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Lunar Octet Re-Emerges with First Album in 26 Years

Ann Arbor Ensemble blends Latin jazz, Afrobeat, samba and funk on Convergence
A decades-long institution in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, and also the nearby Metro Detroit area, the Lunar Octet is back with 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 recording, Highway Fun for Schoolkids Records. Reuniting in the studio 25 years later, the members of the Lunar Octet documented their collective growth while remaining committed to their original mission on Convergence, scheduled for a (?) release on Summit Records.
From the percolating salsa groove of the infectious opener, “Norm’s Nambo,” to the swinging big band flavored chart, “Toote Suite,” the Brazilian music influenced “Mambossa,” the rhythmically charged “Subway Tension” and the entrancing Afrobeat numbers, “Dancin’ in the Doghouse” and “Heart of Congatar,” Lunar Octet presents a compelling world view of sound. Add the churning “Samba Diabolico,” the buoyantly swinging “Cruisin’” (think Neal Hefti arrangements for the mid ‘50s Count Basie band), the alluring tango “Until I Find the Words” (a clarinet feature for Hiltner) and the rollicking, Brazilian flavored batacuda number “Samba Over Easy” (reminiscent of Airto Moreira’s “Tombo in 7/4”) and you’ve got a veritable United Nations of sound that you can also dance to.
“I see the Lunar Octet as a bit of a diamond,” said percussionist and fellow founding member Aron Kaufman, called “the soul of the band” by his colleagues. “We’re all different facets of the diamond expressing the singularity of our musical mission. And it’s not about our technique in terms of us being monster chops players who want to show off how amazing we are. Really, it’s the sum of the parts that actually brings hope and joy and love to people that come and see us. And I believe with all my heart and soul that as artists, if we can lift people’s spirits by really showing a love and celebration of these different world musical cultures that we bring to life in our particular special way, then we’re bringing some light to the darkness.”
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 Big Apple (represented on his tune “Subway Tension”) before his family moved to Puerto Rico. Through his mentor Norman Shobey (his tune “Norm’s Nambo” is dedicated to him), Kaufman began studying conga and later widened his repertoire with a year abroad in Israel, where he soaked up Middle Eastern music. In addition to Kaufman and Hiltner, 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 piano sensation Keaton Royer, bassist Jeff Dalton and percussionist Olman Piedra.
Regarding the group’s long hiatus and recent return with Convergence, Krosnick said, “The early ‘90s was the peak time for the band, when we were on national radio broadcasts and that kind of thing. And then people moved away. I took a job teaching at Ohio State, Steve Hiltner moved to North Carolina, others in the band moved out of town. So there were definitely transitions. But we kind of rediscovered ourselves five years ago and said, “Hey, this music’s cool, let’s keep doing this.” That reunion came in 2014 for a performance at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. And regular performances have followed ever since. “It’s been fun to come back with live shows,” said Krosnick. “And now with the release of Convergence, we’re feeling like we can create some buzz about the band and maybe open up some touring opportunities.”
Krosnick explained that the band’s initial Afrobeat influence came in large part from original bassist Dan Ladizinsky, who named King Sunny Ade as a primary influence. As Jon recalled, “It literally was a garage band in the beginning. Guys were getting together in my garage and just trying to groove. The more intricate compositions only kicked in years later when Steve Hiltner started composing. He brought in some of the more highly orchestrated stuff that’s full of complexities and twists and surprises and unexpected bridges. But it was quite the opposite in the beginning. The original version of the band had no piano player and two bass players and a guitar player, so there was a deep African groove thing that was happening there, almost like a jam band.”
