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George Schuller: Like Before, But Fresh


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The thing about that [Keith Jarrett's] American Quartet that really struck me was the looseness, the combination of free melodicism-structure, but loose.
George SchullerThroughout musical history, the influences of substantial artists, recorded works, or certain epochal periods, have their effect on contemporaries and ensuing generations. For those that make music, it shows up in their playing or composing. Tracking those influences, whether well-known sources or those under the radar, is not as important as the end result of an individual's statement.

Forward-thinking artists can find inventive ways of incorporating influences into personal statements. That's what Brooklyn-based drummer George Schuller has done in his new recording. For a man who was exposed to all kinds of great music during his lifetime—being the son of a musical giant, composer/arranger/author/historian/ Pulitzer Prize-winner Gunther Schuller—the drummer's recent project, Like Before, Somewhat After (Playscape Recordings, 2008), with his band Circle Wide, draws on the influence of superb music and musicians, but that alone doesn't spring to mind immediately when contemplating a tribute project.

The germination of the recording is the music of Keith Jarrett's 1970s quartet that included Dewey Redman on sax, Charlie Haden on bass on Paul Motian on drums. There are covers of Jarrett composition, some of which Circle Wide has been doing for some time. But Schuller—who has performed with many in-the-pocket jazz mainstream artists, but equally plays on a regular basis with musicians that fly toward more freedom and experimentation—makes his own musical statement in this project. It's meant to capture the spirit of that creative Jarrett ensemble, but not to imitate.

Goal accomplished. For someone to listen to the music, it's creative and captivating in its own right. It doesn't automatically spring the Jarrett group to mind, but informed of its inspiration, the connection can be felt.

"The thing about that American Quartet that really struck me was the looseness, the combination of free melodicism—structured, but loose. Then they would go off on tangents. Very organic in how they approached anything they did. I identified with that and I was trying to do much of that in my own group, in various ways," says Schuller. "I was trying to follow the spirit that Keith had in those days and follow that spirit of music, spirit of playing, and improvisation. I've been writing that way for about 15 years, but I think it's come into more focus lately. I know how to write it down and how to translate it from my head to paper to the musicians."

Circle Wide has been in existence for about a decade, he says, though personnel have changed a bit. The group is simpatico, establishing looseness and maintaining an accessible thread throughout. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a group member from the beginning, is particularly impressive in his explorations. A burgeoning force on the New York City jazz scene, McCaslin is forceful and creative, delightfully evoking the precocious nature of the late Redman, who could swing, float outside time and create many colors that would adapt to a piece or a musical moment. And always soulful.

George Schuller

Guitarist Brad Shepik and vibes player Tom Beckham add appropriate, different shadings to each direction in which the band plays. Schuller and bassist Dave Ambrosio, assisted on some tracks by Jamey Haddad on percussion, exemplify freedom and discipline, a lyricism and time keeping. Schuller's drumming is splendid, keeping the feel loose, yet stoking the rhythmic fires. He's got fine technique and a damn good sound. His arrangements take Jarrett's work ("Common Mama" "Survivor's Suite" and "Rotation," among others), reinventing them in inspired fashion. His own compositions ("Dew Point," "Back to School") are outstanding vehicles for a tip of the hat to that Jarrett group.

"A lot of it is conceptual. It's gone through a few phases," says Schuller. "There are things that didn't sound just right in the beginning, but then as we played it, I realized what I needed to do to make it sound right. I'd go through these experimental phases. Then everybody (in the band) also had an opinion and contributed. The musicians I play with, they have strong opinions and a lot of experience."

"This is probably my best effort with this band," he adds. "I feel like every project will be better, but this is a pretty good representation of what I was trying to do."

He praised, in particular, Michael Musillami, a guitarist who works hard on the New York scene, runs Playscape Recordings and was Like Before, Somewhat After's executive producer. Schuller called him "a huge contributor to the music that I play. I play with him in his great group, but also because he has this label, Playscape Recordings. He works so hard to keep that label going. It's not easy to put out the music that he does. The distribution that he gets. Without him, I wouldn't have this album."

