For many musicians, there comes a time when being a successful sideman isn't enough and a true artist with a unique voice emerges to take his rightful place in the spotlight. As co-composer and co-producer of labelmate Craig Chaquico's three hit instrumental releases, veteran keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers has played a huge role in the acoustic guitarist's extraordinary success story. The instantly identifiable backbone of the rhythmic and spiritual, Grammy-nominated Chaquico sound, Ahlers' bright, melodic blend of rock, soul and blues influences comes full circle on "Fingerpainting," his long anticipated Higher Octave Music debut. All at once comfortably familiar and daringly adventurous, "Fingerpainting" is an upbeat, joyous musical travelogue chronicling the many diverse stylistic roads which have led Ahlers to the brink of instrumental stardom in his own right.
"Up until now, I've been content and comfortable playing supporting roles where you get a momentary rush of glory doing a great solo, but the real responsibility lies with the artist you're working for," says Ahlers, whose nearly three decade resum boasts stints with Van Morrison, Jesse Colin Young, Clarence Clemons and Jerry Garcia. "But over the course of doing the albums with Craig, I realized that I had a surplus of strong material whose melodies were more appropriate for a lead keyboard than guitar. All the tunes on "Fingerpainting" were in my heart but never taken to completion, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to express these outside ideas in a different setting."
One of the most notable surprises on the album is the fact that instead of Chaquico, Ahlers went with popular guitarist Peter White for subtle harmonic shading on several tunes. "Though our chemistry has been amazing, I felt it was important that I establish my own identity apart from Craig. If you listen straight through, you can tell that I'm always very upbeat, action packed and set on avoiding any down time or serious contemplative passages. Craig's style has a moody texture throughout, but I'm more taken by rhythmic structures. Getting to the hook quickly, my own songs are pure, lighthearted pop, paying homage to all my influences."
That means a lot of ground to cover, because growing up in Summit, New Jersey, Ahlers dreamed of rock stardom while emulating the likes of everyone from soulful rockers Booker T and Little Richard to Ray Charles and great jazz pianists Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. Rock and roll took precedence over his formal education in high school and he ultimately left Cornell University to form the band, Glory River, which was signed to Jimi Hendrix's label just before the legend's demise. Following that, Ahlers opted for the studio and road life, first with Van Morrison, then famed balladeer Jesse Colin Young and later, The Jerry Garcia Band. At one point, Ahlers was offered the keyboard spot in the Grateful Dead, but turned it down.
The next few years found the keyboardist honing his composing chops, writing everything from songs with Michael McDonald to scores for TV movies and documentaries, including "Northern Lights," which won a Cannes Film Festival Award in 1980. Settling in Marin County, Ahlers recorded and toured with local heroes Greg Kihn and Clarence Clemons (and other assorted bands) while playing with his own rock-reggae group The Edge. "We had some hit albums in Northern California," he recalls, "and were always being touted as the Bay Area's next big thing. But big time stardom proved elusive."
Though Ahlers had known Chaquico casually for over ten years, the two first paired up creatively in 1991, when Ahlers wrote and produced songs featured in the "Gumby Movie." "Our chemistry was easy to see, and it seemed to have its own propellant," says Ahlers. "He had left Starship and was trying to launch a new hard rock band, but somehow, the work we did together seemed more appropriate without a singer. Which was unusual for two guys bred on rock and roll."
Ahlers' wife, Vicki (the soaring, romantic 'Victoria's Song' is a tribute to her), convinced him to go the instrumental route, and after Chaquico's "Acoustic Highway," "Acoustic Planet" and last year's "A Thousand Pictures" met with both critical and commercial success, a solo album seemed the next logical step.
Ahlers gracefully accepts his lead role throughout the nine tracks of "Fingerpainting," but chooses his supporting players extremely effectively. Over the aggressive, playful grooves of the title track, he engages in a crisp, breezy conversation with Peter White's cool steel strings, while the two ease into the dark edges of evening on the haunting nightcap, 'Love's Embrace.' Ahlers pays tribute to the blues with a confident stroll down 'Bourbon Street,' his own mid-tempo rock riffs complemented by the wily slide guitar of Jimmy Dillon (whose last pure blues album Ahlers produced). The lighter side of the blues also prevails on the improvisational interlude 'Prelude To Love' and the edgy attitudes of 'City Strut.' Kevin Palladini's soulful tenor sax energy does a non-stop dance with Ahlers on the celebratory jam, 'Night On The Town,' while Darius Russo's alto winds through the retro vibe of 'Dance 'Til Dawn,' which combines shuffling hip-hop with a bluesy organ melody. Derrick Brave Elk's shaku flute is a splashy surprise on the vibrant, exotic road song, 'Morningstar,' which closes the set.
"Even my rock buddies who were skeptical of me playing instrumental music have come to respect what I'm doing now," says Ahlers. "My main goal is to make people feel good about listening to my songs. I want them to say, 'Wow, cool music.' I'm finding that in many ways, this is more creative and challenging than playing rock and roll, because I take every idea to the end myself, without the help of a vocalist. Letting my fingers do the painting, I'm simply aiming to create my own vibe. After 25 years of practicing for this moment, I hope that it strikes the right chord with listeners."
With an endless well of passionate melodic and rhythmic ideas flowing freely, it's clear that with "Fingerpainting," Ozzie Ahlers is at last primed to emerge from the cozy shadows and share the greater glories of his gift with an appreciative world.