[I was honored to be asked to write the following liner notes for my old bandmate's debut album as a leader.]
Recently, I was introduced to Shine Thru—the debut solo record from drummer and composer Dan Schnelle—and I immediately knew I was hearing the soundtrack of a journey.
Today, the last day of the year, my head buzzes with thoughts of the Webb Telescope, and its recent launch, and the prospect of a more granular understanding of the universe—even as much remains distant and inscrutable. Apropos of nothing, perhaps—but I can’t help feeling that Shine Thru would nicely complement the Webb’s mission in endless, frigid space. Both are bright, pulsing intelligences, searching for whatever is out there.
It’s not just that Schnelle’s compositional titles tend toward the celestial—as with “Spaceman Spiff,” “2nd Orbit,” “Vistas,” “Unknown Territory,” or the starlight suggested by the title track. It’s not just that pianist (and frequent Schnelle collaborator) Josh Nelson previously released an excellent record on the theme of Mars. And it’s not just that some production details hint at the outer limits—like the Morse code rhythm (a translation of an Anne Morris quote) that laces “New Changes,” and that to my ear seems to reverberate from a distant galaxy.
Most important, as always, is the music. One can sense that working on this record was the best kind of rocket science. Good science, well-tuned to the abstract beauty of the cosmos. So even when things get frenetic—alto saxophonist David Binney’s solo on “Nosh Dukish,” for example—they never stoop to the cliché of “controlled chaos.” The music burns without ever coming apart. And whether you’re a cluster of state-of-the-art technology hurtling around the solar system, or an Earth-bound music lover wrestling with a peculiar moment of human history, that’s a comfort. You can rest assured that, whatever else happens, this journey will lead somewhere better.
“My main goal,” Schnelle says of his compositional process, “is to figure out how to deliver music that transports listeners to a new mental space—to invite them into my world, and make music that feels engrossing, so they lose track of time and space.” Years ago, I was lucky to witness that world forming, when Schnelle was a regular member of my big band. Back then, I noted his gift for taking the vaguest cue and transforming it into something well-suited to the work at hand. (My drum parts were notoriously under-inscribed.) So now, I’m not at all surprised to find Schnelle’s world more fully expressed—from the lovely wandering melody of “Thin Skinned,” layered over a deceptively simple quarter-note pulse; to the faint military-snare cadence of “Vistas,” evoking a sonic landscape both dreamlike and dramatic; and beyond.
It’s not easy to make your own musical world, let alone to invite others into it. But Shine Thru is another way of saying that come what may, one must remain true to one’s creative soul. Many have asked what it means to make art in this moment, when the world we already know seems to have lost its collective mind, and the future is perhaps less certain than ever. But the real question might be this: What would it mean not to? What would that leave behind? I hope we never find out.
December 31, 2021