For many Eastern religions and herds of yoga yuppies, the word "Om" is the mantra for meditative experience. For San Francisco-based OM Trio, however, the term means hard rock and boundless jazz improv-as well as a lot of time in a van.
Recently crowned San Francisco's "Best Local Jazz Band," OM Trio continues their musical evolution with a 150-dates-per-year touring schedule, including an upcoming performance in San Diego at Victor's on the Bay.
"I actually consider the life of the band before we started touring and after we started touring," says the Trio's pianist, Brian Felix.
OM Trio has earned a reputation for combining mindfully scintillating jazz combinations, soulful funk and the ability to jam on a 15-minute track while keeping the music fresh and innovative.
The members all have some jazz training, but admit their original musical passions are rooted in 1980s heavy metal that they picked up in their native streets of New Jersey. The jazz training came in college, when the members met each other amidst the doldrums of Rutgers University.
"We call our music jazz not because we are straight swinging with the ladies drinking cocktails," Felix jokes. "We're in spirit jazz in terms of improvisation, the technical aspect of things... You can translate that into any style. What we've been developing is taking other stuff and applying it to our sound."
OM Trio has intentionally limited themselves to three members for the same reason-maximizing the freedom of each player.
"If you add a fourth, fifth, sixth member, it changes the dynamic of the group," Felix explains. "The way that it is with the Trio is it's really easy to maneuver, it's really easy to improvise on stage."
The band has released four albums in just a year and a half. The most recent release is a double-disc live album consisting of tracks recorded on a tour last year through Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado.
The band had no plans to produce a live album, but after listening to recordings from a number of their shows, they realized they had the makings for a great piece to represent where they were at that time. They also wanted to put out an album after the departure of their former bassist and the addition of Pete Novembre, to give people a good representation of the new ensemble.
"I think that captured it and that was a good way to present it for our next effort," Felix says.
Felix stresses that the band has since grown, working out new arrangements with an unlikely combination of influences from their old days and from contemporary popular music in San Francisco. Namely, heavy metal and electronic music-which should turn a band that once sounded like Medeski, Martin & Wood into a whole new beast.
"We're all Jersey metal heads growing up listening to Slayer. We've been listening to a lot of metal in the van," Felix explains.
The metal sound is clear in Novembre's harder bass lines and Felix's use of head-pounding power chords and more distortion.
The electronic sound-which is a growing trend in open improvisational acts-is heard in the percussion. Drummer Ilya Stravinsky has added cymbals and bells of all shapes and sizes to his kit and experimented with more off-beat tempos.
"[It gives] it more electronic feel without using a trigger," Felix explains. "We're using more delay and effect, without using samples outside the standard organ and piano realm."
The new sounds have recently taken them back in to the studio to create yet another self-produced, self-funded and soon-to-be self-distributed album. In the great tradition of live-in-the-moment jazz albums, it took OM Trio one week to record.