Tom Schuman
by Shannon West

You probably know Tom Schuman best as Spyro Gyra's pianist/keyboardist. He has been in the band since they first started making records. What need to know is that he has created quite a stunning body of work on his own; beginning with an album he did on GRP in the early 90s and continuing with five releases on his own label, including Designated Planets, which just came out and is reviewed here. What I did not know is what an articulate, passionate and caring human being he is, although if you let the music do the talking every note is telling you just that. He was at home in his studio working on new music and was gracious enough to have quite a lengthy conversation about music, life, and, of course, his new album. 

SmoothViews (SV): You previewed the album with a short video that has an overview and you put up two videos that basically show how you composed the song “Inevitable Changes.” Looking at the two videos the first was the keyboards and the digital elements, then the second one was when you added the piano.
Tom Schuman (TS): That's how I came up with the initial chordal structure, which was all improvised at the spur of the moment then I went back and wrote the changes  out so I could use the acoustic as the main voice.

SV: The acoustic is what knocked it out of the ballpark for me.
TS: That's everything for me.  What I enjoy the most is when I get on a good acoustic piano, like a good Steinway, and I'm able to get the impetus I need from an instrument. The keyboards are really great but you're really only getting up to 127 on the velocity scale. You can't go any further. There's a level of frustration because there are things you can only do with an acoustic instrument. The thing about keyboards is that you can wire them straight into the sound board and raise it up as loud as you want so it sounds better to a large audience but with an acoustic piano you have to have the full impetus. You have to play it softly, you have to play it rationally. You start to think about how you wish you could just play this and forget the rest. The voice of that instrument is what I'm trying to retain more recognition for than the keyboards. People identify me as the keyboardist for Spyro Gyra. I would like for them to think of me as a jazz pianist.

SV: I don't think most listeners or media people identify that difference. They call anyone who plays instruments that have keys on them the keyboard player. 
TS:  They are absolutely two different worlds. 

SV: The other thing that made a big impression on me was the process. You seemed to be really in the flow of something, just totally enjoying creating the music and pulling together the melodies, instrumentation, and all the sonic nuances as the song came together.
TS: That's how I work. I let it take me over and let it produce itself, it's easier to do it that way. I have this feeling that it is going to happen so I go in and cast my fate to the wind, as it were, and do it. The thing about experimenting with these ideas is that I can go back and edit them. Think about what Miles Davis was doing. He was going on stage in front of an audience and experimenting live, and he would take this abuse because the crowd didn't get it, but by the end of the night you could hear a pin drop in the room because they were so amazed at what was developing in front of them. It's the utmost bravery to take those chances. It's a different thing when you are in your studio and you can say “that sucks” and hit delete before anyone hears it. What these guys were doing when I was growing up, when I was a young musician, is just astounding to me. 

SV: I love what you did on the “Last  Confessions” track. To me it is the closest thing on the album to the Spyro Gyra sound with the chord changes and Tanaka's sax lead then out of nowhere a voice emerges that sounds like Gregorian chant. A totally different sound but it fits perfectly.
TS: That was an altar boy. I actually found the voice on a Virtual Studio Technology plug-in. I was going through some stuff and I heard this single voice and I thought it was beautiful. It just happened that it went over the chord changes that I was working on at the time. It is another improvisation I put together that I decided to create a song around. The process was similar to “Inevitable Changes” and the changes that are under it are difficult to solo over. I couldn't believe that this vocal piece it was fitting in melodically, and it sounded so beautiful as part of the solo. This is how I produce. When something runs by my ear and gives me an emotional reaction I don't question it, I keep it. They don't happen often so when they do I don't question, I let it run. 

