By OWEN McNALLY, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant
December 29, 2011
Guitarist/composer Michael Musillami's trio, his alliance with his longtime friends and collaborators, bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, is a superb, finely tuned unit, empathetic, swinging and dramatically expressive of emotions sweeping from joy to sadness.
As a composer, arranger and colorist, Musillami also likes to paint broad sound portraits using the wider tonal palettes provided by larger units as he does on his fine, new album, "Mettle" (Playscape Recordings). On the CD, set for release Feb. 7, Musillami expands his flagship trio lineup by adding four additional musicians. His dynamic septet's collective textures and crisp chamber music interplay make it seem far larger than its actual numerical size of just seven pieces.
A longtime Connecticut favorite whose Hartford roots go back to the heyday of the legendary 880 Club, Musillami presents a preview of his new CD with a free concert Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. at The Hotchkiss School's Esther Eastman Music Center in Lakeville. His pre-release celebration of "Mettle" is also a homecoming of sorts since the guitarist/educator is the longtime director of the jazz studies program at The Hotchkiss School, a prestigious prep school. (Information: http://www.hotchkiss.org and 860-435-2591.)
On the CD, the septet is described as The Michael Musilammi Trio + 4, with the trio (Musillami, Fonda and Schuller) joined by Matt Moran, vibes; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone and clarinet, and Ned Rothenberg, alto saxophone and clarinet.
For the concert at Hotchkiss, the septet lineup is the same as it was for the album's studio recording session, with the exception of pianist Peter Madsen replacing vibraphonist Matt Moran.
At the heart of the beefed-up ensemble is Musillami's touring and recording trio, a group that celebrates its 10th anniversary together in 2012.
More impressive than longevity, however, is the trio's remarkably tight, cohesive unity. This element goes hand-in-hand with the threesome's free, open sense of exploration both as individuals and as a unit in which they constantly interact with one another.
At the centerpiece of the album is Musillami's first extended work, "Summer Suite: Twenty Ten," an eight-movement opus inspired by his experiences and reminiscences from the summer of 2010.
Musillami's personal, sometimes whimsical, sometimes heartfelt inspirations range from a volcano in Iceland ("Iceland") and his then newly shaved head ("Bald Yet Hip") to memories of his immigrant/laborer grandfather working his way West ("Nevada") to his daughter, Olivia, going away to college in Boston ("Liv's in Beantown.") Other sources of inspiration range from Fonda's famously sunny disposition ("High Likeability Factor" to the music of Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla in "Piazzolla on the Porch," an infectious, funky, tangy tango seasoned with wry solos by the band's two saxophonists.
Each piece in the suite tells a story, creating an engaging compendium of musical memoirs that you can listen to straight-through in one sitting or tune-in to at different times as separate pieces. Sweet pleasures are derived either way you choose to listen, thanks to the quality of the composing, arranging and the soloing and collaborative efforts of this happy band of brothers.
"My intention in writing a suite was to compose a complete musical journey with a beginning, middle and end. Through the arrangements, I've tried to fully utilize all of the musicians in the band to paint a diverse colorful portrait," Musillami writes in his liner notes.
Diversity and color abound.
"Bald Yet Hip," for example, more than lives up to its funny, not necessarily paradoxical title. It's bold not bald, amusing, swaggeringly hip and, without doubt, the greatest jazz ode ever devoted to a closely shaved pate.
From the suite's volcanic opening chapter, which is titled "Iceland," to the grand finale, "The Barnstable News," Musillami shows his mettle as an artist whose career spans more than 25 years of wide-ranging accomplishments as a performer, bandleader, composer, educator and significant contributor to the Indie recording scene. Currently, he is the manager of Playscape Records, a noted independent label he founded in 1999. (www.playscape-recordings.com)
With his trio, Musillami has performed throughout Europe and North America and released five earlier recordings since 2002. Now comes the freshly minted "Mettle," a precious musical metal that sets the Gold Standard for smart, vibrant chamber jazz groups to measure up to.
Fonda, Musillami's comrade-in-arms, is another Hartford favorite who first began making a name for himself in the capital city in the era of the 880 Club and in Bushnell Park at the height of Paul Brown's free Monday Night Jazz series in the downtown park.
The bold bassist is so compatible with Musillami's adventurous playing that the pair sound like alter egos with their fleet intertwining of ideas and in-sync views on rhythm, harmony and improvisation. Schuller, an inventive drummer with a profound sense of the shapes, colors and kaleidoscopic patterns of rhythm, is also a perfect fit in Musillami's core trio.
Besides the suite, the album also features three noteworthy stand-alone pieces, "Piana Dei Greci," the CD's atmospheric opening track; the triumphant "Blues for the Wounded Warrior," and the amusing "Thuggish Mornings." Like the eight pieces in the suite, each of these separate compositions was inspired by Musillami's personal life or causes he supports. "Blues for the Wounded Warrior," for example, is his tribute to a favorite charity, the Wounded Warrior Project, which aids American troops who have been wounded in battle and face lifetime challenges when returning home.
Family and family history are constant muses for the composer, evoking deep feelings that resonate throughout his music.
Of "Piana Dei Greci," for example, Musillami writes in his programmatic liner notes: "All four of my grandparents hail from Sicily, a small village outside of Palermo called Piana Dei Greci. I felt that the opening track, named after this Italian village, would be a very inviting way to introduce this new music and this new lineup of musicians. Everyone gets a chance to be heard and shake hands with the listener."
Nurtured by Musillami's celebratory music, the band functions as a musical family, a democratic clan in which everyone gets to expresses himself. A most welcoming family, it serves a robust, varied musical feast and conversational improvisations spun from Musillami's tales and anecdotes portrayed in his "Summer Suite."
Unlike tightly elitist, inbred bands, this one wants to reach out with its music and, as Musillami says, "shake hands with the listener."
Besides selections from "Mettle," the septet will play other original material arranged by Musillami for the trio + four format. This includes a new piece called "Of the Brave," which was performed by The Hotchkiss Jazz Ensemble (also known as Right Brain Logic) at its concert earlier in December under Musillami's direction.
Saxophonist Charles Tokarz, who teaches at The Hotchkiss School, joins Musillami's septet for what marks the composition's official debut.
Baritone saxophonist Norman Gage and trumpeter/flugelhornist Kenny Reed lead their quintet Monday at 8 p.m. at Black-eyed Sally's, Hartford. They're joined by pianist Warren Byrd, bassist Alex Tremblay and drummer Jay Williams. Information: 860-278-7427. Drummer Emile DeLeon leads his trio Wednesday at 7 p.m. at The Buttonwood Tree, Middletown. He's joined by Byrd on piano and Mike Asseta on bass. Information: 860-347-4957.
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