THE WAY Russel Walder describes it, making music is almost, like -- well, fun. And this from a guy who plays oboe, an instrument whose delicate beauty is exceeded only by its contentious nature when it is held and played, thus explaining why your average oboe player comes across as So Very Serious.
Not that Walder and his partner, keyboardist Ira Stein, aren't so-very-serious musicians. Both are classically trained and have made music together for nearly 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, releasing two albums for Windham Hill and their latest, "Under the Eye," for the Sona Gaia label. It's just that what they've decided to be most serious about is being playful.
It's apparent on the new release, which alternately whisks you up to soar over mountains and holds you down to tickle you, and it ought to be even more so when Stein and Walder perform Tuesday at Blues Alley (with hammer dulcimer player Malcolm Dalglish, speaking of the seriously playful). They'll be performing alone -- without even the modest rhythm section on "Under the Eye," and that's just fine with Walder.
"It's just going to be bare-bones basic," says Walder, 31, on the phone from Oakland, where he recently settled down long enough to, as he puts it, "actually have a Zip code."
This is not unlike the new release -- which was, unlike so many endless New Age noodlefests, purposely recorded live in the studio rather than conceived at a computer terminal and digitally delivered by Dr. Overdub.
"What is on the album is like 80 percent of what actually happened: like, one-two-three, go," Walder says. "We would leave tracks open to make additions, but what we did not want to do was put lead tracks in as an afterthought -- it's like, well, if we can't really play, then what are we doing?"
With so much popular music -- not just New Age jazz, which is the slot Stein and Walder are most often squeezed into -- "you just sit down and spend thousands of hours with your machines in your home studio or whatever," Walder says. "And when you're finished, it's the enormity of the thing that's striking the listener and not really the message of the music.
"I've always been really awed at all the old jazz cats -- old Miles Davis stuff, or all those Blue Note issues. You know everything was done on the first take. I want to get back to more of that. And still, I also love the studio. I paint, and I love the fact that the studio is really just this giant muck of colors. I'm a big advocate of using the studio like that, to expand the original idea -- but not as a crutch."
It comes down to spontaneity -- a particularly relevant concept to Walder, who started studying oboe at age 12 with the sole intent of becoming a classical soloist. After meeting Stein at a jazz workshop at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., the two produced a demo and sent it to Windham Hill -- which, to their surprise, sent back a recording contract.
"If you had asked me a week before that happened, I would've said I would never be playing improvisational music," Walder says. "But when it happened, I just knew that this was some kind of huge magic carpet ride."