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September 17, 2006
Interviewed by Mary Bentley

Smoothviews (SV): For the record, how long have you been a part of Spyro Gyra?
Tom Schuman (TS): Wow!  It’s an embarrassing number; since 1974.  I was a teenager at the time, 16 years old and still in high school.  That’s when I met Jay Beckenstein and Jeremy Wall, who was the original keyboardist.  They grew up together in Long Island, and they came to Buffalo to go to college.  That’s when I was kind of getting around town, doing some gigs.  They heard me.  I started sitting in with them and kind of working some material with them.  By 1977, the first record was being created.  I guess if you want to go back to when we met, that was 1974.  When I was actually employed for the first time by Jay, was 1977.  That’s when we started making the record.  Pretty scary.
SV: That’s a very long time.  There are people who work regular 9 to 5’s that can’t say they’ve been in one job for that long.

TS:  It became a mission.  That’s what it still is.  It seems to be improving the lives of so many people.  Everybody comes to our shows and tells us how our music has changed their lives.  That’s what keeps you going.

SV: The band has been around for a long time and it’s inevitable that there will be personnel changes. The latest change has been in the drum position.  Would you like to talk about that a little bit?
TS: Joel Rosenblatt was our drummer for 12 years.  Then he decided to move on and play with other folks in the jazz world.  He was an incredible drummer with us.  He really put on a great energetic show.  So they were hard shoes to fill, to say the least.   During our auditions we came upon this drummer, Ludwig Afonso, who was not even scheduled to audition with us.  He drove one of the auditioning drummers to the studio, and the friend of Ludwig’s asked us to audition him too – an unscheduled, impromptu kind of thing.  He went up there.  He had nothing to lose.  He really blew our socks off.  We decided to let him play with us.  When we were in the studio, we realized that he’s still young and he had a lot of experience yet to go through in his life, and he was a little green in the studio.  We were still working with Ludwig, but at the same time, we were still looking for other drummers.  And that’s where I came across Bonny B here in Las Vegas.  He was somebody that Julio Fernandez, our guitar player, told me about.  He saw him with Paul Taylor.  I was doing a gig here in Las Vegas with my own material and I was looking for a drummer here in Las Vegas, and Julio said, “Oh!  You’ve got to call Bonny B.”  So I did.  He ended up doing the gig.  It was fabulous – a really great experience.  When I told Jay about it, he said, “Hey, do you think he’d want to do this gig?”  So I asked Bonny and he said, “Yeah!  Are you kidding?  Of course.”  So, it’s always a search for a perfect fit.  It really has nothing to do with the abilities of certain players, I mean, obviously there are going to be great players, and there’s going to not so great players.  But we’re just looking for who can fit in this band perfectly, not only musically, but personality wise, performance wise, and professionally; who can travel well, and, (laughs) who dresses well.  There are so many aspects that go into being a member of a band.

SV: That’s very interesting because we, the fans, don’t see it from that standpoint.  We just see the finished product of what’s up on stage.  We don’t see any of the other things that go on.
TS: Exactly.  And nobody’s perfect.  We all have our little quirks, our little idiosyncrasies that are hard to deal with.  But, as a band that’s been around for so long, we’ve all learned how to ignore things that irk us about each other and just concentrate on the positive.

