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The last few years have been busy for Fort Wayne guitarist and composer Phil Schurger. And the way things are going, the next few are unlikely to offer any respite. One reason for the flurry of activity is the change in Schurger’s attitude toward playing live. In short, he’s become a yes man. That’s a good thing, especially for the growing number of people who have encountered Schurger’s fluid guitar work. It’s also a good thing for Schurger. His willingness to play with a wide variety of musicians in an equally wide variety of styles has earned him some positive karma. And now he’s spreading it around.
On Saturday, April 20 the Dash-In will host Phil Schurger’s Mayim Quartet for an evening of original jazz. The group – which includes Schurger on guitar, saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Jeff Greene and drummer Clif Wallace – will play a section of an ambitious project Schurger has been working on. The group will play the following day as well at Manchester College where Schurger teaches.
The musicians playing with Schurger are all internationally known and have toured extensively. Schurger met them through his frequent forays to Chicago where he lived off and on for several years. He now commutes to Chicago every chance he gets to rehearse his music and play in the jazz clubs with the guys in his group. The shows at the Dash-In and Manchester College give him a chance to play his compositions with musicians who know what he wants to accomplish.
“What this group represents for me is a mixture of my classical music interests, early 20th century music like Debussy and Ravel and Impressionism and my jazz influences – Wayne Shorter, Kurt Rosenwinkel. In the end, all of my music is rooted in groove and dance. It’s funky.”
Schurger was born in Delphos, Ohio and moved with his family to Fort Wayne where he finished high school. Following graduation he took off for the West Coast for a few years. When he was 24 he enrolled at Northern Illinois University to study music. That’s where he met Ward.
Ward, who lives in New York City, has a diverse performance and composition background. He has played with musicians such as Von Freeman, Frank Wess, Al Jarreau, Carl Allen, Rufus Reid, Jeff Parker, Brian McKnight and Hamid Drake and has performed around the world.
Wallace is a Fort Wayne native. He graduated from North Carolina Central University where he studied music and jazz performance. His work with the African-American Jazz Caucus’s Historically Black College and University All-Star Big Band earned him gigs with the likes of Jimmy Heath, Joe Chambers, Gerald Wilson and Jimmy Cobb. In 2009 he played with Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He currently lives and plays in Chicago.
Greene went to Indiana University where he studied jazz. Like Wallace, he attended Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. where he studied with Curtis Fuller, George Cables, Winard Harper and Billy Taylor.
Ward, Wallace and Greene are all accomplished composers, a fact that fits well with Schurger’s background and his intentions with the Mayim Quartet.
“I went to school for classical composition,” he said. “String quartets, things like that. It’s pretty strange, ambient stuff. What I liked about it was I didn’t have to put a drummer in it. When you add a drummer it puts time on a grid. There are a lot of drummers whose sense of time is one dimensional. With classical music the music breathes more, it’s more elastic. So what I’ve been looking for in the past 10 years is a rhythm section that’s more elastic. That’s what I like about this band. They can let time be elastic. There’s more freedom to how the groove develops.”
For a little more than a year Schurger has been going to Chicago to practice with these guys. And in June, he plans to record four albums’ worth of content with them. Much of what they’ve been working on lately are the improvisational sections each piece of music contains. The challenge for Schurger is to erase the line between free flowing music and note-for-note playing.
“What I don’t like about improvisation is when every improvisation sounds the same,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to do is treat them a little more like chamber ensembles, so each improvisation is sculpted to the piece so it has some context, some direction. In that sense it’s more like classical composers of the 20th century. It’s more symbolic of time. They may say let’s have three seconds of pause then do this random noise for 10 minutes. It gives a loose form to the improvisation. That’s what I’m going to try to do with these improvisations. I work with the people I work with because of the way they do what they do. The lines between composed music and improvised music is blurred. They bring a great blend of freedom and constriction. To me that’s the future of improvisation.”
A few years ago Schurger played with the Grateful Groove, the Fort Wayne-based Grateful Dead cover band. Lately he’s been playing the music of the Allman Brothers Band as well as the Dead in gigs around town. While the improvisation inherent in the music of these two bands appeals to Schurger’s sensibility, the sense of creating a communal experience tugs at him as well. And that’s what he hopes to achieve with his compositions and the Mayim Quartet. He found it during a recent performance of his music at Ketu Oladuwa’s Acoustic Spoken Word Cafe. And he’s convinced he’ll find it again at the Dash-In.
“I did a performance of this music at Ketu’s space. Primarily, what I’ve been doing with Grateful Groove and some of the Allman Brothers stuff is because the music is what was going on. There’s a collective experience in that music. I got that in Ketu’s space. That’s the reason I really love the Dash-In. The first time I played at the Dash we did the opening of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and we did a 15 minute version of it. We finished and people clapped. I didn’t know what to do. That was a great moment. The Dash-In has been a great resource for this kind of music. I think a lot of other musicians would echo that sentiment.”