George Schuller's Circle Wide: Like Before, Somewhat After (2008)
Despite Keith Jarrett's ongoing success as a solo improviser and standards interpreter, many bemoan his decision to stop writing in the mid-1970s. Improvisation may be spontaneous composition but, with his 1970s American and Scandinavian Quartets, the pianist created a songbook that remains influential to this day. George Schuller's Round 'Bout Now (Playscape, 2004) was a thoroughly personal tribute to Miles Davis' transitional period of 1967-1969. Returning with Circle Wide for Like Before, Somewhat After, the drummer fashions an equally distinctive homage to Jarrett's American Quartet. Alongside six Jarrett compositions, two Schuller pieces are so in touch with the spirit of Jarrett's music that they could easily have been a part of the American Quartet's repertoire.
Right 'Bout Now's core group is back but, unlike Round 'Bout Now's understandable inclusion of a trumpeter, there's no piano to be found on Like Before. By avoiding precise replication of Jarrett's instrumental line-up, Schuller shapes a sound reverential to the spirit of Jarrett's quartet while avoiding direct comparison.
That said, saxophonist Donny McCaslin channels Dewey Redman on the bright "Common Mama," while retaining his own powerful voice. Vibraphonist Tom Beckham opens, soloing over Schuller and guest percussionist Jamey Haddad's layered polyrhythms, but it's McCaslin's remarkable articulation and ability to wend through the changes with a stunning combination of melodism and visceral energy that drives the tune to places Jarrett never explored. Guitarist Brad Shepik's overdriven wah wah solo provides yet another example of Schuller's work within Jarrett's core aesthetic, while allowing considerable room for modernistic update.
The American Quartet was a happy marriage of powerful rhythms, memorable themes and unfettered exploration. Similar conjugality exists on Schuller's "Dew Point," a tumultuous rubato the foundation for a singable melody, followed by outward-reaching solos from Shepik, McCaslin and Beckham. Similar terrain is worked on "Back to School," a paradoxically maelstrom-like ballad where cued ensemble passages mesh seamlessly with sheer spontaneity.
Despite the presence of chord-capable instruments, a vertical linearity references the influence of Ornette Coleman on Jarrett. World music is also evident, McCaslin's alto flute blending with Schuller and Haddad on the intro to Jarrett's "Survivors' Suite (Pt 1) that, with Shepik's microtonal slurs, references both Native American and East Indian cultures. Irrespective of its textures and cultural influences, when the song's melody emerges it's a powerful rallying point, driving the music towards a more straightforward groove and one of Beckham's best solos of the set. A rare solo from bassist Dave Ambrosio opens "Survivors' Suite (Pt 2)," but the influence of Charlie Haden's folkloric simplicity is unmistakable.
Like Jarrett's American Quartet, Schuller's Circle Wide is a group where nobody's a star and everyone's a star. With plenty of outstanding solos, it's the interaction of the groupand it's ability to approach this unequivocally lyrical material with the relentless pursuit of free expressionthat makes Like Before, Somewhat After stand out as both a fine tribute and an album that stands on its own very fine merits.
Track Listing: Dew Point; Common Mama; The Survivor's Suite, Part One; The Survivor's Suite, Part Two; Rotation; De Drums; Back To School; Encore, b.
Personnel: George Schuller: drums, bells, percussion, other rattly things; Donny McCaslin: tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute; Brad Shepik: guitar; Tom Beckham: vibes; Dave Ambrosio: bass; Jamey Haddad: percussion (2-4, 6, 7).