Michael Musillami Trio: Dachau (2005)

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Michael Musillami Trio: Dachau
There's nothing new about a jazz guitar trio, or, for that matter, a jazz guitar trio augmented with piano and horns. That said, guitarist Michael Musillami has done something truly innovative with this format on Dachau. Musillami, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer George Schuller—augmented on four of the album's seven tracks with various combinations of tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen, pianist Peter Madsen, and trumpeter Dave Ballou—have created a work that, in a truly novel fashion, fuses composed material and free improvisation, limber ensemble drive and rubato expansiveness. Most impressively, Musillami and his fellow players do the almost impossible: while remaining rooted in a jazz vocabulary, they play here with an almost complete avoidance of stock phrases and licks. Under the leader's guidance, these musicians are finding new ways to make their statements.

The overall effect is magical. That word's not a cliché here, because there is something alchemical, an element of ritual, in the performances of these Musillami compositions. Some of the pieces were inspired by a German trio tour that included a performance at the Dachau concentration camp, and the album's opener, "Dresden, is one of those. It's built around a wry, singsong theme with tight, nimble playing from Fonda and Schuller.

Previous Musillami CDs like Those Times and Spirits showcased in different ways how well he could play others' material, but his angular, information-rich style is best served by his own compositions; his soloing on "Dresden, with its characteristic rapid clusters, percussively drummed lines, and bent notes (made all the more effective by their underuse) are as wonderful as they are absolutely distinctive. Terrific enough—but in the latter part of the tune, the group slips into a free section, with exotic percussion, almost Derek Bailey-like guitar effects and most notably, an ominous, looming, sawed bass solo that somehow invests the entire piece with a deep, resonant gravity.

The title track, featuring all six musicians, is even finer. A brief, chiming guitar intro moves the group into a long, free section that's fascinating in the way the various instruments separate at times into independent lines and then come together. During various solos by Musillami and Madsen, the two horns lay out, then enter and reenter with long, groaning single notes that, in the context of the piece, seem to evoke the voices of those lost at Dachau.

Yet the overall free section has a feeling of space, expansion and ultimately, liberation—and if these musical voices are the voices of ghosts, they're unsilenced, even playful spirits that sing. The tune moves unexpectedly into a more composed section with supple, responsive playing from Fonda and Schuller as their accompaniment delicately shifts under various soloists. This is a song worthy of many listens—and more words than a short review can provide.

And that's just two songs. The other tracks are emphatically of the same quality. This is Musillami's finest recording to date, and one of the very best albums of this year.

Track Listing: Dresden; Archives; Dachau; Part Pitbull; Rottweil; Today the Angels; Metaphor 3.4.5.

Personnel: Michael Musillami: guitar; Joe Fonda: bass; George Schuller: drums, bells, shaker, toy hammer whistle; Peter Madsen: piano (#3,4,6); Tom Christensen: tenor saxophone (#2,3); Dave Ballou: trumpet (#3).

Record Label: Playscape Recordings

Style: Modern Jazz


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