Tom Schuman is a monster player who is not mentioned enough in the pantheon of jazz/jazz-rock players, possibly because his band, Spyro Gyra, is often thought of as a commercial, smooth jazz entity. Sure, they have made their share of melodic, accessible music, but if you go through their 30+ recordings from the past 40 years, you find a highly creative and powerful band that likes to break a sweat when playing live. Founding member Schuman can do it all—piano, Rhodes, orchestration, composition and, pertinent to this column, take-no-prisoners soloing on synth.
I found a great website (tomschuman.de/us-livesetup.html) that breaks down Schuman’s rig over the years, with Tom’s comments on each era. In his earliest days he soloed on a Minimoog, and later added a Multimoog, which he grew to prefer because it offered aftertouch, allowing him to add expression to his lines while comping with his left hand on another board. In the ’90s he replaced the Moogs with a Korg Prophecy, a unique physical modeling and virtual-analog synth favored by Joe Zawinul, among others. Nowadays, to cut down on the hassle of carrying gear and using backline, Tom uses ROMpler keyboards and modules, which he programs himself.
TURNING UP THE HEAT
This first solo is from a Schuman-composed tune “Conversations,” that has a nice set of jazzy changes. On the version from their 1984 live recording, Access All Areas, Tom schools us on how to play highly melodic lines at a fast tempo.
Example 1 shows the first two choruses of his solo, where the band breaks into a smokin’ double-time feel. He opens using a pentatonic scale for the Eb maj7 and centers on more color tones for the following Dmin7, and especially the Amin11 (using the 9th and 11th tones). He anticipates the Bb sus4 chord by two beats, which indicates the forward momentum of the solo, and is mostly using the Bb Mixolydian mode with a few chromatic passing tones.
The second chorus sees him outlining a Bb major triad over the Eb maj7 chord for a nice change of pace. In bar 12 he creates a motif that he re-arranges a bit across bars 13 and 14. Then it’s back to scalar lines for the Bb sus4, with some nice tension in the first two beats of bar 15. It might be the Bb half-step/whole-step diminished scale, which he quickly moves past into two beats of inside playing, then some chromatic approach notes across his lines in bar 16.
Example 2 is from a little later in the same solo, and it shows how well he mixes up pentatonic playing, never staying on the same scale for too long. Note how he treats the Dmin7 in bars 51 and 52, using different groupings of notes but not playing any D minor pentatonic clichés. The lines are much more interesting, as are the following two bars where he plays around with some intervallic leaps with repeated notes; just try to play that up to speed!
KEEPING ONE CHORD INTERESTING
Next, let’s examine one of his solos over a single chord, from the title cut on the Incognito album (1982). Example 3 shows Schuman soloing over a Bb min7, and he keeps it highly melodic, never sounding like he is just running a scale. Take note of the momentary outside line he plays in bar 4, based on the F augmented scale (F, Ab, A, C, C#, E). This is a great solo to lift lines from and learn in all keys to add to your vocabulary.
A TIP OF THE HAT
My last example comes from the band’s most recent release, The Rhinebeck Sessions (2013). On the tune “Who Knew!” Schuman pays homage to Joe Zawinul in both his synth timbre and soloing approach. Surprisingly, his sounds are coming from a MIDI stack of a Korg X-50, and his rackmount Roland JV-2020 and Fantom-XR. Tom told me he custom-programmed the sound blend, and it’s awesome.
Over a single G7#9 chord, Schuman moves from short colorful licks to some serious double- time (and even triple-time) excursions, taken right out of the Zawinul handbook. Example 4 shows the beginning of the solo before he takes crazy flight. I like playing shapes like this on single-chord funk, emphasizing the root, the sixth, and the minor third. It’s a great sound, with the tri-tone interval between the E (sixth) and the Bb (minor third). This entire solo (as well as the previous two) are available HERE and it has some frenzied sections.