As jazz musicians get older, they tend to get wiser. They also tend to lose a bit of spark, but there's nothing wrong about mellowing with age. (Usually their audience undergoes the very same transitions, which explains quite a bit about the music's demographics, but that's another matter...)
In over a decade on wax, Michael Musillami has undergone his share of changes, but nobody will accuse him of going soft. The guitarist has shifted his emphasis away from blazing technique and bop phrasing toward tone and angularity as tools for emotive expression. Less constrained by harmony or the groove, Musillami has entered a realm of abstraction which fuels the fire in an entirely different way.
Beijing unites Musillami with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, two familiar musicians who aptly straddle the gap between free improv and standard composition. Of the eleven tunes on the record, the shortest five represent fully improvised material and the rest are originals by Musillami, Mario Pavone, and/or Thomas Chapin (interestingly, all previously recorded). The reduced size of a trio offers greater freedom to step around the usual boundaries, an opportunity eagerly pursued by all three players.
Not to slight Schuller's contributions, but Joe Fonda is the catalyst that makes Beijing work. During improvisation, he intuitively nestles into open spaces. When "Swedish Fish" gradually drifts away from its bunchy, angular theme, the bassist takes liberties extending melodic lines, ducking between Musillami's thrusts to provide surprise counterpoint, and working the harmonic crannies the (vertically-minded) guitarist leaves. Maybe it's only a trend of two, but between Mario Pavone and Joe Fonda, Musillami has done his best work.
"Op-Ed" (originally from the record of the same name) draws upon Schuller's ability to understate swing. He provides a neural net through which Musillami fires off some of his fleeter shots, stopping and starting around bar lines, twisting along serpentine melodies. The "rhythm section" (such as it is) unites more as a common unit here than elsewhere, reinforcing structure so that the guitarist can run rampant through it.
The five sections of free improv on the record don't really draw much attention, since they tend to serve roles as connecting units for the rest, which lies far enough outside convention as it is. They're more color than anything else. But the record as a whole flows remarkably well; while the trio has its pensive moments, these players obviously prefer action. Just as well.
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Personnel: Michael Musillami: guitar; Joe Fonda: bass, kalimba; George Schuller: drums, bells, shaker, toy