George Schuller: Like Before, But Fresh
"Even though we started out as a cooperative, that became my signature band. I became the straw boss, I became the leader after a while because nobody else could handle the phone calling and getting rehearsals together and trying to get the gigs. So that was my main mission for that many years. I don't regret it, but it took me away from other projects. It was very hard to keep that band going. We did some really great tours in the Midwest and finally in Europe, which is a benchmark of any bandto get it in Europe. I think playing at the Berlin Jazz Festival was kind of a highlight for that band and for me at that time. But there were other great concerts we did in small places. I have fond memories of all that.
"And all the cats that played with us. I didn't realize it until after I stopped booking the band that all these guys had been through the band. They may have done a couple concerts or toured with us here and there. People like Tim Hagans, George Garzone, Greg Gisbert, Matt Darriau, Chris Speed, Andrew D'Angelo, Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu, Herb Robertson, Tom Varner, Dave Ballou, Jamie Saft. All these guys are leaders in their own right. I'm very proud of that."
Eventually, in the 1990s, things began to slow down for Schuller and the jazz scene. His mother died, and the drummer says he was "unfocused" for a time. He yearned for new challenges and a phone call came in from a friend. An apartment was opening up in Brooklyn. He had a hunch. He had friends there. He made the jump. The change wasn't difficult.
"I kept my ties to Boston, so I went back and forth. In those early years when I came to New York, I didn't want to lose those ties, for financial reasons. I still liked playing with all those guys up there. But slowly I made the transition and started playing with cats down here. They started hearing my name. And it was just a matter of time before the pendulum would swing to New York full time. My father was still in the Boston area, so there was always a reason to go up there anyway. I would say about 1999-2001, that's when I really started to adapt to the (New York) music scene."
Over the years, Schuller has performed or recorded with musicians including such as Joe Lovano, Joe Wilder, Britt Woodman, Mose Allison, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lee Konitz, Nnenna Freelon, Danilo Perez, Joey Calderazzo, Kenny Werner, George Adams, Fred Hersch, Tony Malaby, Dave Douglas and more. Sideman gigs are still important to him
"Those kind of things came up from time to time. Mose Allison would always use a local rhythm section wherever he went to. To me, it was important to play with him. I did four nights with him in Boston and then one night up in Portland (Maine). That was a great opportunity to play with a very iconic and sound maverick like Mose Allison. I played with Lee Konitz early on in the Boston area. I tried to do that every now and then. I'd either initiate it or someone else would hire me for that reason. Playing with people like Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Billy Pierce, Herb Pomeroy, Ran Blake. A great bunch of cats.
"I still enjoy being a sideman. I think it's very important. It humbles you too. You don't always want to be the leader. I want to play with other cats and to find out what they're all about and why they do what they do. That's how I learned."
He's a busy cat, for sure. In New York, where Schuller plays all kinds of music, from experimental to orchestral, he eventually had three bands he was juggling. In addition to Circle Wide, there is Schulldogs. And there was also Jigsaw. All different alignments with different music. Meanwhile, composing music is a constant for Schuller. He also performs with the likes of Musillami, Joe Fonda, Burton Green and more. And he has also produced several albums, his own and others. For a few years he was involved in the production of a documentary film, Music Inn (2005), that took up more of his time. Amid all that, he decided Circle Wide needed more attention.
"I had already gotten the Schulldogs to Europe and we did some great recordings and great touring. So I was not paying enough attention to Circle Wide and I found that Circle Wide was a little more difficult to book in Europe. I don't know why. It just worked that way. So after the movie was completed. I tried to focus on just one band. But I'll get the Schulldogs back together again," he says.
"Jigsaw was another band that I had, but I just couldn't get that off the ground. There was a special recording project that I started and then finished a couple of years later. I just couldn't figure out how to get all those all-stars together. But that band, for that concept was kind of like the bridge between the Schulldogs and Circle Wide."