In the wake of fusion, jazz guitar has often suffered from the "star effect." A few anointed players receive the bulk of the public's attention, while other stylists with insight and ability remain overshadowed. Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Charlie Hunter may garner the bulk of the media's attention, but straight-ahead player Michael Musillami has been busy working in the trenches. And it's paid off. Clean-toned virtuoso playing, compositional fluidity, and a coherent ensemble sound mark his 1992 disc Mar's Bars (finally released in 2000) as a high point in the jazz guitar tradition. Musillami's selfless emphasis on the group sound, rather than any kind of grab for the spotlight, demonstrates a welcome level of maturity. Each of the players on this set has ample opportunity to stretch out; the juxtaposition of styles offers a revealing glimpse of the personalities involved.
Musillami employs an all-star cast on Mar's Bars. Trumpeter Randy Brecker offers a range of tones from thick and melancholy to smooth and jaunty. Perhaps most notable is the seeming effortless work of late saxophonist Thomas Chapin, who plays here (also on flute) with remarkable versatility and rangethough he mostly avoids the fiery edge which characterized much of his work as a leader. The active presence of pianist Kent Hewitt helps free up Musillami from harmonic obligations, allowing him to sail high on melodic flights. And the guitarist posseses an unusually keen rhythmic sense, providing for some intriguing interactions with drummer Steve Johns. Even at this point eight years ago, Musillami was already serving up moving jazz with a signature sound. Cliches are few and far between on this disc.
Overall, Mar's Bars falls directly into the straight-ahead jazz tradition. These pieces swing hard, and the arrangements obey a general head-solos-head order. When considered relative to other recent guitar records, what distinguishes this disc is the usually high caliber of the ensemble playing. And no two ways about it, Musillami is definitely a guitarist to watch.
Track Listing: GlassArt; Shoeshine; Mar's Bars; Out of Balance; Cousin Jim; The Haberdasher Blues; I Wait for the Summertime; Grey Cypress.
Personnel: Michael Musillami: guitar; Thomas Chapin: alto sax, flute; Randy Brecker: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ray Drummond, bass; Kent Hewitt: piano; Steve Johns: drums.