The drummer says he's been following Jarrett's career for many years, touching on different parts of his career, especially the trio of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette in its formative years. (That group is marking its 25th anniversary this year). He also identified with Jarrett's outstanding solo projects, "Then I kind of worked backward after that ... Finally, I started exploring the Impulse! records, the ones with Dewey and Charlie and Paul. Of course I was listening to a lot of other music. I was going through my stages as a performer and as a composer. One thing led to another. Everything has a root. All these branches grow out ... I finally started focusing on the music we recorded recently probably about six or seven years ago as I was playing more and more with my band Circle Wide. Some of those tunes are from the beginning of our incarnation."

George Schuller

"There's a certain generation that does remember this band," he says of Jarrett's American Quartet and its music. "No one has really tackled it. I'm not sure why. I just identify with this music and I felt like it was about time." He notes, for example, that Circle Wide has been playing "Survivor's Suite" for a few years now. "We've been playing that for a long time. It's always a great tune to play because... it's something you can ease into. People with all the stress and headaches of the day all get together in a small club. They're not really paying attention to you. It's noisy. That's the kind of music where you can take the audience with you. Kind of a soothing sound where you can chill out a little bit."

Schuller count's Motian among his major influences on his own instrument, so there was a natural gravitation toward that. "Also, there was a period in the 1980s when my brother [bassist Ed Schuller] was playing with Paul in that great quintet with Jim Pepper, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. That was a band that influenced me greatly in terms of composition, and Paul's playing as well. So I was a little bit fixated on that before I started to check out the Keith Jarrett quartet. I used to hear the Paul Motian Quartet when they came up to Boston, so I got a chance to actually see them. You kind of identify with those groups that you see initially and hear initially in person."

When trumpeter Ingrid Jensen left the band, pursuing numerous other projects, Schuller said he added the guitar of Shepik because he felt "like I needed that kind of instrument in this new phase of the band, tackling the Jarrett music. There's an edge to the way Brad brings his sound to the band. I really identified with that right away. It kind of parallels with the fact that Keith used a guitarist at that time, a guy named Sam Brown."

While Jensen was in the band, however, Circle Wide did a tribute record of another kind, Round 'Bout Now (Playscape Recordings, 2003). That music explored the Miles Davis groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s, bands that were breaking ground and heading in directions that would inescapably change the musical landscape.

"I love listening to Miles Davis in the late '60s, early '70s transitional period, during which Keith was also a player," says Schuller. The trumpet voice of Jensen lends itself splendidly to that project. "That made the connection to Miles more relevant. She's influenced by Miles and many other trumpet players, but it just so happens that her sound is just so gorgeous it continues that kind of spirit, of Miles. She was a natural to tackle that stuff."

George Schuller

That recording includes repertoire of the Davis bands, like "Circle in the Round" and "Filles de Kilimanjaro," but also music composed with the creative spirit of that group in mind, like the suite "Miles Later" and "Having Big Fun."

Miles was just one thing of that era," Schuller says, "but he was probably the most important figure in that period. He took what happened in the mid-60s forward. But there were a lot of things going on at that time. I wanted to focus on that period. I thought the best way would be to cover a couple the of Miles tunes from that period, as well as write my own."

He adds, "In general, over the years, I hated concept albums where they get the survivors together and they go through the music the same way the original guys did. Or somebody does a survey of a certain period of an artist's career and there's nothing new. What I was trying to do with that [Miles] project, and the Keith Jarrett project, was to take elements and the spirit of that period and do my own thing. Of course using some of their tunes, but I also wanted to do something fresh with them—add my own two cents. I did some arranging. I tweaked the harmonies here and there. Maybe I'd adjust the approach or the time or the feel. I'm always trying to do something they didn't quite do out of reverence to them and what they did before. Hopefully it's something fresh for everybody to hear and not a duplicate."