“The band started as a composers’ workshop,” added Hiltner, “but I mixed things up for the faction of the group that loved just the straight-ahead grooves and simple melodic stuff,” said Hiltner. “Never having composed before, I started bring in material that were more than just stock 32 bar tunes that sounded like they should be in the Real Book. I bring a classical element to the band in the motivic development in my compositions, which you can hear on ‘Samba Diabolico,’ for instance.” Of the seemingly disparate musical elements coming together on Convergence, Hiltner, a trained botanist added: “Nature is just miraculous in the way it breaks everything down into constituent parts and then builds something new. And I think of the creative process like that. It’s like composting. It’s bringing all of these different elements together and then something new grows out of it.”
After a long hiatus from recording, Kaufman is thrilled about the release of the Lunar Octet’s Convergence.  “It shows the longevity of our friendships and music all intertwined,” he said. “The  music on this album is an expression of our friendships. What we’re doing reflects years and years of building up trust and relationship.” He added, “We’re  always open to new possibilities. That’s what’s great about the Lunar Octet. Somebody brings an idea to the table with musical integrity and we collectively bring it to life. That’s what makes our music exciting and varied. And we always support each other. That kind of openness of sharing is an important part of the band. All of the different musical influences that we each bring to the table help form a nice balance.”

 Hence, the title of the Lunar Octet’s latest and long-overdue offering, Convergence.
Track by Track Comments on Convergence:
“Norm’s Nambo” — Said composer Kaufman: “This tune is for Norman Shobey, who was one of my great inspirations when I first started to play congas. He was one of my first teachers. He played in Joy on Broadway in 1970 and he also played with the Fifth Dimension for a little while back in the ‘60s. The guy was an incredibly creative conga player. He combined rhythms — merengue, guaguanco and the mambo — and he would teach us these things. It was an unorthodox approach but that kind of freed me up to develop my own sound on congas. And when I composed ‘Norma’s Nambo,’ it was more of a fresh approach that I was not really worried about genre or if I was playing it correctly in a salsa vein or authentic Afro-Cuban style. I think it’s good to challenge yourself to make music, even if it’s not going to fit in some particular genre specifically.  I wasn’t all that worried about that when I wrote this tune. I was mostly concerned about giving respect to Norman Shobey. That was my way of honoring him.”
“Toote Sweet” — “This tune has a kind of a big band vibe,” said Hiltner. “And it really brings out Brandon Cooper’s plunger playing, which I was happy that there was a place for that on this record. Again, it’s more complex and intricate than some of the other pieces on the album, which reflects both my jazz and classical background.”
“Oye/Subway Tension” — “Growing up in New York City, I got exposed to so much street music,” said Kaufman. “This idea of just going out and expressing your soul through your instrument, whether it was in Central Park or on the subway is part of my upbringing. This tune was actually written back in 1984. We had a version that we recorded at the time with the Lunar Glee Club, which was a predecessor of Lunar Octet. But it really comes out of my experience growing up in New York City in the 1970s. It was really an exciting place to be at the time, but also dangerous. Riding the subways you had to monitor the scene and make sure that you felt safe and make sure that you were ready to exit quickly if you felt like you were in an  uncomfortable situation. So ‘Subway Tension’ comes out of that bag where I felt an this incredible tension going into the subway. And to me it’s a kind of lyrical voyage about traveling in the subway. And those breaks that you hear in the song where the groove stops and there’s like space for a solo, those are actually supposed to represent the subway stops before the train picks up again. So it’s a metaphorical, lyrical picture of a subway ride back in the ‘70s.”
“Mambossa” — “In this tune one feel flows into another,” said Hiltner. “My favorite part of the composition is where Aron speaks to the audience through his congas, telling a story that draws people in until they are hanging on a whisper. Unlike a 32 bar tune that circles back around on itself, ‘Mambossa’ is more of an adventure that takes the audience to unexpected places that are new and yet thematically related to what came before. An opening upbeat melody returns in darker form under a misterioso montuno, which in turn morphs into a driving solo section before giving way to Aron’s conga soliloquy. The montuno returns for a powerful timbale solo and what promises to be a celebratory ending, but the misterioso montuno has the last word, fading into the distance.”
