <<>>
One of the longer tracks that is allowed to build into an improvisational jam on the album is Little Mike D's a Big Boy Now. It's taken at an easy tempo by it still has a great laid-back groove. <<>>
There is a tune dedicated to the influential soul drummer James Gadson. It's simply called Gadson, and it gets into the quirky but funky rhythms that seem to be a trademark for the As-Is Ensemble. <<>>
Bellar gets out his accordion for a piece called Hot Box Magic which can sound vaguely tropical at times. <<>>
One of the covers is Bob Marley's Three Little Birds which they completely rework rhythmically, replacing the reggae beat with a kind of a fast jazzy-funky groove. It works out well. <<>>
If there is one tune on the album that goes off in a different direction it's Go Long Gaudi. With its minor-key, almost plaintive sound, the group makes it simultaneously atmospheric and with an interesting beat that hints at Latin sounds. For me it's one of the highlights of the album. <<>>
The band does go out for a Latin beat on another of its best tracks, called Yes Please. It's about as close to more conventional jazz as this album gets. <<>
If there is one major jam on the album, it's the As Is Ensemble's treatment of Jimi Hendrix' Voodoo Chile. Bellar plays his vintage Wurlitzer piano and clavinet occasionally using an effects box like Hendrix. <<>>
Michael Bellar and the As-Is Ensemble on their new fourth album Oh No Oh Wow is a first-rate jam band based not on guitars but on the multiple vintage keyboards of Bellar. Though the instrumental group could easily be a conventional jazz trio, like the similarly instrumented Medeski, Martin and Wood, The As-Is Ensemble definitely has more of a rock texture. But at the same time, a number of the compositions are interesting enough to work with a jazz group. The trio's bio makes reference to the improvisational nature of their performances, rarely even using a set-list, and setting out to make it different each time, just like a good jam band. The quality of the musicianship is first-rate and despite the somewhat sophisticated nature of some of the compositions, the music is quite approachable for those who might not be into straight jazz.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B plus. The mix balance is just right, but the overall sound is a bit on the dull side, lacking a little high-end brilliance. The dynamic range is also rather restricted by the typical mindless volume compression that afflicts far too many CDs.
While some of the better known jam bands are turning toward more studio-oriented and arranged recordings, it's nice to have an impressive jam-oriented album by a first-rate group that keeps things interesting without the use of guitars.
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