SV: You have taken these people that fans will recognize and brought some facets out that I don't think people have heard very often in their own recorded work. To start with, Steve Oliver is playing electric fusion. Anyone who has followed his career knows he can do anything, but I think this is the first time he has been recorded playing speed runs on electric guitar and using this type of dynamics. I talked to him around the time this was recorded and he was raving about getting to do that.
TS: Steve totally came out of the shell. He let the monster loose on this one. He really shredded on it. Steve is an amazing musician on all levels. He's a great writer, he's a great vocalist, he's a great guitarist, he's a great guitar technician. He really wanted to be on this record and he really wanted to do this kind of soloing. 
SV: It's a total blowout. Now I want a whole fusion album from him (laughs.)  Jeff Kashiwa does this stuff live but he hasn't been recorded with that level of intensity. You got Kevin Whalum into vocalese and scatting, and a sax player I hadn't heard from, Julian Tanaka, who just blew me away.
TJ: He's a local genius, literally. He came out of the UNLV music school. He's in his twenties but he's got this old soul,  this old spirit. Listen to the way he blew that jazz solo on “Then You Walked In.” I was thinking, wow, it's like I have Joe Henderson with me in the room today. He just came out of college. He's an amazing musician, he's mostly establishing himself in straight-ahead jazz. I recorded his album here too, but he's still intent on perfecting it more. His piano player, Reggie Johnson, is doing a project here too.  He loves my Yamaha C7 piano. He was getting sounds out of the piano that actually taught me how to play it a little lighter. I had been bashing on it but when you play it softly it just sings, it's so beautiful. That has inspired me to go in a different direction on my next project.

SV: Then there is Skip Martin, who most people remember and identify and identify as a member of Dazz band and old school funk in general but he's a killer jazz player and you let him have at that side too on the album.
TS: Skip has been basically in my life since I moved to Vegas. He searched me out as soon as he found out I was here, we got together, and I started doing gigs with him here at the casinos covering Kool and the Gang and Dazz band. I find that very, very, fun to play. I love R&B, I love funk music, and I love the way people react to it. They are on the floor dancing the entire night, which is something you don't see at jazz gigs. He introduced me to a lot of other players in town and he's been very instrumental in getting me to spread my wings as far as going from jazz to R&B and funk. I love hanging with him because of that and he loves hanging with me because I get him to play more jazz. He just did an album called Formal Dining that I produced at my studio and he does his jazz thing here, there's a version of “Round Midnight” on that album that is just gorgeous. He's playing more jazz and I've gotten him to sing in more of the crooner mode on some tracks too, so we help each other in a lot of ways. I've done some dates with him as the Dazz Band's keyboard player and that is a lot of fun. Besides getting up and dancing, the audience treats you like a rock star when you're doing those gigs.

SV: He does it all on this one, there's a funky one, some jazz, and some R&B chill meets quiet storm on “Ear Candy.” 
TS: And he's working with Rocco Prestia from Tower of Power on the dance funk song, “You're The One For Me.”

SV: They get down, it's a dance funk song with jazz credentials. Rocco was also involved with the Kevin Whalum song, “Look Into My Eyes” Those two songs play in a row and the writers were you, Prestia, and the featured artist so there was obviously a collaborative effect there. Kevin Whalum really flipped the switch on this, he has leaned more toward being the crooner and on this he has the scat and vocalese thing going in a very jazzed up way. 
TS: That song just came together. I started working with Kevin when he came to me and said he had the opportunity to do a score for a webcast. The thought of working with him was a real thrill. He came over and we started working with video clips. I started working on the sounds that would go on the videos but we also had to come up with some music for the backgrounds. I played him this groove that I was starting to play with. He was getting into it and wanted to do something with it. I had my Rhodes sound up and running and I had the microphone up and running so we just started playing. Basically the scatting and the main line of the harmony are the first take of him and I jamming on this groove. Then he went in and overdubbed all the harmonies to the main hook. This was all improvised on a first take basis. I didn't expect this to happen, of course, but when you are in a situation where there is no pressure and there is nothing but love in the house what I call “the God force” can just take over and really flow through you, and you get real gems from your performance. This is the other reason I love working in an environment like this that is filled with love and acceptance. There is no judgment, there is no wrong.You just do what comes through you and it is loved.

