You know Tom Schuman. You may not have been hooked on reading liner notes, or you were at the concession stand when the band members got introduced, so the name flew by you but there's no way you wouldn't remember the sound. Tom plays piano and keyboards for Spyro Gyra, and has been there since the band began recording. He has a series of stunning solo projects too. He did one for GRP back in the day, and has recorded four more recently since starting his own label, JazzBridge, in the late 90's. Schuman Nature, Deep Chill, and Reflections Over Time are all excellent and each has a different and defining sound. Now, here is Designated Planets, which is, to play on that title, out of this world!
In the promotional video for the album he talks about how when he was growing up he would put on a stack of albums, put the headphones on and let it transport him to a different planet. Now he is inside that process and says it is even more like that as he creates and records the music. The wonderful thing about that part of the process is that we are the beneficiaries. If each of these songs is one planet this is a multicolored and fast moving galaxy with lots of spaces to explore. Here is the jazz planet, the fusion planet is slightly to the left, then over there are the peaceful planet and the starstream of chill. That bright colored one on the cover has got to be the planet of funk and let's not forget the planet of love. This collection of songs covers a lot of territory and does it seamlessly, held together by Schuman's artistry and a cast of supporting musicians who are not just on their game, they are going beyond it. Some musicians you know are stepping beyond what they usually do and some that you may not have heard of yet are revealed to be world class players.
Let's start with Steve Oliver, who has gained notoriety as an acoustic guitarist and can pull unbelievable sounds and riffs out of anything with six strings. On this album he plays electric and delivers total fusion shred that amps up the speedy precision that's a trademark of his acoustic work. Jeff Kashiwa plays with power and an astonishing range on the title track then takes a gentle, meditative stance on “Sweet Surrender.” Kevin Whalum busts out of the sultry crooner box and claims his space as a master of vocalese as he scats and jams his way through a deeply funk groove on “Look Into My Eyes” accompanied by Tower of Power bassist Rocco Prestia.
Skip Martin, best known as a member of Dazz Band and Kool and The Gang, gets to jazz it up on trumpet on “Against the Odds” and do his thing vocally and instrumentally on the dance funk showcase, “You're the One For Me.” The big discovery here is Julian Tanaka, a young sax player from Las Vegas who has been mostly working in straightahead territory. Like Schuman, his artistry is indescribable. He can shift from fast blasts of in your face licks to subtlety and nuance in a moment. The obvious thread holding all of this together is Schuman, who has developed such a level of virtuosity on piano and a variety of keyboards that he has the ability to take his music wherever his imagination leads him. Here, it leads him across a lot of territory. Whether he is soloing or backing up the other musicians every note is perfect, every mood is embraced. Listen to the retro-Rhodes fusion on the title track, then shift to the jazz chops he delivers on “Sweet Surrender” and “Then You Walked In,” chilled out synths on “Inevitable Changes,” or the power chords and synth solos on “Fusion Fire.” There's a super group lurking in that particular song too. Schuman, Oliver, Tanaka, and drummer Lee Pearson who is also the latest additon to the Spyro Gyra. This aggregation needs to hit the road together!
In the promotional video for this album there is an image of lightning-like bolts of electricity coming out of the keyboard Tom is playing. That sums up the effect of this music. Is the energy going out? Is it coming in? The answer is yes. It's about imagination, artistry, and how, if you let it, the perfect album can still transport you to all kinds of places you hadn't even though of before. All you have to do is buy it, put some headphones on, and take off.