Schuller was raised in a household where classical music and jazz were held in high esteem. His father is even credited with coining the term "third stream," referring to the combination of techniques from both those styles. In addition to writing classical works and operas, Gunther Schuller was also a collaborator with Miles Davis ( Birth of the Cool) and was friends with the likes of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and so many others. He was an influence on his sons. But George Schuller also counts among his influences "Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter. Paul Motian. Monk. I'm leaving out 30 or 40 others."

On drums, the list is also lengthy, he notes, with players both past and present. "But mainly I drew my sound from some of the greats like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones. And earlier drummers like Sonny Greer, Shelly Manne, and even some of the present cats like Jack DeJohnette, Victor Lewis, Paul Motian, Jeff 'Tain' Watts."

Schuller was born in New York City, but moved to the Boston area with his family at a young age. Clarinet was the first instrument he tinkered with and he had some training on piano. "Somehow I picked up on the drums around age eleven. I saw a drummer play at a party in this little jazz group. I told my parents I wanted to do that right away. They got me a little set. I started lessons with a professional at Tanglewood [Massachusetts, where his father was co-Artistic Director of the Tanglewood Music Center, along with Seji Ozawa]. I was not a student at Tanglewood, but at that time, I was considered a 'Tanglewood Brat,' and eventually started working there as an assistant recording engineer for the Berkshire Music Center (aka. Tanglewood Music Center). That's how I got going."

The sounds of the day were predominantly not jazz, as rock and roll was in a boon period in the 1960s, but jazz from his father's record collection caught his ears, and apparently his heart. Lessons continued off and on, but he says the training on drums wasn't very formal. It picked up in earnest when he attended the New England Conservatory, where he graduated in 1982 with a degree in jazz performance.

"I did listen to the Beatles early on. I remember listening to an LP of Yellow Submarine (Capitol, 1969)," he says. "I guess I had seen the movie and then had the LP and I was very taken by the Beatles, not knowing why. My brother had the White Album (Capitol, 1968) and others. I always liked the Beatles. There was never a period when I didn't. But I was kind of a jazz snob, so I did gravitate to my father's collection early on. He had quite a great collection of Bird [Charlie Parker]. Jimmy Smith, the organist, was something I identified with early on. Something about those albums. They had examples of what I wanted to do as a drummer. And Grady Tate (Smith's drummer) was one of my early influences, the way he played with those guys.

He also got to explore more jazz when he became a disc jockey during high school at the all-volunteer radio station operated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That was really a great training ground for me to hear the whole spectrum of jazz. I did that for about eight years." Record collection parties and auctions were also things Schuller frequented, gathering up all the jazz gems he could.

George Schuller

After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Schuller remained in the Boston area, gigging around and leading bands, most notable Orange Then Blue, for about a dozen years.

"As soon as I got out of the Conservatory, you're just trying to play with everybody, in various jam sessions, and doing every session that comes along. I got some great experience," he says. Among them was a gig with alto great Frank Strozier, who was in town for a concert. "The great drummer Jeff Williams offered me that gig. He could have done that gig himself. I still, to this day, thank him for allowing me—this really green drummer just out of the Conservatory, with rough edges. Here he is throwing me into the fire with this great alto player, Frank Strozier. There have been examples of that throughout my career."

He says the Boston of the mid-80s through the early 90s was a time when the arts were strong. "There were a lot of clubs. There was this feeling that we could do anything, we could try anything. A couple of my friends from the Conservatory and I formed a band, a primarily a workshop band, Orange Then Blue, just to try out arrangements and this and that. That lasted for about thirteen years. Starting off in Boston, then half the cats moved from Boston to New York, so it was Boston and New York in the middle period. Then when I moved to New York in 1994, it was all New York. Then it was just too unwieldy. But we did about five albums. That was also a great training ground to try out arrangements and do all sorts of experimental approaches to composition and improvisation.

