Tim Conley comes by the name “Ocean Exposition” for his band legitimately. The guitarist, originally from Yardley and still a resident, spent most of his summers growing up “down the shore” on a boat owned by his parents. “It has two meanings,” he says. “The first meaning comes from my personal situation; my parents were avid boaters, and they were teachers, so they had the whole summer off. As I remember it, we would often spend the whole summer on a boat in Bricktown, close to Point Pleasant.”
The family, according to Conley, would travel up and down the East Coast, making stops in ports all along the way. They lived on the boat, and sometimes they experienced choppy seas and other seaborne calamities that made things a bit difficult. “There was a lot of unpredictability about being on the sea,” Conley says. “We had a lot of experience with boats breaking down, and being caught in bad weather. Those experiences have also been a big influence on my work.”
The second meaning of Ocean Exposition likens the band’s unpredictability in mood, ambiance, chord structure, and time changes to the unpredictability of the ocean. An excerpt from Conley’s Myspace page reads as follows:
“The ‘Ocean’ represents life, evolution and motion. The unpredictability of the Ocean in Time and Space. The ‘Exposition’ is the gathering and display of these parts into one big piece of music. Most of the compositions are connected in some way, either borrowing melodies, grooves, or progressions from one another or simply by connecting one song or improvisation into the next.”
Conley elaborates. “When I was writing these songs (on the band’s eponymous 2004 debut album), that was on my mind. The track “Laughing Faces” was the name of the boat I grew up on, and I started writing a lot of the songs in odd time, with the signatures jumping from 5/4 to 4/4 to 6/8. It doesn’t stay in one spot. It’s like the ocean, the waves, which are always unpredictable. They are parallel to each other, but moving independently. Each one is completely different. It just seemed right to put (the music) into that context.
Ocean Exposition brings its mix of jazz, world, and Latin groove to two upcoming shows. The first (with keyboardist Joe Ashler added) is Saturday, July 20, at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, and the second is at Small World Coffee in Princeton on Saturday, August 5.
Most of the compositions the band plays are Conley’s. He establishes the framework, but then the rest of Ocean Exposition quickly takes them over. The band features Conley on guitars, Jon Thompson on saxophones, Jason Fraticelli on bass, and Joe Falcey on drums. All of the band members started out as rockers but now the band has taken off into a jazz-fusion-jam band direction. “For an improvisational band or a jazz band it is all about what that band may sound like on that day. The next day we may play the song completely differently. And we are also playing every song completely differently than the way we played them two years ago. We are structuring them differently and trying to grow together.”
Conley’s parents, John and Kathy, started out as public school teachers but branched into nonprofit work. Conley’s father worked for Mercer Street Friends Center and the Village Charter School, and Conley’s mother worked as a program director for Camp Fire (formerly Camp Fire Girls). His parents are now retired and still sail their boats whenever they can.
Band members Conley and Fraticelli grew up near each other and went to school together as youth, both graduating from Pennsbury High in 1996. But they didn’t often play music together. “We both went to Bucks County Community College for music, and that’s when we started hanging out and playing,” says Conley.
Fraticelli later moved to the New School in New York while Conley stayed local. He began working with a band called Electric Jellyfish, which gigged often at Joe’s Mill Hill Tavern in Trenton. That is where he met Ewing native Falcey and saxophonist Thompson. “There was definitely a very cool scene down there for a few years.”
The musicians began moving away from rock and toward jazz. Fraticelli and Conley got turned on to jazz while in school. “At first I was not really responsive to it; it wasn’t really my choice. But they crammed it into my head, and I started to develop a love for it. It is a really amazing art form. For us as a band to play as improvising musicians is really a no-brainer.”
When asked about his main musical influences, Conley gets a bit uncomfortable, only because he has so many, and because so many of them subtlely or even unconsciously influence his music. “That’s a hard question. It’s impossible to even listen to everyone,” he says. He cites musicians such as Bill Frisell, Trey Anastasio, Marc Ribot, Jon Scofield, John McLaughlin, and Frank Zappa and the guitarists (Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood) from Radiohead as big influences.
Although Conley does not mention Brian Blade as an influence, he shares a penchant for the airy, dreamy ambiance with the Louisiana-born drummer. Blade has recorded two arresting albums as a leader and has gigged with saxophonists and guitarists and other musicians as diverse as Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Daniel Lanois, Rick Margitza, Norah Jones, and Joni Mitchell.
Conley says the band recorded its 2004 disc in two days. “We had been gigging for a year and working on a lot of songs, and just spent time working them out. When we went in the studio, we literally played them just one or two times, and most of the tracks are first takes. The record is pretty much close to a live sound.”
In this regard, Conley’s music evokes the best aspects of the ECM Records oeuvre, a German label that also specializes, at least sometimes, in adventurous but accessible, quickly recorded genre-bending acoustic jazz fusion music.
Every member of Ocean Exposition is involved with other projects, so Conley says that this group likes to concentrate lots of shows into a month or two and then take a month or two off. “We want to get our fan base to grow — and I know that is not always that easy to do. We don’t have any vocals, and each time we play the songs they are different,” he says. “But people come out and listen to the shows, record them, and put them online. That helps a lot. They can download the shows and hear how the songs are changing with time. People are coming out more to see us now.”
Ocean Exposition, Thursday, July 20, 7:30 p.m., Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-689-1089, www.groundsforsculpture.org; and Saturday, August 5, 8:30 p.m., Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street. 609-924-4377.