Convening some of the cream of the New York free creative music scene, guitarist Michael Musillami, best known for his post bop recordings, including last year's fine mainstream disc, Those Times , attempts something a little out of the ordinaryan entire set of material by the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin. While there is unquestionably a certain amount of freedom to the set, the treatment of the programme is emphatically Latin in tone. In fact, on an album that swings along gracefully and comfortably, the only downside is the occasional free section which seems, in context with the more mellifluous style of the majority of the record, to be something of a musical non sequitur.
Not that it always seems out of place. On the opening track, "Squid Fantasy," the group ultimately finds its way into a section where just about everyone is soloing, freely and with some abandon, over bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Michael Sarin's insistent rhythm. But the longest piece of the set, "Spirits Rebellious," starts with a free movement that seems completely irrelevant when the group kicks in with a more contemporary groove. And the piece is broken up in the middle when, out of nowhere, the group halts and there is a free exchange that starts with a heavily distorted guitar and Art Baron's didgeridoo, the rest of the group gradually re-entering to build the intensity before settling back into a more accessible groove for the balance of the piece. Sure, this is clearly a musical articulation of the spirits rebelling with each other, but it's, frankly, too obvious and, in context with the relatively breezy ambience of the rest of the album, something that disperses the recording's focus rather than concentrating it.
That being said, the rest of the album is an interesting revelation, as musicians like pianist Peter Madsen, more often seen in a looser exploratory context, fit comfortably into this more straightforward setting. Woodwind player Tom Christensen, another player more known for his work in the creative music scene, solos lyrically and with complete authenticity. In fact, everyone sounds completely at ease with this more groove-oriented, theme-based music. And most notable is Musillami's ability to fit Chapin's music within this context. Kudos to Musillami, who arranged all the material with the exception of one track each by Baron and Christensen; clearly he sees something in the material that others have not.
Musillami is a fine guitarist, clearly coming from the tradition of players including Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. With the exception of the out-of-place fuzz guitar on "Spirits Rebellious," he plays with a warm, dry tone and a style that manages to incorporate its influences without being derivative. Occasional misstep aside, Spirits is a surprisingly engaging album of Latin jazz from a group of musicians whose names on the cover would lead one to think what would be contained within would be anything but easy-going and accessible.
Personnel: Michael Musillami (guitar, altered guitar), Peter Madsen (piano), Cameron Brown (bass), Tom Christensen (tenor and alto saxophones, alto flute, English horn, wood flute), Art Baron (trombone, bass recorder, didgeridoo), Tom Beckham (vibes, marimba), Satoshi Takeishi (percussion), Michael Sarin (drums)