At its core, the music Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble creates is ecstatic. It's wide-open improvisation with earthy, percussion-fueled grooves. It's funky and weird. It's expansive and arresting. It will always be in the moment and without apology.
From the opening moment of their latest recording Oh No Oh Wow, you hear the band in mid-laughter, which turns out to be a sure sign that the album got it's title for a reason. It's the very best of everything this band has to offer with grinding vintage keyboards, funky drums, exotic percussion and thumping bass. The musical environs that Bellar takes the band through on the new record are many but never are they disparate. "I'm interested in creating the largest palette I can with a small group so I'm bringing as many sonic colors and different grooves to the table as possible," states Bellar.
The AS-IS Ensemble is the musical home of keyboardist/composer/producer Michael Bellar. As a sideman, Bellar has recorded and toured the world with some of the greatest voices in music today - Amos Lee, Art Garfunkel, Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers), Jay Clifford's Rosebud, Jump Little Children, Ryan Montbleau, Wheatus, Howie Day and Euro pop star Giorgia. Oh No Oh Wow features the talents of Bellar's longtime group, which features drummer Brad Wentworth (Melissa Ferrick, Aretha Franklin, Howie Day), bassist Rob Jost (Bjork, Imogen Heap, Tony Scherr), and percussionist Brook Martinez (Brooklyn Qawwali Party, Slavic Soul Party).
Bellar and Wentworth both grew up in North Carolina and went to the same school, but it wasn't until the drummer finally moved to New York City that they played together, and it was at that session that Bellar decided it was time to change up his band to include Wentworth. Wentworth suggested Jost, a bassist he had just met, and the new lineup of the band was formed. Bellar admits, "It's been amazing to be able to keep such great collaborators and improvisers together for such a long time. With musicians such as these, there is always something new being tossed around on stage."
Hailed as "GENERATION NEXT" by Billboard Magazine following their first ever New York City show, Michael Bellar & AS-IS Ensemble are known for their joyous, never-the-same-way-twice live musical experiences. Even if they did use a set list, which they don't, the music and flow of their shows would never be the same. "I love bringing a room full of people along for the ride with us and the greatest shows are always the ones when the band and the crowd become a complete circuit. The most common comment I get from people after shows is, 'It's so obvious you really love what you do!' And I say at this point if I didn't love what I do, I would truly be insane.'"
The songs on Oh No Oh Wow not only exemplify Bellar's small group/large palette concept but also showcase his many strengths as a composer, improviser and producer with a wide range of musical stylings including the super funky "Gadson" (dedicated to the historic soul drummer James Gadson) and "Little Mike D's a Big Boy Now," the hypnotic/bubbling rhythms of the title track "Oh No Oh Wow" and "Yes Please," the soulful gospel of "Biscuit Baby," the Pink Floyd meets Bill Frisell expansiveness of "Girl on a String," and contemporary reworkings of two classic covers: Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" and Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile."
Bellar wrote "Gadson" after getting to play and hang out with the great drummer for a week while he was touring in Amos Lee's band. "Not only is that man as humble as can be, but no one else can play that sixteenth note, slow burn funk like he does," explains Bellar. "This piece is not about trying to sound like him, for me it's celebrating the spirit of James."
"Hot Box Magic" came from the desire to record something for the accordion that was as far away from a typical accordion vibe as they could get. (Hot Box in this case serves as an epithet for the accordion). "When I first wrote the melody, it had an almost Sephardic desert vibe to it and though experimentation in the studio transformed into this fun, strange little pop song. And live, it's seems to have become a real favorite," says Bellar.
The fun and twisted arrangement of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" was actually a collaborative effort by all the members of the group in one short session. "Usually with covers, I like to make it as bare bones as possible, so we can go in any direction at any time live," says Bellar. "But when I started playing 'Three Little Birds' in a rehearsal one day, this arrangement just sort of snowballed and morphed into this really trippy, high-energy vibe which is so much fun to play."
"My life would be a whole lot easier if I could rattle off some cool buzz words that describe this music but on the other hand I'm really glad that I can't. It doesn't fit into any clear genre but I guess that's just a product of who I am as a person and musician - a rock kid who fell in love with improvisation," admits the keyboardist. It's just Bellar - he does things a little different.
About Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble:
For a group that you've never heard of before, Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble have performed at a wide range of diverse festivals and venues across the country including the NYC Winter Jazz Festival, Brooklyn Bowl, Telluride Jazz Festival, the Kennedy Center, SXSW, A Bear's Picnic, Blue Note Jazz Festival NYC, Avery Fischer Hall (for Habitat for Humanity), San Jose Jazz Festival, Evolve Fest, JVC Jazz Festival, Rockwood Music Hall and spent a summer as the house band at the world famous Blue Note jazz club in New York City. The group has also opened for artists diverse as Robert Randolph & the Family Band, John Scofield, Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers), the Everyone Orchestra, Medeski Martin & Wood, Tea Leaf Green, Howie Day, Grant Green Jr. and the Ryan Montbleau Band.
Upcoming Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble Performances:
May 25 / The Colony Cafe / Woodstock, NY
May 31 / Positive Pie / Montpelier, VT
June 1 / Radio Bean / Burlington, VT
June 6-7 / O'Hara and Flynn (solo) / Charleston, SC
* June 10 / The Pourhouse / Raleigh, NC
* June 12 / ISIS / Asheville, NC
June 25 / BB King - Lucille's, Blue Note Jazz Festival / New York, NY
July 6 / BRYAC / Bridgeport, CT
July 12 / The Jazz Estate / Milwaukee, WI
July 13 / The Cabooze / Minneapolis, MN
July 14 / Rockwood Music Hall Stage II / New York, NY
July 28 / Rockwood Music Hall Stage II / New York, NY
August 1 / Telluride Jazz Festival / Telluride, CO
August 2 / Vine Street Brewery / Denver, CO
August 3 / Mountain Sun / Boulder, CO
August 5 / Winstons / San Diego, CA
August 9 / Blackbird Cafe, San Jose Jazz Festival / San Jose, CA
August 11 / Rockwood Music Hall Stage II (w/ special guest Shaun Pelton) / New York, NY
August 25 / Rockwood Music Hall Stage II (w/ special guest Melissa Reaves) / New York, NY
* indicates a Michael Bellar solo performance opening for Carsie Blanton
Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble · Oh No Oh Wow / Left 3 Lanes Music · Release Date: June 24, 2014 / MichaelBellar.com