SV: That leads me to one of my other questions.  This band has been around for so long, and has consistently been one of the top bands in the genre.  What do you attribute that to?  How does the band work so well for so long?
TS: There are a lot of factors that go into that.  Jay Beckenstein is obviously a great saxophonist, a great lyrical musician and a great writer.  One of his geniuses, especially in the beginning, is that he is a great businessman.  But I think what he did was he really picked great people to work with him.  He knew exactly who would be loyal, and who would be the best professionally, musically, and personally.  Obviously he didn’t pick everybody right away.  We had to lose some people and gain others, but when he picked me, Julio Fernandez, and Scott Ambush, I think he picked three of the most loyal, capable and professional people that could possibly be picked for this band, because no matter what they throw at us – I mean, we could be playing a small club one day, and 25,000 people the next, we will adjust ourselves to those venues flawlessly and seamlessly.  It’s just an amazing thing to be able to do.  I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to last this long, but, we have to be, really, kind of flexible and malleable.  We have to be able to adjust our touch and adjust our attitudes.  We also have to be loyal and see the mission for what it is.  It’s just about the music and the fans.  It’s not about anything else.  It’s really about the spirit of the band and how the fans have always been there for us.  They’re always coming up to us and telling us how the music has changed their lives, like I was saying before, and how the music has improved their lives.  When we do these CD signings after the shows, that’s when we really find out why we’re doing this.  Sometimes the lines are hundreds thick, and we’re there for hours after our show, and we’re exhausted, you know?  But it’s really turned into one of the most incredible learning processes of the entire career; finding out how this music has affected these people.  Everywhere we go these lines of people wait to meet us and tell us how much they love our music.  We give them a little bit of our time, we take pictures with them, we sign anything they want us to sign and then we go home and say, “Yeah, now I understand why I’m doing this.”

SV: And the writing is just so fantastic.  Everybody writes really good material.  Everybody has contributed some really good material over the years.
TS: Yes, and Jay gets a lot of material.  We write a lot of stuff.  He picks the material.  Sometimes he gets more material than he can handle from us.  He’s very prolific himself.  He comes up with eight or nine things and we end up doing three or four.  We all try to give more than what’s needed.  Plus, sometimes it just happens naturally – the kind of material just comes together perfectly.  I think that happened with this latest record, Wrapped in a Dream.  I was really happy to be a part of that, as I am happy about every record that Spyro Gyra does.  I’m excited about the next one too. (Laugh)

SV: You’re already thinking about the next one?
TS: Oh, absolutely!  We have some time off this month.  I’m not playing until the middle of October in Minneapolis with Spyro Gyra, so I’m going to make a concerted effort to write a few things.

SV: It seems like you guys have a reasonably sensible tour schedule.
TS: Yeah, it’s reasonably sensible now.

SV: It doesn’t seem crazy like I’ve seen with some other artists – venues all over the place.
TS: We used to be like that.  We’d like to be.  That’s how we end up coming home with bigger paychecks (laugh.)  It’s really a tough business now.  A lot of guys are kind of freaking out because they’re not working as much as they used to.

SV: I guess that’s why they have all of those package tours.
TS: Yes.  We’re one of the few bands out there, I mean; it’s us and The Rippingtons, The Yellowjackets, and Hiroshima.  I can’t really think of many more.  Not only that, we’re one of the few bands that has a crew.  We have three guys that travel with us and do front of house sound, monitors, stage management, lighting, and stuff like that.  Not too many bands go out there with that many crew guys.  We use our own man because he’s been with us for 20 years.  He knows every move we make.  It just makes it so much easier for us to go in there and do sound checks.  He just rips through it with us.  We’re [sometimes] on a motor nerve when we come into the sound checks.  We’re so adept to giving him what he wants and getting the mix just right.  Most people come up to us after the show and say, “Man!  You guys sound like a CD out there.”  I tell them, ‘You have to thank Neil Statmiller.  That’s our guy.  He does our sound.’  Plus, we have our own monitor guy who tends to our personal needs on stage.  That’s very important.  If you don’t have somebody who knows you and who knows what you want, it’s going to take hours to get your sound just right on stage.  If a musician is not comfortable with his sound, he’s not going to play well.  It’s really, really hard when you go to these venues dealing with people that you don’t know, to go up there in a half an hour, or whatever time they give you to get your sound together.  It’s really hard to get a good sound.

SV: I bet it is, especially if it’s one of those festival settings.
TS: Oh, absolutely!  The whole thing that they’re doing nowadays at these festivals, they give you 20 minutes.

SV: A “plug and play.”
TS: Yes, you go up there and you throw it together.  A lot of times it’s painful for me to see these other acts up there.  They’re literally in pain while they’re playing; there’s feedback, there’s guys running around the stage trying to fix things as they’re doing their set, you’re not hearing the guitar, you’re not hearing the keyboardist.  Come on!  There’s got to be a better way to do this.  So, what we do in order to secure our sound out front, and our “funability” (laugh), I mean, we want to be able to go up there and have fun, is, we keep this crew with us.  They take care of us.  All they’re concerned with is about us and our needs.  And it’s worth it. 

