Playscape PSR #J111300

Sometimes, it seems, it pays to live in what many people would figure are the jazz boondocks.

At least that’s what the audience in attendance at The Outpost in Albuquerque, N. M. must have felt a couple of years ago when they got to participate in this exceptional live recording by drummer George Schuller’s Schulldogs. What the Brooklyn-based percussionist did that night was to plop a little bit of downtown Manhattan into the American southwest, count off six of his compositions, and let the chips fall where they would.

Active in the New York-Boston corridor for years with the likes of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, German multi-reedman Gebhard Ullman and the bands Conference Call and Orange Than Blue among many others, Schuller has led this crackerjack band for years, initially as a trio, then with two saxophones. He’s aided and abetted this time out by his brother, powerful bassist Ed Schuller, whose playing experience almost exactly parallels his; and one of his regular tenor saxophone mates, Tony Malaby, who would have empathy for the area, having been born and lived many years in neighboring Tucson, Arizona. Surprise participant is alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne, who has employed the drummer on occasion, and obviously thinks enough of his talents to take this rare sideman gig.

Unquestionably everybody has enough space to stretch out in the welcoming desert atmosphere, since the shortest tune clocks in at a little less than seven minutes, and the longest at more than 17. At the same time, since Schuller’s experience encompasses producing and arranging sessions for a variety of ensembles of varying sizes, there isn’t the rote feeling that the tune here are merely blowing lines. Heads are more than intros for freeform solos, with the majority of pieces dependent on lockstep intuition among the participants.

Throughout, Malaby, who a while ago took Ellery Eskelin’s place in bassist Mark Helias’ working trio, brings the same combination of inside-outside ingredients here as he does to that band. Sometimes his darker tones will recall hairy-chested hyper masculine stylists such as Lovano or the Swing Era masters. Or times he’ll add a touch of R&B bar-walker emulation to his work. In contrast, his mid-range, protracted lines have an alto’s speed and acerbity. And he never lets the fear of producing off key amplified split tones stop him from completing his thoughts.

Not surprisingly, considering his pedigree as an experimenter since his first albums of the 1980s, even in this sort of restrained environment, Berne strives for more than commonplace sounds. Constantly spreading his output into the alto’s higher registers, he faces the risks of squeaks and pitch sliding to maintain his individuality. Much of the time he and the tenorist work to complement one another’s tones, sometimes mirroring each other’s note placement in different pitches. Still, Berne isn’t adverse to beginning one track with a couple of minutes in ear-splitting altissimo then continuing to advance the agenda flutter tonguing, with low-key percussion appearing only as the theme kicks in. Another time, the altoist goes off into an exercise in high-pitched, trilling multiphonics while the other three move in counterpoint, a half step more slowly and much lower-pitched.

Ed Schuller, whose own CDs have featured such old school tricksters as tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Paul Motion, knows how to nail the pulse of any tune. Rarely upfront, even when alone he eschews most extended techniques and arco trills for stable timekeeping. What is most noticeable, though, is his sound. Unvarying and powerful it can usually be heard anchoring the tune, even when the hornmen are smashing the sound barrier.

Since it’s his date, George Schuller does get room for more drum features than if it was, say, a saxophonist’s CD. But like his sibling, he never tries to draw attention to himself with overlong, noisy imprudence. More likely you can comment on the chess-master’s skill with which he position each beat. On his own and as part of the bigger picture he keeps bass drum and snare rhythm going, but is just as likely to express himself in quick flams, rim shots and with a variety of ancillary percussion including cowbells, maracas and a bell tree.

More than a tour souvenir, HELLBENT is a rhythmically exciting listening experience. Plus it’s the sort of calling card for this band that will make many audiences wish they could replicate the New Mexicans’ sonic adventures.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Pumpkins 2. The Thaw 3. Ripe 4. Distant Cousin 5. Slightly Round 6. Band Vote

Personnel: Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Ed Schuller (bass); George Schuller (drums)