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George Schuller’s Circle Wide: Listen Both Ways

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Drummer-composer George Schuller makes no secret of his preference for thorough circumspection. He named this quintet Circle Wide, entitled this record Listen Both Ways, and has the first, longest and probably best song on it pose the question “Could This Be the Year?” When your father, Gunther Schuller, has long been one of the jazz world’s foremost thinkers and educators, you don’t grow up making careless music.

This is the latest of Circle Wide’s three discs, all of which were released at least four years apart. After devoting the first two outings to covering transitional phases in the careers of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, Schuller composed six of the eight songs for Listen Both Ways, most of which seem to purposefully meander in the way a woodland trail winds through varied terrain. Sometimes the mood shift is abrupt-the refrain from “Store Without a Name,” announced with vibes and bells, stays in gossamer delicacy until sax blares forth almost exactly halfway through its 10:48 length. But more often the changes are subtle and impressionistic.

The vibraphone of original member Tom Beckham (the others are Schuller and bassist Dave Ambrosio) is crucial to the ensemble’s open-air ambiance, much like Milt Jackson in the Modern Jazz Quartet, back when the MJQ and Gunther Schuller were pioneering Third Stream music. But the best moments here frequently come from saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, Schuller’s perceptive choice to fill the big shoes of ex-Circle Wide player Donny McCaslin. A former drummer, leader of the Hieroglyphics Ensemble and sideman with Carla Bley and Steven Bernstein, Apfelbaum is perfectly suited to lead the frontline in this ensemble. Rarely afforded such prominence, he knows how to spread drama without overplaying-a sure sign of circumspection.

Originally Published