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George Schuller: Like Before, But Fresh

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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