Roger Ebacher? Port musician, jazz guy with the crazy flute, right? The melody flute, a glorified penny whistle essentially, an instrument that, in the right hands, is capable of producing a glorious, soaring sound — something that Ebacher has been doing since he stumbled across the instrument in a New York pawn shop more than three decades ago? So, yeah, that’s the guy, but it’s just the shorthand: He’s a jazz guy, right, but jazz has never been about one particular thing and neither has Ebacher. His sound, generally, has a southern perspective — think Cuban, Brazilian — but also incorporates Afro-pop and other world music (talk about imprecise labels) influences. And, yes, he still plays the melody flute, he’s probably still best known for it. Which makes sense, because there are so few people who play the instrument. But it’s not even his primary instrument. He started his career as a vocalist and keyboard player. The melody flute is just one of seven Ebacher axes. The point is that his work, to date, is difficult to summarize or categorize. And it doesn’t get any easier with The Air Department, his latest project, an eight-piece duo that ... huh?
An eight-piece duo: There are two people in the band — Ebacher and Denny Pelletier, a former Amesbury percussionist now living in that vast expanse of wilderness known as western Massachusetts, whose history with Ebacher goes back to the 1970s, when they played together in Timestream, a seven-piece jazz band with a punk attitude — a little ahead of its time, perhaps, with one of those familiar backstories about a group that collapses just before getting to the finish line. But in concert the band has way more voices than personnel: Ebacher is surrounded by instruments on stage: congas, computers, keyboards, flutes and gadgets and instruments — like the so-called digital horn — and he plays them all. Not at the same time, of course. The structure of the songs is hardwired, sequenced. The actual, flesh-and-blood musicians perform live over the top of this pre-recorded structure, largely improvising, playing broadly conceived big-tent, all-inclusive jazz. You can see what it’s all about this weekend, when the Air Department rolls out “Frigid Air,” its new album, at a release party at the Actors Studio.
The project grew out of Ebacher’s work with his Quintet, which released two albums (“Flutation Device” in 1998 and “Backyard Carneval” in 2000). He followed that up with “To Dream, To Dance,” a 2004 collection that began with what he calls orphan tunes — stuff that didn’t fit in with whatever thing he had going at the time, or that needed a little something that did not quite make itself obvious or materialize at the time. After going through the material and selecting the tunes for the album, he found a certain cohesion among many of the remaining songs. He tapped Pelletier, who had played on the his last three albums (in addition to performing with vocalists like Cleo Laine, Peggy Lee, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Rondstat) and the Air Department was born.
“Frigid Air” is the band’s first “proper” album — that is to say old-school, physical release, but third album overall. In 2008, the band put out two very different albums as digital-only releases: The eponymous debut, which has a downtempo, ambient feel, which Ebacher calls “film music looking for a film,” and “Air Dance,” which is more exotic, incorporating a wide set of influences and musical pulses that, he says, “have been percolating for a while.” The new album covers a lot of ground, musically: “Chick Thing,” which opens the album, dips its fingers into fusion. “Traffic Stream Dream” is straight-ahead jazz built over a bossa nova beat. “Autumn Air” slows things down. It’s a sweet little ballad with a beautiful, film-score melody. (“I like pretty and I’m not ashamed to say it,” says Ebacher.) ”Lotus Motion,” which they performed live to choreography by Exit Dance Theater last year, has distinct Arabic rhythms and ethereal flutes. But the tunes refuse to sit still, and take off in sudden, unexpected directions.
“It’s really freeing to let to let the music evolve like that,” he says. “The music is all different. It doesn’t really sound like any one person or style. It sounds like us.”
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Air Department will host a record release party for “Frigid Air” at 8 p.m. May 1 at The Actors Studio, Mill #1, Suite 5, the Tannery, 50 Water St. Tickets are $15. Advance tickets are available at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St. For reservations, call 978.465.1229. For more information about the band, check out the band’s MySpace or Ebacher's Rebach site.