SV: It seems that you have the best of all professional worlds.  You do your Spyro thing, you do your own thing, you have your solo projects, you have JazzBridge, and, you write and produce for other people.  Is this the way you envisioned things would turn out for you? 
TS: I’ve been pretty much doing what I wanted to do, except I thought I’d be making more money. (Laugh)

SV: Don’t we all! (Laugh)
TS: I’m not complaining because I’m still living a good life.  I’m happy.  I have a wonderful marriage.  I love my wife.  My wife works too.  I cannot stress this enough – if you go into the music industry to make money, then you either have to be really young and good looking and have a kind of sound all your own, and go in and know that you’re going to be the next Mariah Carey.  You know what I mean?  Just go right to the top and really invest your money, and be smart with the money you’re going to make, or just not do it for the money.  Do it because you love it and that you know the good quality music you put out there, there’s going to be an audience for it, and they’re going to come to your concerts and enjoy what you do.  If you walk away with enough money to pay your bills, then you’re successful.  As far as I’m concerned, you’re making it. (Laugh)  So, that’s what we’re doing.  We’re paying our bills.

SV: When we interviewed Steve Oliver for his 3D release, this is what he had to say about you: [READING EXCERPT FROM STEVE OLIVER INTERVIEW FROM 11/04]
TS: Wow!  Mr. Positive!  Steve Oliver is the most positive guy I’ve ever met in my life.  If he doesn’t have anything good to say about someone, he doesn’t say anything.  But that’s not taking away from the fact that he’s right.  I really enjoy what I do, and I love the music.  As a matter of fact, he sent me some tracks to work on this week for his next CD.  Anything he does, I’m all in.  I’ll help him as much as I can.  I love producing music because I love trying to create a vision that maybe somebody didn’t realize yet.  I call it an audio vision.  It’s like a spectrum I can see with my inner eyes, but to the rest of the world, it’s just sound.  And I love that aspect of being a musician.  Producing, to me, is creating something out of nothing.  It’s a virtual world that you make real through sound, and I’m just really into it.

SV: So, that answers my next question.  Is that something you’d like to do more of?
TS: Yes, and I’d like to go into the realms of expanding into movie soundtracks, video games, whatever I can do to add sound to another reality.  There’s this thing in Las Vegas called the Fremont Street Experience.  Well, Yvonne and I were at a meeting that they called.  They were asking me questions about the music, what did I think about the music, and everything.  I was just flattered by that.  They wanted to know if I would be interested in writing some sound for that.  Yes!  Please send me whatever, and I’ll try and score something to it.  It hasn’t happened yet, but, man!  At certain times of the night, they turn all the lights off and it’s just this amazing canopy screen overhead that puts this video up there, and the sound is all around you.  The only thing I told them to do is to try and incorporate subwoofers on the street.  I saw these garbage cans placed strategically along the street.  I said, ‘You could put subwoofers in every one of those garbage cans and then you can rumble the ground. (Laugh)  They were really psyched by the thought of it being more surround sound.  So, I just love the whole experience of enhancing sound, and surround sound techniques.  It’s just an amazing world technologically; and it’s just going to get better.  It’s just going to get more real.  When you go to the movies now, you see these animated features now that literally are turning into reality.

SV: It’s like you’re not even watching an animation.
TS: It’s so real, and I think that music is becoming that too.  A lot of times people say, when they hear my music, “Who’s that bass player?  Who’s that drummer?”  I tell them, ‘It’s all sample technology.  These are samples of people playing, and I just edit them and place them on an audio field, as it were, and place them strategically, so that it sounds like a flawless performance from beginning to end.  They don’t really understand that.  They’re just scratching their heads. That [sound] is exactly what I wanted to happen.  I went in and found the right drum licks and the right drum sounds, and I placed them in it.  I have the equipment now that I need to access some of the greatest drum samples on the planet.  And the bass work is done by me personally; pretty much everything [is.]  If I need percussion, I can always access the greatest percussion samples.  They’re real percussion sounds, real percussion players, but I purchased the sounds. I have the rights to all that material.  All I do is place it in my digital audio field and strategically place it so that it creates the musical emotional content that I want.

