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."
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."
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 themadd 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."