Rising New Age Star
Jeff Oster Brings His Music to the People
Warm flugelhorn sustains fill the concert space at Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works, creating a gentle, meditative mood. The atmospheric textures of pedal steel guitar, keyboards and hand percussion, along with prerecorded wordless vocals, soft-rock drum patterns and various ambient sounds, enhance the horn’s simple, serene melodies. A financial consultant by profession and a rising star of New Age music on the side, Jeff Oster holds his horn in a horizontal position as he blows and uses a foot pedal to make loops that allow him to echo phrases he’d played a second or so earlier. When he smears a note over the swells and sound warps undulating beneath him, his shoulders tilt back and the flugelhorn points upward.
Born 51 years ago in Danville, Ill., Oster is the first horn player to find success in New Age music since trumpeter Mark Isham, who recorded for the Palo Alto–based Windham Hill label in the mid-1980s before focusing on motion picture soundtracks. The Windham Hill sound is mainly associated with pianist George Winston and acoustic guitarists such as Alex DeGrassi and Windham Hill founder Will Ackerman.
In his spare time, Oster had for many years played along with Ackerman’s solo guitar records. Five years ago, in the basement of his Alameda home, Oster found something new to play along with. He downloaded sounds from the Internet and used them as a springboard for his improvisations.
“I started creating different loops, and I would put the 29-cent microphone that came with the computer on the other side of the room and make up horn parts,” says Oster, who alternates between flugelhorn and its better-known cousin, the trumpet. “I would put a little reverb on the horn to make it sound like it was in some studio. Then I started uploading it to mp3.com.”
Oster knew he was onto something when his music had gotten some 40,000 streams and downloads on mp3.com in two months. He e-mailed Ackerman saying he was looking for a producer. Ackerman responded in five minutes. The two began working at the guitarist’s studio in Windham County, Vt., which, it turned out, was only an hour’s drive north of a cabin owned by Oster. They’ve recorded one EP and two full-length CDs, all issued on Oster’s own Retso label. The current CD, True, which was picked up for national distribution by Fontana, a division of Universal Music, has sold 30,000 copies since its release in August 2007. “Saturn Calling,” the disc’s lead track, opens with the eerie wind-like sounds of Saturn’s auroras that were captured by the Cassini spacecraft and downloaded by Oster from the Internet. This July he performed the song at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena during a ceremony celebrating the completion of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.
Oster, whose opinions on annuities have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, is a registered principal in the Florida-based brokerage firm Raymond James Financial Services and manager of its Alameda branch. He never finished college, having dropped out of the University of Florida a year short of graduation.
“I decided to go to L.A. to be the next Herb Alpert,” Oster explains.
It would be a couple years, however, before he landed a playing gig, with a Nevada lounge band. In the interim, he drove a limo. He’d been making demo tapes of pop and country songs he’d written, and he played them for some of his famous passengers, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys, among them.
When Oster played one for Mel Tillis, the country singer told him, “Son, I don’t believe that one’s gonna make it.” Later, after a few beers at Tanya Tucker’s house, Tillis was even more blunt. “Son,” he said, “you know that song you played earlier? It’s the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Tillis did, however, take a liking to another Oster composition, had a professional demo made of it, and helped him set up his own song publishing company. Oster was now officially in the music business, though it would take more than two decades before he finally found his calling in New Age music.
Even though the New Age audience has declined drastically since the music’s peak of popularity in the 1980s, Oster isn’t complaining. “If anything,” he says, “they probably are the most monied audience today in comparison to a variety of other younger genres. Part of why I think I’ve had the degree of success I’ve had is because I’m a pretty good marketer. I built my financial career on direct mail, and music today is nothing other than direct marketing using the Internet. You don’t have to be a prisoner to the major labels anymore to be able to get your music out for people to hear.”
—By Lee Hildebrand
—Photography by Craig Merrill