"Even though we started out as a cooperative, that became my signature band. I became the straw boss, I became the leader after a while because nobody else could handle the phone calling and getting rehearsals together and trying to get the gigs. So that was my main mission for that many years. I don't regret it, but it took me away from other projects. It was very hard to keep that band going. We did some really great tours in the Midwest and finally in Europe, which is a benchmark of any band—to get it in Europe. I think playing at the Berlin Jazz Festival was kind of a highlight for that band and for me at that time. But there were other great concerts we did in small places. I have fond memories of all that.

George Schuller

"And all the cats that played with us. I didn't realize it until after I stopped booking the band that all these guys had been through the band. They may have done a couple concerts or toured with us here and there. People like Tim Hagans, George Garzone, Greg Gisbert, Matt Darriau, Chris Speed, Andrew D'Angelo, Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu, Herb Robertson, Tom Varner, Dave Ballou, Jamie Saft. All these guys are leaders in their own right. I'm very proud of that."

Eventually, in the 1990s, things began to slow down for Schuller and the jazz scene. His mother died, and the drummer says he was "unfocused" for a time. He yearned for new challenges and a phone call came in from a friend. An apartment was opening up in Brooklyn. He had a hunch. He had friends there. He made the jump. The change wasn't difficult.

"I kept my ties to Boston, so I went back and forth. In those early years when I came to New York, I didn't want to lose those ties, for financial reasons. I still liked playing with all those guys up there. But slowly I made the transition and started playing with cats down here. They started hearing my name. And it was just a matter of time before the pendulum would swing to New York full time. My father was still in the Boston area, so there was always a reason to go up there anyway. I would say about 1999-2001, that's when I really started to adapt to the (New York) music scene."

Over the years, Schuller has performed or recorded with musicians including such as Joe Lovano, Joe Wilder, Britt Woodman, Mose Allison, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lee Konitz, Nnenna Freelon, Danilo Perez, Joey Calderazzo, Kenny Werner, George Adams, Fred Hersch, Tony Malaby, Dave Douglas and more. Sideman gigs are still important to him

"Those kind of things came up from time to time. Mose Allison would always use a local rhythm section wherever he went to. To me, it was important to play with him. I did four nights with him in Boston and then one night up in Portland (Maine). That was a great opportunity to play with a very iconic and sound maverick like Mose Allison. I played with Lee Konitz early on in the Boston area. I tried to do that every now and then. I'd either initiate it or someone else would hire me for that reason. Playing with people like Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Billy Pierce, Herb Pomeroy, Ran Blake. A great bunch of cats.

"I still enjoy being a sideman. I think it's very important. It humbles you too. You don't always want to be the leader. I want to play with other cats and to find out what they're all about and why they do what they do. That's how I learned."

George Schuller

He's a busy cat, for sure. In New York, where Schuller plays all kinds of music, from experimental to orchestral, he eventually had three bands he was juggling. In addition to Circle Wide, there is Schulldogs. And there was also Jigsaw. All different alignments with different music. Meanwhile, composing music is a constant for Schuller. He also performs with the likes of Musillami, Joe Fonda, Burton Green and more. And he has also produced several albums, his own and others. For a few years he was involved in the production of a documentary film, Music Inn (2005), that took up more of his time. Amid all that, he decided Circle Wide needed more attention.

"I had already gotten the Schulldogs to Europe and we did some great recordings and great touring. So I was not paying enough attention to Circle Wide and I found that Circle Wide was a little more difficult to book in Europe. I don't know why. It just worked that way. So after the movie was completed. I tried to focus on just one band. But I'll get the Schulldogs back together again," he says.

"Jigsaw was another band that I had, but I just couldn't get that off the ground. There was a special recording project that I started and then finished a couple of years later. I just couldn't figure out how to get all those all-stars together. But that band, for that concept was kind of like the bridge between the Schulldogs and Circle Wide."

As far as his producing career, it sort of rolls on organically. "There were people who trusted what I had to say behind the glass. I had some experience at that on my own projects. So I always enjoyed doing that as well. Especially with (singer) Luciana Souza, she's one of the great musicians out there. I had a ball working on her projects [To Answer Your Silence (NYC, 1999) and The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs (Sunnyside, 2000)]. It's not like producing records is on my resume. I haven't been asking for it.