SV: And you did that a lot on your current release, Deep Chill?
TS: Deep Chill is mostly me playing with sample technology, and it comes out sounding like a killing band.

SV: It does.  I can’t tell that it’s not.
TS: Of course, I have vocals.  I’ll use a vocalist.  If I need extra guest artists to play saxophone, I won’t use saxophone samples.  I’ll have somebody come in and put their personality on it.  That’s why I used Jeff Kashiwa, and I used Chuck Loeb on guitar on the piece called “Redondo Beach.”  I used Peter White on “All This Love.”  The vocalist I used was Angei; who’s a friend of mine who used to be with Ray Charles.  That’s the way I make records now.  It’s very cost effective.  It’s more personal to me, actually, because I realize that the bass player is actually me, the drummer is actually me, the percussionist is me, and the keyboardist is me, so I feel that is really more me than if it was a whole bunch of guys getting together.  Then I’d have to deal with their interpretation of my music rather than my own.  I even have names for the band.  My bass player’s name is Shu Thompson.  The drummer’s name is Slide Function. (Laugh)  Anyway, I try to personalize them.  I don’t want to do it that way – I’m forced to.  These are obstacles that I have to work around.  I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around to pay the greatest musicians in the world, to fly them in here and put them up in hotels, and have them play.  I’m not a big record label.  I’m putting all this stuff out myself.  Pretty much every aspect of it is me and my wife.  I make the music.  She helps me to package it, and we distribute it ourselves.  We put it on our website.  It’s not flying out the door, but, I’m just happy that it’s there.  If anybody wants to buy it, they can go there and purchase it.

SV: Is there any chance that your material will be performed live somewhere?
TS: I’m hoping to strike a relationship with some people here in Las Vegas.  Bonny B. lives here and he loves the material.  Jeff Kashiwa and I have been thinking about doing something together.

SV:  That would be great.  I liked the two of you together on Deep Chill.  Something worked well between you.
TS: The great thing is that Jeff played on that record and I wasn’t even in the room.  He did it at home and sent me the files.

SV: There’s a lot of that being done lately.
TS: Yes, it’s amazing.  I trusted him completely.  I said, ‘Look, here’s the tune.  I really want you to play on it.’  He said, “Great!  Give me a couple of days.”  The next thing I know, I’m getting an e-mail from him.  I go on-line, grab the files, put them in, and said, ‘You’re done.” (Laugh). 

SV: Wow!  I just find that all so amazing.
TS: Yes, it is amazing.  It helps because…music should be really easy for musicians to produce.  We really need it in this world.  From travel, to the cost of living, it’s just getting really hard to get the right people together.  So, through this beautiful technology that everybody kind of takes for granted right now, we’re able to do a lot of crazy things.  Pretty much anything you can imagine in your head you can make it happen with your Macintosh.  That’s a Macintosh commercial. (Laugh.) 

SV: It was something similar when I was looking at the re-releases of Star Wars, and they were talking about how the technology for that changed since its original release in the ‘70’s.
TS: Absolutely.  I see old science fiction movies now and the special effects seem like such a joke.  It’s so cheap looking.  Nowadays, if you look at the disaster movies that they’re making now – there’s really nothing that you can’t imagine that they can’t make happen.  It’s just an amazing technology.  I’m glad to be just on the tip of the iceberg by just doing audio.  Part of me wants to get into the video as well, but that’s just too much of a learning curve for me right now. 

SV: Each of your four solo projects is so different from one another.
TS: That’s because I’m able to do whatever I want.  If I owned a big record label, and I had a record that sold, say, 100,000 copies, which is really good these days, they would literally come after me to make an exact duplicate of that record.  “Don’t make it sound the same, but make it the same, because we want to sell at least the same amount, if not more.”  And that’s just too much pressure, I’m sorry.  I want to be able to do what feels good to me at this moment in time.  And, if it doesn’t sell, that’s fine with me.  I’m not doing this to sell records, to make money.  If I did things for money, I’d be playing things a whole different way, putting out stuff that really doesn’t impress me, but impresses the right people in order to sell lots of records.  And then I would be a very unhappy artist.  I’m not rich.  I’m doing this because I love to do it, and I’m very happy.  Isn’t that what life should be about?

