Musical Conversations – Talking Ear Speaks Progressive Jazz to Midwestern Audiences

Talking Ear plays progressive jazz to Midwestern audiences. From left: Ben Rolston, Ben Maloney, Dan Palmer, Estar Cohen and Travis Aukerman.

As a jazz quintet, Talking Ear blends original compositions with improvisation to musically converse with a growing Midwestern audience.

Their progressive jazz speaks volumes through the band’s live performances and their self-titled debut album, which features eight beautiful tracks draped in smooth vocals, soft pianos, crashing cymbals, rhythmic basslines and breakout guitar solos.

“Talking Ear was formed as a way to push each other because we all felt that connection of wanting to become better musicians and break through personal barriers together,” said vocalist Estar Cohen. “I think the way we carry along some of the jazz tradition is by continuously trying to be creative and finding our own voices.”

Along with Cohen, the band’s other four members, Travis Aukerman (drums), Dan Palmer (guitar), Ben Maloney (piano) and Ben Rolston (bass), have found their own musical voices through years of academic study, professional training, composing and performance.

As accomplished jazz musicians, they communicate mainly through improvisation. Collectively, they’ve taken a “Talking Ear” approach to their music – listening is how they ultimately share ideas and respond to one another.

Together, their collective musical philosophy and experience helped form Talking Ear while Cohen, Aukerman, Palmer and Maloney attended the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. Bass player Ben Rolston, who recently moved to New York City, initially joined the group.

“They were inspiring us to compose, that’s what the teachers were doing,” said Aukerman, who’s also Talking Ear’s manager. “To put it simply, Talking Ear formed as a compositional improvisational workshop. It wasn’t even a band. We were really inspired by Dan Palmer’s music … so we were like let’s just get together and play his music because it’s pretty challenging.”

That musical inspiration also allowed the band members to quickly forge strong friendships. In turn, their strong camaraderie is woven throughout their performances and interactions in the studio.

“To put it in simpler terms, you’ll hear moments in our recording where like maybe one of the players, if it’s a soloist or even me accompanying the soloist, will present a statement or an idea even if it’s just rhythmic based, and after a little bit, the rest of the band will jump on it,” said Maloney, who started playing piano at age 6. “Those are the things we can do when we improvise together.”

After forming Talking Ear, the band started mastering Palmer’s music and compositions from the other members while recording their self-titled debut album, which was released in June. For Maloney, Aukerman and Cohen, the six-minute track, “Three with Larry, Five with Sherry,” epitomized the band’s journey to grow as an ensemble.

Initially, the band felt unsure about the direction of the track while recording it, but later added synthesizers for Maloney and other elements of production.

“It was a stressful tune throughout the whole process, and now I love it because we embraced what it was,” said Aukerman, who developed a passion for drumming at age 10. “It’s got this sci-fi quirky-like video-gamey vibe in certain parts. I was really excited to hear it, and it was such a long road. That’s why it’s my favorite now.”

Another album favorite includes the calming “Dreams,” which features Cohen’s mystical jazz vocals against Palmer’s melodic guitar solo along with Maloney’s soothing piano and Aukerman’s delicate drums. Together, their jazz mastery transports audiences to a musical world hidden deep in the subconscious.

“That one came out unbelievable,” Maloney said. “Why is ‘Dreams’ good? I think we were all really relaxed. I think Dan wrote it for his wife.”

As for Cohen, the album’s opening track, “Face It,” is her top pick. Composed by Maloney, the song introduces listeners to the band’s improvisational spirit that’s captured throughout the entire album.

“There’s something about that one that feels really at ease in terms of the improvisation that I like,” she said. “I remember being in the studio, and we had kind of come up with how many choruses we were going to take, and I remember just hearing Dan’s solo.”

While Talking Ear enjoys reflecting on their past compositions and recordings, they’re getting ready to play some dates this winter, including a Feb. 16 show at Chicago’s Slate Arts and a Feb. 23 show at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit.

They’re also looking forward to making their next album and supporting other burgeoning Michigan and Ohio jazz acts, including the Estar Cohen Project, Galen Bundy’s Project 206, Molly Jones, Stephen Boegehold, Saajtak, Will Strickler and others.

“Yeah, just lots of totally cool stuff going on in this area, and we’re very inspired by it,” Aukerman said. “We’re just really lucky to have these opportunities. I think we’re always seeking them. We just create them.”

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