Put Ann Arbor in the headline and this writer is immediately interested, having received a degree from the city’s most famous school and hosting a wonderful jazz radio show during my tenure there. Yet, of course, this is not about yours truly but about the long-running Lunar Octet who return after a 26-year hiatus, offering a potent collection of originals inspired by such wide-ranging influences as mambo, samba, funk, Afrobeat and jazz on Convergence. The title itself suggests a confluence of rhythms and styles, and that is precisely what this band of multi-directional musicians has been doing since meeting 36 years ago in Ann Arbor and subsequently recording their 1994 debut, Highway Fun for Schoolkids Records.
Percussionist and co-founding member Aron Kaufman, called “the soul of the band” by his colleagues, says, “… we’re bringing some light to the darkness.” From the percolating salsa groove of the infectious opener, “Norm’s Nambo,” to the swinging big band flavored chart, “Toote Suite,” the Brazilian music, percussive-centric “Mambossa,” the rhythmically charged “Subway Tension”, and the entrancing Afrobeat numbers “Dancin’ in the Doghouse” and “Heart of Congatar,” the Lunar Octet presents an intriguing world smorgasborg of sound. Add the Latin strains of the churning “Samba Diabolico,” the buoyantly swinging “Crusin’” (think Neal Hefti arrangements for the mid ‘50s Count Basie band), the alluring tango “Until I Find Words” (a clarinet feature), the wistful floating, piano showcase “Elephants,” and the rollicking, Brazilian flavored batucada “Samba Over Easy” (reminiscent of Airto Moreira’s “Tombo in 7/4”), and you’ve got an enticing multi-cultural menu. There are even three other selections not mentioned in that long litany.
Originally formed in 1984 as the Afrobeat flavored Lunar Glee Club, the group morphed into the Lunar Octet in the ‘90s and began taking on the influences of samba and jazz through the compositions and arranging of alto saxophonist and principal composer Steve Hiltner. The New York City-born Kaufman absorbed music in the bustling city (represented by his tune “Subway Tension”) before his family moved to Puerto Rico. Through his mentor Norman Shobey (Aron’s tune “Norm’s Nambo” is dedicated to Norm), Kaufman began studying conga and later widened his repertoire with a year abroad in Israel, where he soaked up Middle Eastern music and began playing the darbuka drum. Other founding members of the band include drummer Jon Krosnick (who also anchors the West Coast-based fusion band Charged Particles), tenor saxophonist Paul VornHagen (who also leads the Cuban jazz combo Tumbao Bravo), trumpeter Brandon Cooper (an in-demand freelancer in the Metro Detroit area) and guitarist Sam Clark. Rounding out the Lunar Octet are young pianist Keaton Royer, bassist Jeff Dalton, and percussionist Olman Piedra.
Regarding the group’s long hiatus, the recent return stems from a reunion in 2014 with a performance at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. Krosnick explained that the band’s initial Afrobeat influence came in large part from original bassist Dan Ladizinsky, who names King Sunny Ade as a primary influence. It’s unusual to hear so many world strains and influences in one group but they do seem reinvigorated.
Fondness for Ann Arbor aside, this is a stirring, veritable feast of cultural delights. Serve yourself.
- Jim Hynes