Spiritual swing

Richard Shulman sits on a comfortable-looking rolling chair placed next to a large black keyboard and two Mac computers.

Sometimes, when he turns his head away in thought, the large lenses of his glasses catch a blue-tinted glare from one of the screens, rendering his eyes opaque and glowing.

Shulman is a small-framed man, and between his New York accent, slightly self-conscious demeanor, spectacles and wild, kinky hair, it’s almost impossible not to off-handedly liken him to a sort of younger, alternate-universe Woody Allen.

It’s not as careless a comparison as it might seem. Like his movie-icon doeppelganger, Shulman also loves jazz.

“Jazz,” he explains in a soft, almost apologetic voice, “is visceral.”

Though he’s been based out of Asheville since his arrival in town in the fall of 1998, Shulman isn’t widely known here — his orchestral, ethereal compositions aren’t exactly a big club draw.

He calls what he does “healing music,” but there’s another, more problematic term that’s been thrown about, as well.

“If you want to call it New Age,” says Shulman, “then call it New Age; but like the word ‘God,’ the [term] New Age has a lot of backlash to it.”

Shulman’s most recent project, Visions of Camelot, a massive, modern-classical opus he produced in collaboration with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, is the culmination of 10 years’ musical experimentation and searching. Much of the content for the project evolved from what Shulman calls “musical soul-portraits.”

Yet it’s jazz that has him worked up now.

Shulman has put himself at the front of the local jazz scene as part of the increasingly popular Jazz Composers Forum, a monthly event hosted by Taken Back Quartet. (This local four-piece will perform some of Shulman’s jazz compositions at the next forum, and he’ll join them on other numbers.)

Though Shulman spent most of his career playing in jazz groups, the great American music form took a back seat for Shulman these past few years while he finished work on Visions of Camelot. He’s excited to be performing jazz again, particularly with Taken Back, a young act known for its innovation.

“The jazz balances the more … ethereal music that I do,” he says carefully. “If you heard my really deep music for healing, there is not a lot that seems to be happening. It’s very slow. So, [the jazz] brings out more dynamic elements.”

A professional performer and composer since 1971, Shulman has spent his adult life working with both kinds of music. But as his musings meander from his “other music” to jazz, his expression shifts from one of placid reflection into a spritely, mischievous grin.

“Where does a jazz musician get the notes that he or she plays?” asks the composer, who communicates in part through a string of rhetorical questions, which he then duly answers.

“Sometimes, it comes out of the licks that they’ve practiced, and that can be good, but it can also be kind of stilted,” he answers himself. “The true essence of playing jazz, or any improvisational music, is listening. When you can listen, you play, or write, what you hear inside. That’s when it’s flowing.”

Shulman’s house is more a studio than a true living space. Thick black power cords and mic cables snake across the floor of what would normally be called his den.

Obviously, he feels most at home inside his work. And he’s not quite willing to sequester his two musical loves into separate quarters.

“You know,” he asserts, “it all comes from the same place.”


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