George Schuller's Circle Wide: Like Before, Somewhat After (2008)
It's now some thirty-one years since the demise of Keith Jarrett's "American Quartet," uniting Ornette Coleman alumni Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden with former Bill Evans drummer Paul Motian. That group's masterpiece and effective swansong was Survivors' Suite (ECM, 1976), and so it is fitting that two sections are reprised on drummer/composer George Schuller's affectionate tribute to the band, alongside four other Jarret pieces and two originals.
It takes both the vibes of Tom Beckham and the well-traveled guitar of Brad Shepik to fill Jarrett's piano stool, while Donny McCaslin takes on the horn duties. Bassist Dave Ambrosio and Schuller cover the rhythm section responsibilities. Like Jarrett's group, Circle Wide is augmented by a percussionist, Jamey Haddad, on some tracks.
With themes as well crafted as Jarrett's, it makes no sense getting overly tricky. Melodies are frequently stated in unison by saxophone and guitar following various introductory instrumental strategies, setting the scene for individual extrapolations against thoughtfully arranged backdrops. Instruments imperceptibly switch roles, subtly shifting from background to foreground with well-oiled precision.
McCaslin is an inventive frontman, cleverly alternating textures in flowing solos to sustain interest, yet never straying too far from the melodic core. From wah-wah funk to lush jazzy chords, Shepik deploys a wide tonal range, building his features around the ample thematic material. Beckham moves between textural support, ensemble voicings and fluent turns in the spotlight, while Schuller and Ambrosio keep things moving with a supple swing. Schuller restricts himself to the briefest of turns in the spotlight with a rumbling feature on the closer "Encore, b."
Elsewhere they move from funky on "Common Mama" through boppish on "Rotation" to moody, then playful on Schuller's "Back to School." The centerpiece though is the aforementioned 19 minute two-part "Survivors' Suite," where the tension builds incrementally, strolling rhythms becoming martial and bypassing bombast before the sextet hits a majestic peak. Like before, but somewhat after indeed.
Track Listing: Dew Point; Common Mama; Survivors? Suite (part 1); Survivors? Suite (part 2); Rotation; De Drums; Back to School; Encore, b.
Personnel: Donny McCaslin: tenor & soprano saxophones, alto flute; Brad Shepik: guitar; Tom Beckham: vibes; Dave Ambrosio: bass; George Schuller: traps, bells & other rattly things; Jamey Haddad: percussion (2, 3, 4, 6, 7).