Guitarist Michael Musillami recorded three sessions with Thomas Chapin between 1990 and 1994. Chapin was an extraordinary human being and musician who died of leukemia in 1998 at age 40. His high level of energy and imagination permeates throughout these recordings and it is a blessing they have been released on Playscape Recordings. Chapin studied jazz at Rutgers before becoming the musical director for Lionel Hampton’s big band for five years. His solo career coincided with the opening of New York’s Knitting Factory, where his adventurous Downtown sound never lost it’s straight-ahead influence. Like Hampton, Chapin was always a crowd pleasing entertainer.
Musillami gained recognition playing with organ combos, before stepping out on these sessions. His approach is a mix of Wes Montgomery meets John Scofield while channeling Kenny Burrell. For the most part these three discs are post-bop workouts, but there is a clever updating of this most 1960s sound. All discs share a common lineup of Musillami, Chapin, Ken Hewitt (piano), and Steve Johns (drums).
Recorded in 1990, Archives finds Nat Reeves in the bass chair. The quintet marches the title track, Chapin spitting staccato notes in response to the guitarist’s attack. Chapin has captured much of his former teacher Jackie McLean’s approach to the saxophone. What is apparent here is his sense of delivery, especially on flute. He plays with a beautiful lyricism and respect for the composition. Musillami for his part can burn or play a ballad like “Emmett Spencer” with complete tranquility.
The 1992 sessions replace Reeves with Ray Drummond and add trumpeter/flugelhorn Randy Brecker. The expansion to a sextet adds shadings to Musillami’s writing. Brecker can run the voodoo down or play sweet. These tracks feature arrangements that have the feel they could have been written for a much larger band. Besides the tight ensemble sound, solos are taken with economy, keeping them interesting. I especially fell for “The Haberdasher’s Blues” an infectious swinger. Each musician struts a bit with their barbecue, Musillami swings hard followed by Chapin, who blurts through a bit of runaway honks and laughter, which causes Hewitt to runs a blues up-and-down the keys.
The final installment, Groove Teacher, with Chapin finds Chip Jackson at bass, and replaces Brecker with trumpeter Claudio Roditi and tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore. The opener “Seven Blend” is just that, an amalgam of sounds that bridges post-bop and Downtown sounds. Musillami has the band in full. They even take on a raggae beat for the title track, Chapin blowing a sweet flute to a most swaying groove. Chapin switches emotions to blare on “Today The Angels Cry” a tough workout. The session ends with the short (4:11) suite “Peninsula.”