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George Schuller: Round Bout Now

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Of late, a lot of players have revisited the full-blown electric Miles Davis of the ’70s. Far fewer have burrowed into the music Davis made just prior to that. Drummer/composer George Schuller’s Miles Davis tribute, ‘Round ‘Bout Now, is inspired by the music the trumpeter made as he transitioned from the abstract postbop of his second quintet to his heavy, electric jazz-funk-music from Miles records like Water Babies, Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way and Circle in the Round. Schuller and his quintet are less interested in exploring that music outright than they are in mixing it with elements of modern postbop. The streamlined, graceful fusion they turn out still sounds recognizably Milesian, though also surprisingly fresh and sharp.

On “Circle in the Round” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro” Schuller integrates bass clarinetist Matt Darriau and accordion player Sonny Barbato into the group. Schuller uses Darriau only to thicken the ensemble sound, but Barbato, in his solo spots and ensemble work, really leaves a mark on the music, giving Miles’ tunes a European, folklike edge. The key element here is the spare, spacious vibraphone playing by Tom Beckham. Replacing electric/acoustic piano with Beckham’s vibes was a brilliant idea, and it gives this music a fleet, cool feel, not entirely unlike Dave Holland’s Quintet. Schuller (and on one tune, Beckham) leaves his arrangements of both the Davis tunes and five Miles-inspired originals lithe and uncluttered, and his ensemble responds with balanced, remarkably strong performances.

From the funky-sharp Schuller original “Having Big Fun,” where electric guitarist Pete McCann’s biting McLaughlin-esque turn settles right into the ensemble passage, to the striking, quiet opening to “Side Car,” the ensemble work is reason enough to seek this recording out. If any soloist deserves special attention, however, it’s trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. She can’t resist pulling out the Harmon mute and drop a few Miles-isms now and then, but more often she steers clear of Davis’ aching frailty with her own hard-edged solos.