One Alternative – Air Sculpture (2011)

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One Alternative again bursts through convention with Air Sculpture, moving well outside the bounds of typical acoustic ensembles by incorporating not just classical music forms but also the boisterous attitude of roots rock and the improvisational intrigue of jazz. Importantly, One Alternative (featuring Jill Haley on oboe and English horn and guitarists Mark Oppenlander and David Bozenhard) also avoids the faceless new-age clichés that typically follow similar bands, as well.

In fact, they hit the ground running – and running fast: Air Sculpture, the band’s seventh album, begins with a fleet moment of interplay on “Sweetness-n-Light,” as drummer Tony Deangelis propels the track from one thrilling, well-conceived solo to the next. The Oppenlander original finds Haley working in direct and interesting counterpoint, playing with a sinuous romanticism even as the band creates a small ruckus around her. It won’t be the last time.

There’s a smooth, ruminative joy to Haley’s original “Joyful Arrival,” which features Risa Cullen on viola. Haley performs with a breezy melancholy amidst an insistent guitar signature, before Cullen joins the proceedings, adding darker, oaken shadings. “Graham Jam,” one part hootenanny, another part bebop, provides another example of the learned approach and easy rapport that comes with working together for nearly three decades. The track moves with a confident purpose through these many seemingly ill-fitting permutations, sounding so natural that the very inventiveness of the concept ends up taking a backseat to the winsome performances. “Spot On,” a second consecutive original from Oppenlander, continues experimenting with the same amalgam of textures – while adding a grease-dripping blues tinge.

Haley then downshifts into “Blue Heron Flight,” a hushed moment of gentle improvisation that mimics not so much the abrupt flapping of wings but a drifting flight kept afloat by a warm summer wind. She follows that with “Layers,” a trickling folk-tinged number that’s marked by these trance-like long notes.

Later, Oppenlander’s “Consider The Source” allows Haley to move into a more angular improvisation, illustrating her command of jazz inflections. “Adrift” pulls in close for a lively guitar duet between Oppenlander and Bozenhard, a member of One Alternative’s lineup since 2003. When Haley rejoins, it’s to provide a smooth then billowing classically inspired context – adding just the right amount of friction within the composition. The tune also includes a guest turn on French horn by Risa’s sister Dana Cullen. (The Cullens are Haley’s daughters.)

The album includes a pair of covers, each intriguing in its own way: First, there’s “Birdland,” composed by Joe Zawinul and Jon Hendricks – perhaps Air Sculpture’s most overt nod to the band’s jazz influences. Bozenhard and Oppelander brilliantly reimagine the song, adding a rustic Americana vibe. Haley, meanwhile, plays in a cascading style that edges toward free jazz. Finally, there’s an interesting take on Frank Zappa’s “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” appropriate since the album’s title is a term coined by Zappa. In One Alternative’s hands, it begins as a finger-popping vehicle before their lightly swinging improvisations are joined by an appropriately dissonant scronk or two. (We are talking Frank Zappa here, right?) Both of the cover tunes were arranged by Oppenlander, who served as producer for Air Sculpture.

Bonus tracks on the initial CD include “Lost and Found,” one of two live songs – along with the subsequent “You’ve Had Enough Air” – that feature bassist Cooke Harvey. A special documentary makes up the bulk of Air Sculpture’s second disc, as Erik Freeland of Springhouse Films helped Oppenlander fashion a scrapbook of photographs and letters into an interesting documentary on the band’s evolution since its founding in the late 1970s. Disc 2 also includes a pair of live performances by the band: One from last May, featuring the current quintet lineup; and another from June 1997 that finds Haley and Oppenlander joined by Len Doyle, Peter Devine and an early performance by Haley’s three children, Graham, Risa and Dana.

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