Drummer George Schuller's Schulldogs constantly seem ready to implode. But on the appropriately named Hellbent, the band still manages to deliver vibrant, ambitious music on this live date recorded Nov. 13, 2000. Schuller has his own notions about the duties of a percussionist, and they don't include merely leaning back, establishing a song's central rhythm and keeping everything locked into it. He's always on the brink of plunging into musical anarchy, but he's smart enough to keep a recognizable pulse going somewhere in the midst of shifting, exploding solos all around. The Schulldogs can play it straight, and indeed they'll ease their way through five or six minutes of conventional jazz statement before shifting into overdrive and proceeding to dynamite everything they've just presented.
The group's frontline includes one excellent player in tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and another amazing one in alto saxophonist Tim Berne. Over the years, Berne's sheer technical facility has expanded, while his warmth, blues fervor and expressiveness has accelerated. Like his mentor Julius Hemphill, Berne now routinely executes breathtaking solos, jumping from harsh screeches to lush, feathery lines that can make you both cringe and swoon. Malaby's less versatile; he's better at offering high-octane bursts than smartly designed counterpoint. When he duels with Berne the dialog can be astonishing or tiresome, but Malaby's overall work on this occasion isn't as well-formed or consistent (though that's due more to Berne's evolution as a player than any flaws in Malaby's approach). Bassist Ed Schuller's also an accomplished musician, but he gets less time in the spotlight than his other mates.
George Schuller wrote all the material on Hellbent, and he's a better composer of lengthy pieces. The nearly 18-minute "Ripe" and the nearly 14-minute "Distant Cousin" contain both extensive space for relentless solos and ample unison moments. The group sounds least focused on the shorter "Band Vote" or "The Thaw," where they seem unsure just when to move into a more restrained, concluding phase.
Still, the bulk of Hellbent deserves high praise. George Schuller's far more interested in making his own mark than revisiting the contributions of those who came before him.