Let’s be honest, this is a weird time to make a record. The pandemic has everyone hunkered down and avoiding one another, and the live music scene has slowed nearly to a halt. But there are pockets of energy still to be found, and one of those pockets contains adventurous improvisers like the ones found on this album. People who are dedicated to the music, sure, but also dedicated to the bond between musicians.

“Any time I have an excuse to spend time with any of the people in this band, I will take it,” says trombonist Jeff Albert of the ensemble on the album OMA(H)A. “One of the things I look for in a band is people I want to spend time with. The music part’s important and it’s cool they play good music, but who do I want to hang out with? And these people are definitely the people I want to hang out with.”

That camaraderie flows throughout the music on OMA(H)A, named after the musicians: saxophonist Dan Oestreicher, bassist Jesse Morrow, drummer Mikel Patrick Avery and trombonist Jeff Albert.You’ll hear it in the interplay of the instruments, in the shared energy of improvisation, in the generousness with which the players treat one another in the soundscape. It’s a bond born of long years playing together for Albert, Oestreicher and Morrow, plus the energy of newcomer Avery.

Says Oestreicher: “I like to play specifically with Jeff and Jesse together because I feel that we have a decade-plus shared language developing from doing so many things in so many combinations together. [As for Mikel], every time we’ve hung since he moved to New Orleans has been really easy and fun, so it just seemed to make sense to try to throw that into the mix.”

The music on OMA(H)A is a combination of improvisational vehicles created by Albert and Oestreicher plus completely improvised pieces by the entire quartet. The tracks combine the two writers’ trademark senses of humor and draw on the group’s shared appreciation of the Chicago free jazz scene, from the heyday of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) to the present.

“Dan had mentioned an AACM vibe as we were talking about what to do with [the album],” says Albert. “Alvin Fielder was on my mind. Alvin was very influential for me and a super cool dude. He was very warm and inviting and open to all the young guys. Alvin had this thing where even when he was playing super noisy and out, the stuff was always swinging.” 

Like most ensembles of hard-charging free improvisers, this one came together around a shared love of … often struggling baseball teams.

“Dan and I are both baseball fans,” says Albert. “I follow the Kansas City Royals and Dan is originally from Pittsburgh so he’s a Pirates fan. One of the things we do is commiserate over our teams stinking most of the time. We have those glorious moments in our history, each of us, that we can celebrate, but most of the time they’re not that great. Over the summer, the Royals signed free agent first baseman Carlos Santana, so I texted Dan to say that either the Royals are trying to be good or that Santana’s career is over. That text conversation continued into ‘I miss people and playing music and I would love to see you and hang out and make some music because that would be a lot of fun.’ So we started figuring out ways to do that.”

The album was recorded over two half-day sessions at House of 1000Hz in New Orleans. Goat, the engineer, created a space for the musicians where they could feel safe to improvise in the same room despite the pandemic, and everyone could feel the excitement of making music with other human beings again for the first time in a long time.  

“The recording process was very relaxed,” says Oestreicher. “We did two days at Goat’s studio. Mostly single takes of the songs. It was just good to be in the room with everybody doing it. Playing with Jeff is just really easy. It seems like I play whatever kind of nonsensical bullshit I want to play and Jeff is going to find a way to fit in with that.”

The admiration goes the other way, too. Albert says: “[Dan] will poke at my musical conception in ways that I won’t do. I feel like he brings better things out of me than I get to on my own.”

With titles like “Red Scare,” “9th Ward Trotsky” and “Debs In The Dining Room,” it’s reasonable to ask whether political ideology and activism play a roll in the making of the album. Both Albert and Oestreicher are clear on this topic.

Albert: “I feel like we’ve reached a point where artists have a responsibility to address the world we live in. It drives me crazy that it looks like society is falling apart and as a musician I’m not sure what to do about that other than make music. I feel like all of the music that I make at this point, on some level, is about how do we respect each other’s humanity and try to be just and equitable with each other.”

Oestreicher: “Jazz and politics have always been, in my opinion, inextricably intertwined. The development of jazz was a political statement from the very beginning. And anyone who says that jazz is not political or that their jazz is not political is wrong, and their saying that is a political choice, even if they don’t see it. Choosing not to engage in that way is a political choice. Art is inherently political. Doing something not because it is value-generating in a capitalist sense but because you think it does something for yourself or others outside that system is inherently political and all artists do it.”

Take the New Orleans feeling, add in improvisers steeped in the free improv scene, toss a baseball into the mix and stir in some good old-fashioned lefty thinking. It’s OMA(H)A, and it’s the good kind of vibey.