SV: Another artist I interviewed last year said something similar.  He said, “At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself.”
TS: Exactly.  You have to love that you’re putting this thing out.  To me, the tunes and the production, they’re like my children.  I really feel personal about them.  I’m very concerned about their well being after they leave the studio.  That’s why Yvonne and I put together our own label and decided to do this ourselves and just create a company.  We tried to do it as legally and smoothly as possible.  Thank God I’m married to an attorney who knows a few things.  It’s really put the pressure off of me to try and trust somebody else, because there are some real dogs out there, some real sharks.  All they care about is the bottom line, the almighty dollar.  They will skim everything they can from you that they can get away with.  That’s just the way of the world.  We have to get used to it.  I can’t live like that.

SV: Well, that’s good.  It seems like everything worked well in your favor.
TS: I’m content with my life.  I’m happy with my output of artistic material.  I love my wife.  I love my family.  We have a nice house.  What else can you ask for?

SV: Is there anyone that you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
TS: Oh my gosh!  A lot of people.  I wish I could help Michael Brecker get better.  I wish I had the bone marrow that he needed so that we could do the next record together.  That would be my number one wish right now.  That would be the ultimate duet record, wouldn’t it?  If I gave him the bone marrow that he needed, and it cured his problem and we went and did a duet record out of celebration, what a great dream that is.

SV: Every now and then I would hear some updates, but then I hadn’t heard anything in a long time.
TS: I’m afraid to hear anything.

SV: It’s so specific what he needs though.
TS: It’s very specific to his genealogy.  There are only certain bloodlines that he can test, but everybody is rooting for him and praying for him.  You just have to hope for the best.  It’s a very short life as it is.  But his body of work, just at this point in time is so immense that he’s going to live forever, in the hearts and minds and ears of the listeners from now until eternity.  But yes, he’s at the top of my list of people I want to work with, other than Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis.  I mean, these are all sax players.  I love that instrument, and I love trumpet.  I can’t work with Miles.  That was my other wish.

SV: I think that was everybody’s.
TS: I wish I could spend the day with Oscar Peterson at his house, just playing duets.  But, there are only so many hours in a day.  I’m trying to do the next best thing.

SV: How did it come about that you ended up working with Kashiwa, Chuck Loeb, and Peter White on Deep Chill?
TS: It all kind of came together naturally.  I’ve worked with Chuck Loeb before on some Spyro Gyra material.

SV:  That’s right.  Got the Magic.
TS: So, when I listened to the track, “Redondo Beach,” I thought to myself, who would be a great guitarist for this lead?  And who would be a guitarist who could play the kind of solo I’m looking for?  Immediately, I thought of Chuck.  I called him and he said, “Yes, of course I’d love to play on it.  Send it to me.”  All I had to do was send him the tracks.  A couple of days later he sends them back.  And Jeff Kashiwa was just somebody I’d known through his working with the Rippingtons, and seeing him on and off on the road.  We’ve always talked about doing something together.  When it came to the saxophone work, he’s the first one I called.  He said, “Sure, anything.  I want to be on your record.”  So again, I knew that he had the technological thing down.  And that worked out well.  The Peter White track, “All This Love,” was something that I had done back in 1999.  I had been producing this track.  At the time we were doing the recordings on A-DAT, digital audio tape.  I sent him an A-DAT tape and he put his parts on that.  I’ve had it in the can for about four or five years.  I decided to bring this out to see if I could use his parts, and they worked great.  And I didn’t even pay him.  I played a concert with in exchange for his work on my record, so, it worked out great.  It was a lot of fun for me to play with him.  I’d never done a gig with him before.  We played two shows at the Rams Head in Annapolis, MD.  He’s just a wonderful guy.  I’d always wanted to work with him, and now, he’s just huge.  It’s always great to have someone of his stature on anything that you do.  So, it worked out great for me.   Jeff Jarvis is another player who I’ve worked with in Buffalo, and he’s a very talented guy.  He was on another one of those covers tracks that I had done a long time ago that I resurrected for this record.  That worked out great because I just kept his parts.  And Angei is the vocalist.  When I lived in MD, she had been coming to write some things with me.  We ended up writing about nine songs together.  In return for that, she sang on a few of the solo stuff that I had in mind.  It’s one of those – I work for you, you work for me, things.  We won’t need to worry about money.  I like working like that.

