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Michael Musillami: Playscape Recordings Celebrates Fifth Anniversary

By Published: October 27, 2004
MM: Yeah. I remember one year where I actually had a couple discs on the chart, but I was still tapped. I worked at a nursery for a while digging holes! It was so contrary. But I did find some things out about myself. Something about being humble. You do what you have to do. You'll always be a musician, whether you're digging a whole to put a tree in it, or if you are on the stand playing for thousands of people. You still are who you are.

AAJ: Over the years, what do you think has ultimately shaped your sound?

MM: It's a combination of a lot of different experiences. As far as individual players, though, probably—I've never been overly obsessed with guitar. I was weaned on the music of Bill Evans, Coltrane. Not really guitarists—there are cats out there that I appreciate, some of the older masters. Joe Pass, Wes, people from that school. But I've never been obsessed with going to hear guitar players. It's the music. That's what I'm interested in. That's one of my frustrations. The limits of the guitar. Of course, all instruments have limitations. So as far as the shape of my sound, I try not to sound as predictable in the guitar sense as I might have if I listened to a lot of guitar music.

AAJ: When did you first consider starting your own label?

MM: I had a couple of releases that were on another label, and those both came due, so in other words I owned the product again. I had this tour set up in Spain and I didn't have anything to take with me, but I did have one in the can, so I ended up releasing it as Groove Teacher. I decided to put a thousand of them together, somehow came up with the name Playscape, and took them with me on the tour.

When I got back, I started thinking about it. I'd talked to a lot of guys over the years about putting stuff out, and I thought, 'Who knows more about it than the guys who are playing the music?' Now, I've learned a lot since then, but there seems to be this kind of jaw-wide-open mind set when musicians speak to label owners. It's like, man, they don't know, really. It's the players that really know. So it became, 'Am I bright enough to figure out how this works?' Now that's a challenge. (Laughing) But the truth is, if you put one foot in front of the other you figure out how to make the product, how to advertise it, and you find out how to distribute it. And most of the people who do this—in the business I mean—are very helpful and very sweet.

So, I started out with one release, and I knew a couple of other guys who had been in the same situation, who had become owners of their property again, so I had a couple of reissues that I knew I could start the label with.

AAJ: Was there ever a point where you decided, 'I'm taking this to the next level.'

MM: I never wanted to make a label for myself. Once I decided to set up the label, me being a part of it became a very small aspect. I spent my whole life playing music with great jazz musicians and I know what we talk about when we're talking about the business. Everybody has the same kinds of problems. When you had a contract, did you get your royalties? Those kinds of issues. I realized I could set something up where no one would have to say that. I play with these guys. I'm in the trenches with these guys. I have to do the right thing by them. To me it makes perfect sense, it only makes this label stronger.

AAJ: What you've just said has been tried before. People start labels and try to fix some of the problems of the big players, and you see them come and go. But Playscape is now into its fifth year. What do you think has made Playscape survive those first tough years?

MM: I think that in these five years we have focused on a certain kind of gut motivation that we all share in the music. There is an urgency to create, not just to make another record, whether it was successful or not. That's part of it. The guys at the core of this label are all working musicians that are daily working on their craft and trying to progress on all the different levels. In other words, there's an energy. This is an active group of cats who are out there playing this music.

AAJ: You also seem to emphasize composers, having the composers as leaders.

MM: Not on all the records—there are some standards—but for the most part, yes.

AAJ: Do you see that as a principle behind what you are trying to achieve?

MM: I do. When I'm trying to work a deal, when somebody wants to record something, that's always something I put forward. 'What's your point of view on the music? Does the world really need another "Autumn Leaves"?'

Maybe. Maybe if it's Keith Jarrett playing they do, but to me it [composition] is closer to the source of the musician. What music do you write? How do you then perform it?

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