“Flugel Tune” — “This tune became a feature for the beautiful tone of Brandon’s flugelhorn, with saxes lending tight harmonies underneath,” said Hiltner. “It came out of experiments on piano with what sorts of sounds three notes in the right hand — the horn section — could make above one note in the left hand — the bass. Funk turns to swing and then back again.”
“Dancin’ in the Doghouse” — “Dan Ladizinsky and I were in the studio working on new material for the band,” said Kaufman. “We started at 1:00 in the morning and once we got going and sharing ideas we were there for hours and hours, until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. After he called his wife, we knew we’d both be in the doghouse bigtime. And that’s why I call that one, ‘Dancing in the Doghouse.’ It’s another danceable Afrobeat/King Sunny Ade flavored tune.”
“Elephants” — “That one is Paul VornHagen’s,” said Kaufman. “Paul has got his own Afro Cuban ensemble called Tumbao Bravo. I played ‘Elephants’ in his band. But I really love this version that we do here. It’s very African influenced but again Paul brings in the jazz element with his soprano sax solo.”
“Samba Diabolico” —  “There’s a classical element of developing a theme here, which I didn’t consciously try to do,” said Hiltner. “But it starts out with trumpet, and then that comes back in a primitive motif that Jon solos over. The motive comes in different colors and settings. I think that’s something I brought to the band, that kind of motivic development within a composition.”
“Cruisin’” — This one comes out of my jazz-swing background,” said Hiltner. “It’s one of my 32-bar tunes that feels like it should be in the Real Book. I think it has a kind of a classic jazz feel to it, which comes out of my early experience in the II-V-I Orchestra playing these swinging charts by Frank Foster and Tadd Dameron.”
“Heart of Congatar” — “I listened to a lot of Fela Kuti in college and I saw Fela live,” said Kaufman. “Dan Ladizinsky, who was the visionary that started the Lunar Glee Club, had the concept of combining horns with drums and guitars in this sort of King Sunny Ade-inspired kind of concept. And this particular song comes out of that experience. It has a certain rhythmic feel that was definitely inspired by the whole Afro-pop bag but it’s also got a jazz element because we’ve got Paul VornHagen improvising like crazy on soprano here. There’s something that I feel is so powerful and life affirming about the Afro-pop groove. I like composing music that moves and that makes people want to dance, which I love, especially coming from my background of playing conga for African dance class back in the day. So that rhythmic thing has always been a prime thing for me in composing tunes.”
“Until I Find Words” — “My wife grew up in Argentina so I’ve soaked up some tango influence that way,” said Hiltner, who composed the tune five years ago in his current residence of Princeton, New Jersey. “I think originally it had more of a tango vibe when I wrote it on piano but it became more of a bolero through the prism of the band. So purists might say, ‘Well, that’s not a tango,’ or ‘That’s not really a bolero.’ But it’s just a classic example of the kind of mixing that the band does.”
“Olduvai Gorge” — “That is also one of the very first tunes that we did, so it gives you the feel for the old band,” said Krosnick. “It was our first hit,” added Hiltner. “It was written by Dave Mason, who was the band’s original percussionist. That was our real biggie back in the early days. It has such a raw, powerful melody and I came up with a reconceptualization of it that incorporates more sophisticated harmonies and so forth. And it went through an evolution in terms of feel. I’m happy with it and Dave said he loves it, so we’re good.”
“Samba Over Easy” — “I wrote this tune and ‘Samba Over Easy” shortly after my father died in 1991,” Hiltner explained. “I think it was a reaction to his passing. And it’s only through the marination or the absorption of music from the band over the previous years that I was able to express myself that way.” Kaufman added,  This one starts gently and eventually explodes into a full-blown batucada: an African-influenced percussion jam that features extended solos by the drums, the congas, and tamborim, with fire blazing behind all of it. It’s an exciting way to end the album.”
 Lunar Octet | ConvergenceSummit Records | Release Date: May 7, 2021 For more information on Summit Records, please visit: | Facebook | Twitter