Throughout 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 lifetimebeing the son of a musical giant, composer/arranger/author/historian/ Pulitzer Prize-winner Gunther Schullerthe 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 Schullerwho 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 experimentationmakes 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 melodicismstructured, 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.
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."
"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."