SV: You talked about listening to albums by other people and feeling like you were being transported, then when you became the one creating the music in the studio it was that and more. It was like visiting different planets.

TS: It's like visiting the different planets and being actually able to form the planet that you're visiting (laughs.) It's really that deep. Some people are going to think I'm nuts when they see that but let them think that, that's how it works for me. It goes deeper. It turns me into somebody else and I love the person I become. I become more confident, it is empowering. 

SV: This is your sixth solo album, and there is a lot of diversity across that body of work, and you've been a part of Spyro Gyra since they began recording so you have written songs and played on those albums, plus doing guest shots for other artists. How do you maintain that kind of wellspring of creativity.
TS: The music comes to me and having your own way of capturing everything is really important. Like I said, I can get in there and play and capture ideas as they come to me, and if it doesn't feel right I can just delete it. Technology has made it possible to collaborate with people all over the world, which has opened up more possibilities. I have a studio with the latest technology and that allows me to work with other people without the expense of traveling. Everybody pretty much has their own studio at home now so we don't have to work with schedules or be concerned about renting studio time. When I was working on this album Steve Oliver sent me his files, Jeff Kashiwa sent me his files, Kevin Marshall sent me his drum parts and vocals. I put it all together in my studio and mixed it. Then I flew Martin Walters out here to help me polish up the mixes and he mastered it. I had to incorporate a professional who has done more on the engineering side to do that part of the work. He is exceptional at it and he's a musician too, he's a great bass player. I have a house that allows me to do this, I have different rooms set up. There is I have a drum room that I built. I use it for drum and percussion and the horn sections and anything I need to record live. I have the piano and keyboards and computers. There's nothing to stop me from doing too much of anything. I actually did a single for the Las Vegas Mass Choir here. There were 17 people and they came to the house. I was able to record them, then mix them with the band and it came out sounding great. With the advent of digital audio I have been able to do things effectively and efficiently and also at high quality. It can pass for the big studio sound.

SV: And you don't have the clock ticking dollars by the hour, and you can work at whatever time you want to.
TS: Oddly enough, this has become a good side gig for me because people have heard what I produce here and they are calling me to produce their things. I give them a price, they come, and I produce them. I've been working very hard over the past few weeks on other artists' material.  It's been very rewarding because everything has a challenge to it and I love a challenge. I'm learning new things as I produce and find ways to get the best sound for other people. It's been a great process for me because I can concentrate on the more technical aspects, which I've always enjoyed. I've always enjoyed putting things together or tearing them apart and figuring out how things work. So now I'm kind of in business here running a studio and I'm really proud of the fact that I am producing a clientele that is very happy with what they hear at the end of the day.

SV: How does this interface with your work with Spyro Gyra.
TS: The changes in the music business and the economy have affected the band, At this point in time Spyro isn't working as much as we used to. I'm there for them when the gigs are coming through. The next thing I'm doing with them is in Jakarta at the end of this month. We are going to be at the Java Jazz Festival, which is huge. If you look at the Spyro website there are literally only a few gigs on the schedule for 2013.

SV: That seems to be the case with everyone I am talking to, lots of the bands and artists who used to tour constantly. Promoters are scared, fans don't have the type of disposable income they used to have, outside of a few established festivals and a few established venues it's hard to mount and route a tour and not cost effective to do one shot dates. 
TS: That's it, so what I am doing is whatever I can to keep me flowing and keep Spyro flowing too. We are going in to record in late March. We are going to put together a set of recordings that we can expand and extrapolate on. We aren't set on a concept or what kind of music we are going to play. We are just going to get together and
write and play. It's going to be very interesting because we are going to try to really push the envelope. We have the new drummer, Lee Pearson, and having someone new always adds this new voice. He has played with everybody from Snoop Dogg and Lauren Hill to Hank Jones and Kenny Barron, who are two of my piano