"I'm kind of producing as we speak right now. I'm working on projects of my own, two trio recordings, independent from everything else. I've been working with Burton Greene on a trio recording that I played on. In a sense it's kind of like producing, behind the scenes editing and mixing. Another record with my buddy Joe Fonda and Carlo Morena. Then there's a new recording with Conference Call, another cooperative group I play in, with Michael Jefry Stevens, Gebhard Ullmann and Joe Fonda. That's coming out in October and I worked on those mixes. And I just worked with (pianist) Armen Donelian. So a few projects are in the works. Some have come out and some about to come out."

A CD release party for Like Before, Somewhat After was set for June 18, 2008 at the 55 Bar in New York City. He hopes to get Circle Wide out touring more, but notes that it is difficult in the United States "unless you're on a major label and they're carting you around to all the festivals."

George Schuller

But the band has been playing some of the Jarrett music for a few years in local clubs. "We did go to Portugal in March. The reaction was great. They went nuts, actually, for us. Which is unusual for me. The music I present can be edgy and free-based, not the straight and narrow. There are a lot of people who like that music and a lot of people who may not identify with it. But they loved what we were doing and the band played great at a concert at the Braga festival near Lisbon, Portugal. That was the first time I was able to get the band over to Europe. We're probably going to go again early next year.

Adds Schuller, "Touring in the U.S. is not like it is in Europe. In Europe, there's something about the way they treat you in little ways that makes all the difference. Plus you have to cover longer distances in the U.S. You've got to pile in two or three cars. You don't have the trains they have in Europe. If you play in Buffalo, you've got to spend a whole day to get there, and when you get there, it's either a door gig (musicians get a percentage of the tickets), or it's a small guarantee, plus you have to pay for your own hotels and the meals. In Europe, those things are taken care of. It's part of the etiquette over there."

With irons in plenty of fires, Schuller is sure to continue to bring fresh music to the terrain, with his bands and others that he has aligned himself with.

"I don't like sitting around and waiting for things to happen. In this business, you're forced to make sure you're not sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring."

Selected Discography

George Schuller's Circle Wide, Like Before, Somewhat After (Playscape Recordings, 2008)
Michael Musillami, The Treatment (Playscape Recordings, 2007)
Free Range Rat, Nut Club (Clean Feed, 2006)
Burton Greene, Sign of the Times (CIMP, 2006)
Burton Greene, Ins And Outs (CIMP, 2006)
Michael Musillami, Dachau (Playscape Recordings, 2005)
George Schuller, Jigsaw (482 Music, 2004)
Conference Call, Spirals: The Berlin Concert (482 Music, 2004)
George Schuller, Round 'Bout Now (Playscape Recordings, 2003)
George Schuller's Schulldogs, Hellbent (Playscape Recordings, 2002)
Gunther Schuller/WDR Orchestra/Remembrance Band, The Music of Jim Pepper/Witchi-Tai-To (Tutu Records, 2002)
Michael Musillami/Mario Pavone, Pivot (Playscape Recordings, 2002)
Ran Blake, Sonic Temples (GM Recordings, 2002)
George Schuller's Schulldogs, Tenor Tantrums (New World, 1999)
Orange Then Blue, Hold the Elevator: Live in Europe and Other Haunts (GM Recordings, 1999)
Joe Lovano, Rush Hour, Blue Note, 1995. Orange Then Blue, While You Were Out... (GM Recordings, 1994)
George Schuller, Lookin' Up from Down Below (GM Recordings, 1990)
Orange Then Blue, Funkallero (GM Recordings, 1991)
Orange Then Blue, Where Were You? (GM Recordings, 1989)
Orange Then Blue, Music for Jazz Orchestra (GM Recordings, 1987)
Ran Blake, Film Noir (Arista Novus, 1980)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Jos L. Knaepen

Center Photo: Courtesy of George Schuller
Bottom Photo: Paulo Nogueira

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