Released in late 2012, Listen Both Ways is the third Playscape label album from drummer George Schuller's Circle Wide, following 2003's Round 'Bout Now and 2008's Like Before, Somewhat After, homages to particular eras of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, respectively. The album's opening track, the 11-and-a-half-minute "Could This Be the Year?," begins with easygoing strumming from guitarist Brad Shepik; his chords are folky but upon the entrance of Schuller, bassist Dave Ambrosio, vibraphonist Tom Beckham, and especially tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum (replacing previous saxophonist Donny McCaslin), the listener is instantly transported to another place. The pace remains relaxed and you might still anticipate the likes of a Tim Buckley or Nick Drake to step up to the mike, but when the intro vamp ends, the tune's breezy melody, gentle swing, open harmonics, and glistening timbres enhanced by Beckham's vibraphone mark this as creative jazz of the most appealing sort. There is an understated quality not only here but in "Newtoon" and the subtle read of Carla Bley's "Jesus Maria" (a number played by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 in the early '60s), both of which feature Apfelbaum on melodica rather than saxophone. The latter tune is gentle as a lullaby as Apfelbaum embraces the melody with a tone pitched somewhere between Toots Thielemans' harmonica and a strolling café accordionist.
But Listen Both Ways isn't predominantly a laid-back affair. Partway through his solo on the aforementioned opening track, Shepik employs a burning, sustained, even rockish tone as he shifts his tonal center with the underlying chord changes and then launches into a scalar climb ending nearly precariously at the top, Schuller building his own energy level in perfect tandem along the way. Apfelbaum's tenor is powerful yet graceful, soaring and jabbing with a multiphonic edge as the tune expands into free jazz and then wends its way back to structure with a lovely call and response from the sax, guitar, and vibes. Another lengthy track, "Store Without a Name," gives Ambrosio the opportunity to stretch out with beautiful tone through his solo feature as the other bandmembers retreat into quiet free rhythmic accompaniment behind him; later, Shepik and Apfelbaum build their own simultaneous fiery solos over the rhythm section's hyper-swing, responding to each other while throwing in quotes from the tune's theme. This is a creative jazz album with a fine balance. The players have plenty of room to breathe in their individual or collective improvisations, or take their sweet time in assembling around a groove, as in the rather Tim Berne-ish angular "Better Than Prozac," while elsewhere, they jump right into concise, jubilant, uptempo bop on a cover of composer/lyricist Margo Guryan's "Edwin." Schuller himself emerges most triumphant on Listen Both Ways: having composed six of the album's eight tracks, he proves that his own present-day music, not thematically focused as an homage to the past, can bring out the very best in Circle Wide.