In March 2009, guitarist Michael Musillami's son, Evan, took his own life at the age of 29. During the months that followed, Musillami composed a book of tunes inspired by and dedicated to Evan, which make up Old Tea, the fifth release from his veteran trio. Named after Lao Cha, a rare form of Taiwanese Oolong, Old Tea refers to a pastime Musillami and his son often enjoyed togethersharing a good cup of tea. Aided by the empathetic contributions of his venerable sidemen, bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, Musillami celebrates Evan's life on this vivacious session, avoiding maudlin sentiment.
Each piece on the album is titled after and inspired by specific memories of his son and/or events experienced by his family during their grieving process. Expressing his emotions in music beyond words, Musillami plays with a concentrated intensity that is unassailable. While Musillami has long avoided needless EFX, he occasionally revisits the distorted tone he used briefly on his last record, From Seeds (Playscape, 2009), using it to convey an array of extreme tonalities.
Musillami employs such devices more effectively and economically than most guitarists, understanding the dramatic value of restraint. The title track is indicative, as Musillami suddenly interrupts the tune's dreamy panorama with a searing volley of anguished tones and epic arpeggios. His dark, blues-inflected attack on the angular funk of "King Alok" is especially ardent, as he dives into careening salvos of staccato notes with focused conviction.
The process of grieving encompasses a variety of emotions, and these cathartic outpourings are counterbalanced by poetic works of understated introspection and lilting swing. The sublime tone poems "Kitchen Tribute (Collective Interlude)" and "Evy-Boy" are prime examples of the trio's congenial rapport and sensitive interplay. The dulcet closer, "Three Hundred Plus" demonstrates their dynamic range with a flute driven ballad that is as serene as the aforementioned "King Alok" is volatile.
Even though Musillami's angular writing can be quite intricate (as on the labyrinthine "A True Original"), his compositions always retain a sense of accessibilitybalancing coiled phrases, oblique intervals, and unorthodox meters with a bluesy character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the blues play a far more significant role here than many of Musillami's previous releases. His tortuous solos on "A True Original" and "Umbrella Top...That's How I Roll" are exemplary, rooted in a pentatonic straightforwardness that is far more lyrical than his usual intervallic approach.
As a tradition built upon lamentation and perseverance, there is hardly a better form to memorialize a lost loved one than the blues. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding its conception, Old Tea, a heartfelt and poignant work, stands tall in Musillami's discography.
Personnel: Michael Musillami: guitar; Joe Fonda: bass and flute; George Schuller: drums.