Echoes May CD of the Month: Oster, Downes and Eaton

by John Diliberto 4/29/2024

Tom Eaton-Vin Downes-Jeff Oster (Linderpix)

Improvising in an ambient space is something that doesn’t happen so often, especially if you intend on staying in that space and not, say, dropping in Black Sabbath power chords or John Coltrane sheets of saxophone sound. Miles Davis did it with “He Loved Him Madly.” Brian Eno accomplished it on Small Craft on a Milk Sea with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins. Now a trio of musicians consisting of trumpeter Jeff Oster, guitarist Vin Downes and multi-instrumentalist and sound designer Tom Eaton have done it with their debut album, Seven Conversations.

But to call it a debut sounds like they are newbies and they are definitely not. Jeff Oster is a veteran trumpeter with several solo album (including a couple of CD of the Month picks) as well as tons of session work. He’s also the “O” in the group FLOW with guitarist Will Ackerman, who is the “W.” Tom Eaton has worked extensively as an engineer/producer and utility sideman with Will Ackerman as well as producing several solo albums ranging from ambient synths to solo piano and more. Vin Downes is a Will Ackerman disciple, has worked as his guitar tech and has several solo albums of acoustic guitar. Oster and Eaton also perform with Will Ackerman on the Brothers album.

Will Ackerman is the connecting point in this group, but you won’t find that in the music. They actually got together while touring with FLOW and at one point were calling themselves Departure, a name they made up on the fly while performing a spontaneous live set on Echoes. That performance has since been issued for streaming at echoes.org and Bandcamp. Since that 2017 Echoes performance, I’ve been pushing them to release an album. And they finally have.

Seven Conversations is exactly that: Three musicians, in a room, playing live with only a key-signature and occasional loop or ambience from Eaton. Flying without a map, they have converged on an ambient space that is immersive and enveloping.

Jeff Oster, Vin Downes, Tom Eaton - Seven ConversationsThe album opener, “Hushed” led me to think instantly of the title track from Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way. It doesn’t have that haunting Joe Zawinul melody, but it does have that deep sense of contemplation with Oster blowing long legato lines over Downes’s wistful guitar lines. It is the perfect track to set the mood of this album.

Vin Downes, who usually doesn’t play electric guitar, crafts some of the most memorable lines on the album. On “A Reckoning,” his otherworldly guitar sound might remind you of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” As the track evolves, Downes outlines a reverb-drenched melody, surrounded by Eaton’s descending synth echoes, and then Eaton brings in acoustic piano, all topped by Oster, playing spare muted trumpet licks, never resolving into a melody because it doesn’t have to. Downes’s fingerprints are also on “Subliminal.” The piece is centered on a folkish finger-style pattern that has that early 60s sound of a Fender Telecaster in reverb. Director David Lynch, who “broke” “Wicked Game” when he used it in his film Wild at Heart, might want to look here for his next film score.

While the album is improvised, and pieces often started with nothing but a key signature, there are a few tracks that employ loops. Among them is “Words Overheard” which begins with a looped synth pattern and vibraphone accents. The atmosphere slowly grows more complex and layered as synth pads are added, along with alien, but not discordant, electronic space sounds. Downes strokes shimmering chords that echo through the track until they are joined by Oster’s trumpet. He blows long legato notes that seem to quicken as the piece accelerates. Oster is the primary feature on “Her Wisdom.” His muted trumpet is like a distant horn, heard from around the corner of a film noir city scene.

Listening to Seven Conversations got me thinking about the recent André 3000 album, New Blue Sun and his performance I witnessed at Big Ears Festival. His music is totally improvised as well, but there isn’t the feeling of cohesion and complimentary playing I hear with Oster-Downes-Eaton. Where André 3000 fragments, this trio unifies. You can hear it on tracks like “A Confession” where Downes creates a gentle arpeggiated pattern and suddenly Eaton emerges right next to him with a piano accompaniment that fits perfectly, as both leave space for Oster to drape his echoing trumpet.

The last piece on the album, “Hours Slip By,” is also the longest, giving an indication of the longer improvisations from which all these tracks were excerpted. It has a beautiful ebb and flow as free-floating pace turns into a liquid synthesizer loop, which then disappears into the chirping of crickets, volume-swell guitar, and yearning trumpet, wandering in this forest of ambience.

Hours slipping by is what will happen to you with this debut album from Jeff Oster, Vin Downes and Tom Eaton. To be able to create a space, stay within it, and make it something you don’t want to leave is a true art. This is ambient music at a high musicianship level.

Hear Oster-Downes-Eaton as Departure live on Echoes
Hear Jeff Oster 2003 Echoes Interview 
Hear Vin Downes live on Echoes 2023
Hear Jeff Oster, Tom Eaton, Will Ackerman “Brothers” Interview

  4 comments for “Echoes May CD of the Month: Oster, Downes and Eaton

  1. Thank you for sharing our music! We hope your listeners enjoy hearing it as much as we enjoyed creating it.

  2. Thank you for the enthusiastic support of our new album! We are so excited to share this music with everyone.
    ~ Vin

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