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The ambitious improv of John Schott

Crackly voices from Edison cylinders fade into the warble of electric guitar. A scratchy recitation of Walt Whitman's America wanders into a funky groove laid down by organ, electric bass, and drums, as if it were crashing a basement dance party. All this seems to inspire a free-floating saxophone solo that puts into music all the exuberance and broken promise of Whitman's words. On another track, an Indian snake-dance song in a forgotten language interacts with violin, guitar, and drums. All of these things and more can be found on East Bay guitarist/composer John Schott's album Shuffle Play, a document that not only serves as a celebration of his continuing love affair with the history of recorded music, but goes a long way towards explaining his own eclectic, playful approach to music.

While most of the musicians in the Bay Area's improvisation-oriented "new music" scene pride themselves on a thorough knowledge of all genres of music, few seem to know quite as much -- or to delve into that knowledge so unabashedly -- as Schott. In numerous recordings he has explored a wide range of music, from American blues to funk to free jazz, and at the same time convoluting those origins and transforming them into something new and uniquely his own.

One of the best examples of this on Shuffle Play is a take on the turn-of-the-century African-American folk song, "Poor Mourner Repainted," featuring Schott playing guitar with Scott Amendola on drums and Tom Yoder on trombone. "I became obsessed with it," Schott writes in the liner notes to the album. "I slowed it down, transcribed it, recopied the transcription, elaborated, scored it, scored it differently, slowed that down, multiplied the harmonies, compressed it into a single burst, folded it over on itself, applied distortion, filtered, signified, spiraled." The resulting song is a swirl of jamboree drumming, Hendrix-like whining chords that stretch forever, foghorn blasts from the trombone, and various samples of the original recording that feels both ancient and avant-garde, allowing the simple, soulful centerpiece tune to shine forth from the controlled cacophony surrounding it.

Schott, who studied at the Cornish College of Art in Seattle before moving to the Bay Area in 1989, acknowledges his interest in the eclectic and historical. He is a frequent collaborator with Charlie Hunter, whom he joined in the short-lived Grammy-nominated TJ Kirk -- an ensemble dedicated to reinterpreting the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In addition, he recorded the album In These Great Times for John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture Series in 1994. For that album, Schott arranged texts by post-World War I writers like Kafka, Karl Krauss, and Jacob Glatshteyn for opera tenor John Horton Murry, and interspersed those works with instrumentals and improvisations. "I was a classical composition major in college, so the evolution and history of music is a big part of my life," he says. "It shapes every part of what I do, without necessarily calling attention to itself in any dramatic way. I don't imagine myself making an homage to Brahms, but in a sense they're all homages to Brahms, in terms of the impact he's had on my life."

One can trace this impact even to more free-form projects like Junk Genius, Schott's ensemble with drummer Kenny Wollesen, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and bassist Trevor Dunn, three of his most frequent and closest collaborators. Their 1999 recording Ghost of Electricity is haunted by subtle sounds. Many songs hark back to classical chamber music, others evoke the frenetic fusion sound that Miles Davis perfected in the '70s. Yet the album works best in the areas where the players improvise on simple themes.

Clearly, Schott's background as a composer informs and shapes everything he does, including his improvisatory chops. In fact, he sees no distinction between composing and improvising. "I think viewing those two things as a dichotomy is defeating the whole idea before you begin," he says. "I improvise, I compose, I do things in between, but ... I try and stay engaged with the music. I'm not interested in seeing those things as Coke and Pepsi, Democrat and Republican." When reminded of T.S. Eliot's famous maxim, "No verse is free to the one who would write well," Schott says, "In my work, I don't want to have a 'free' or a 'not free.' No verse is free, but you can turn that on its head and say it's all free."

Just like the ambitious Shuffle Play, Schott's music stands as a sort of free-form jukebox of past and present, structured and improvised, without drawing any lines between the disparate areas he explores. "If I can say this without sounding preposterous -- I don't have an approach. I'm not following an agenda or a program. I just seek to have as rich and deep an experience of whatever I'm doing as I can."

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