It’s often said that musicians spend their whole lives working on their debut albums. As a result, first records frequently set a high standard for an artist.Both apply to the guitarist Phil Schurger’s debut Echoes of the Ancestors.
The album comprises six tracks of finely written and played jazz ranging from the fairly straight ahead to the avant-garde and free jazz end of the spectrum. The songs groove and soar but also nudge the listener out of complacency.
Written over the span of a decade, Echoes of the Ancestors finds the guitarist in a meditative and contemplative place, which is only natural because when he’s not lighting up some stage with his blend of thoughtful and scorching playing, he’s in meditation practice or off contemplating nature or studying the vast sweep of human spiritual rituals and beliefs across the millennia.
People around northeast Indiana probably know Schurger best through his work as a teacher of guitar and composition, through his improvisational rock group The Sun Gate or from his playing with The Grateful Groove. Echoes of the Ancestors combines Schurger’s gifts as a composer and musician.
“Lucid (Soma)” kicks off the album, swiftly carrying the listener along a path of familiar, accessible jazz. Clocking in at just over 12 minutes, “Lucid (Soma)” seems to fly by with nicely timed sections of structure and improvisation.
The song introduces not only the general feel of the CD but also the fine playing of Schurger’s band: Greg Ward on alto sax, Jeff Greene on upright bass, and Clif Wallace on drums. Schurger has played with these guys for many years, and it shows.
Schurger uses each of the tracks to explore different aspects of intention and release, discipline and flow. As the album progresses, the demands on the listener increase. This is not background cocktail party music. Nor was it meant to be.
For instance, the central tune on the record, “Air of the Forest,” is a sort of guided meditation on the changes that take place in a woods over a period of one night, from dusk to dawn. In a live performance of the album, Schurger said the song is about such a night he spent among the trees on his family’s property.
At times calming, at others disorienting, the music represents the changes in the wind, sounds and light, and the feelings experienced while finding one’s place alone in nature. Leaves chatter on their branches, shadows grow and shrink as the moon traces its path across the sky, and birds suddenly announce the arrival of the dawn. It’s heady stuff. And it’s well worth taking the time to experience it through the gifted musicians on this record. Preferably with headphones.
The recording itself is top-notch. My only complaint is that sometimes Schurger is a bit too pocketed in the mix. But maybe that’s just my ears. It is always a delight, however, when he suddenly appears, building to a crescendo, soaring above the sax and the bass and the drums.
Schurger may have spent a decade writing and rewriting the tunes on Echoes of the Ancestors, but it was worth the time. It may be a tough act to follow, but with luck, we won’t have to wait another 10 years to hear from Schurger again. (Mark Hunter)