SV: A lot of readers are going to be surprised by your comment about Spyro Gyra, one of the biggest names in the genre, not being booked solid and touring. This is a challenging time for professional musicians. You see this from multiple perspectives, as an artist, label owner, producer and someone who has been around for a good chunk of the history of contemporary jazz as a genre. There used to be airplay, albums used to go gold, do you ever just shake your head and go “what happened?”
I loved the days when I could turn on the radio and I would hear something different that I had never heard  and it was mind boggling. I remember in the early 70's when Heavy Weather by Weather Report came out. I was driving home from a gig at 3 am and it's hard enough to keep going because I'm falling asleep. “Teen Town” comes on the radio and it is so overwhelming that I literally had to pull the car over and crank it up because I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Those days are gone and it's killing me. So what I am forced to do is create that music myself. It's about getting in my car and putting my CD in there to get that same feeling. I love this country. We have such freedom here, and so much to be grateful for. As artists we have the freedom to create what we want to create. Unfortunately, capitalism is what is stopping all these things that musicians and artists are so free to create from being heard or seen and enjoyed, because the dollar is what causes all things to happen. When you base everything on the dollar it is going to be about what the most people are willing to buy and everything else will fall by the wayside. That is why we are stuck having to listen to certain things that come from a lowest common denominator mentality. That's what it is assumed that the majority would rather hear. If the need for money is the basis for all art then art is going to go away and the fake stuff is going to stay. I don't know why, and it is not something I have any control over. But musicians are coming to the conclusion that they have to do what they do. You have to keep doing it and it will find its way. I think everything finds its way. It may not put you in a million dollar mansion but you aren't going to go homeless either. I don't think it is going to get that bad. 

SV: It creates a lot of filters that stop the audience from being aware of what is out there. Corporate media don't want to expose anything that they are not sure of and it has become all about being safe but it seems like people are seeking out more interesting stuff and setting up camp on the internet, both as creators and consumers.
TS: It has opened up a lot of opportunities but it has also done some damage because it has created ways for people to take music without paying for it. I have gone through the dark stages of it thinking “how dare they” when people download music for free. What if someone asked them to spend a day a work with no pay? But the Internet is also a free marketing tool. That's why I'm getting more involved in YouTube and the Social Networks and my mailing list. I'm getting on YouTube and I'm giving stuff away. One thing I'm doing now is that I'm going to start a series of solo piano pieces put them out there for people to see on YouTube. I already have the two videos on “Inevitable Changes” and that's just the beginning.  I am trying to figure out this new business model and make it work for me so people will aware that the CD's are available and when I am doing a live gig they will show up and the promoter will see that I am pulling a crowd and more gigs will come along. There's a tipping point where you have to keep doing this and just know that there is a reward of sorts at the end of the rainbow. My reward is ongoing. I don't have to have money to love what I am doing, which is the blessing. I just love that it's there and people can check it out and get what they can get out of it want my music to be heard and  I want to be able to support myself by doing what I love but I don't want stardom. If 100,000 people know who I am that will sustain me and give me enough of an income that I can live comfortably. 

SV: Stardom is so 20th century anyway (laughs). Right now it's about getting the music to the people who will love it when they hear it and being able to do what you love and keep a roof over your head. 
TS: And I'm so blessed that I have a wife who allows me to do this. Yvonne is my angel. When I was second guessing and getting in my own way she was the one that kept telling me I was an amazing musician and needed to put this stuff out. She helped me start JazzBridge music LLC back in the late 90's and she helped me figure out our finances to the point where I could buy a piano and buy studio equipment. And there are times when she has been the main breadwinner in this household.  I keep checking her. I keep saying “do you still love me, do you still enjoy this marriage (laughs). 

SV: And she is still saying yes! 
TS: So far so good! 
(and we exit with laughter) 

Tom's website is
You can watch his video press kit for Designate Planets and the two videos mentioned above on his YouTube

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