SV: Like a barter system.
TS: The barter system is great in music because both musicians really benefit from it.  You get things done quicker and cheaper, and your dreams are realized.  Again, it just kind of came together that way.  I really enjoyed working with all of them.  They’re all great artists and leaders in their own right.

SV: We reviewed Deep Chill a few months ago, back in March.  I thought that “Fearless Fostic” was a great way to open that CD.  It makes you want to listen to the rest of it because it’s such a good song.  And I liked “Quality Time” a lot.  It’s a beautiful song.  I know you previously recorded it on another one of your albums.
TS: Yes, that was Into Your Heart.

SV:  It’s such a signature “Schu” song.  It’s really great.
TS: Well, that reminds me of how I feel when I’m at home.  That’s kind of my anthem for relaxation.  It’s time to relax and enjoy the love you have in your home.

SV: Kind of like comfort food.
TS: Right.  Exactly. (Laugh)  That’s a good way to putting it.

SV: Is it hard to separate all the different roles that you play –member of  Spyro Gyra, producer, CEO, solo recording artist, all of that?
TS: It’s all the same.  It’s all me.  But, what I’m not good at doing is multi-tasking.  In other words, I can do every single one of those things well as long as I’m concentrating on only that thing. (Laugh)  So, if I’m working with Spyro Gyra, I am living and breathing Spyro Gyra.  All I do is concentrate on the music, and my clothes that are required for the gig, and the packing, and the keyboards that I’m going to be using, and the sounds that I’m going to be using.  All I concentrate on is that.  When I come home and I’m producing something, I just get Spyro out of my mind completely, and I just move on to whatever is needed; one thing after another for whatever I’m producing.   I’m just doing each thing when the time is there for me.  That is the only way I can work.  I’m not really sure how else I can do it.  I have to take each step as it comes.  I can’t run through things.  I can’t rush through things.  I can’t do one thing while I’m doing another.  I just concentrate on each thing as it’s needed.  That’s the only way I can get the results I’m looking for.

SV: Actually, that sounds like a civilized way of doing things.
TS: It really is simple.  It’s a complex world when you think about it, when you’re dealing with computers, and synthesizers, and wave forms.  What resolution are you going to use on this song?  You don’t even want to think about that stuff anymore.  Just turn it on and let’s get going.  And that’s the way I’ve set up my studio.  I have one way of doing things, and I just get started.  The result is what you hear.  If it’s pleasing to the ear, and gets an emotional reaction, then I’ve done my job.  So I try to simplify as much as I can, my process, and getting the tools in place so I can always access them.

SV: What’s next for you, for Spyro, and for Jazz Bridge?  What’s on the horizon?
TS: First of all, Spyro Gyra will be getting ready to make another record, and we will be using Bonny B.  I’m going to try and get Bonny into my studio and work with me to do some co-writing.  And, I will be working on some more of my own stuff.  I’m not going to rush anything.  I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be yet, but I’m hearing a bunch of stuff that’s coming to me.  I’ve also got a lot of stuff that’s still in the can that needs to be worked on and finished.  I may want to do another acoustic record – acoustic piano, acoustic bass, all straight ahead jazz, but not necessarily in a standards direction; more of a contemporary, original direction, but using acoustic instruments.  I may try and get involved on one level or another with the movies, or any kind of visual orchestrating, scoring, or whatever.  As far as Jazzbridge Music is concerned, anybody who really wants to be a part of it can be a part of it.  Come in and hang out with us and create something beautiful and we’ll put it on Jazz Bridge.

SV: Very good.  That takes care of all of my questions.
TS: I appreciate this opportunity.  Thanks for a great talk.
SV: No, thank you.  And I’ll see you and the band at the Birchmere in November.


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