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George Shuller/ Shulldogs
Hellbent
(PLAYSCAPE)

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In the í80s, a bare-bones blowing session like this would have been considered part of the avant-garde, with its spare, "piano-less" arrangements for two saxophones, bass, and drums and its wide-open terrains for soloists. Now itís old school in a way thatís not heard often enough these days. Think: David Murray, the World Saxophone Quartet, and, later, Dave Hollandís small groups, with their tricky horn counterpoint over shifting, roiling grooves. But drummer/composer/bandleader Schuller programs plenty of changes into the fierce, inventive blowing of tenor-sax Tony Malaby and alto Tim Berne. Schuller subdivides his ensemble into passages for solo, duo, and trio, sometimes leaving Malaby and Berne alone to spar with each other, at other times arranging a duo for saxophone and bass. Texture, tempo, meter, and melodies are always shifting, so that each of the six pieces on this 71-minute CD sustains interest for its duration.

Take the opener, the 15-minute "Pumpkins" ó it begins with series of altissimo reed whistles from Berne over Schullerís lightly pattering brushes. Schuller joins with more whistles from behind his kit. Berne drops into "true" register for some light, boppish footwork at the two-minute mark, and then bassist (and Georgeís brother) Ed Schuller and saxist Malaby enter with a long-lined slow melody behind Berne. Berne builds in intensity, saxes converge here and there, George shifts into a parade rhythm, and the theme proper enters ó boppish and angular with little drum breaks and a sotto voce secondary theme from the horns. Schuller knows how to use composition to spur improvisation, and as a way to organize free blowing so that it never sounds arbitrary. Whatís more, funky tunes like "Band Vote" will keep you whistling after the CDís over.

BY JON GARELICK

Issue Date: January 2 - 9, 2003
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