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Michael Musillami: Life Anthem

Don Phipps By

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Dark, cerebral, moody, Michael Musillami's Life Anthem was inspired by his near-death experience from a brain hemorrhage and tumor. The music takes the listener on a journey from medical crisis to recovery. While the quality of abstract lyricism, improvisation, and musicianship cannot be denied, the music's harsh landscape proves at times frustrating and difficult to navigate.

After 15 years of playing together, the talented Musillami and the rest of the trio (Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums) appear to know each other so well they can anticipate each other's ideas. This intuitive back and forth helps to ease the complex and sophisticated abstractions. On this album, the trio is joined by two gifted musicians, cornetist Kirk Knuffke and saxophonist/flautist Jason Robinson.

After a solo cornet statement of the title cut, "Life Anthem," Musillami and his crew take a chaotic but not free jazz approach on the next three cuts: "I Hear Sirens in the Distance," "MRI Countdown," and "Slow Bleed." In these abstract numbers, like others that follow, the music stutters and stops. There are odd meters and syncopated attacks. The horns enter at times with squeals and Fonda's exceptional bass playing drives the music forward.

With the album's fifth number, "Dr. Mohamed Khaled, Neurosurgeon" the music becomes more coherent. There's a great duet between Robinson and Schuller, then the song breaks into a cool, bluesy swing which offers up some intriguing exchanges between Knuffke and Fonda. As the piece progresses, Musillami offers a twangy twisting solo over Schuller's non-stop action. The music recedes with a nice duet by Knuffke and Robinson.

"June Recovery" settles into a dance rhythm, as Musillami's guitar lines hover over the steady bass and drums. The horns enter above the guitar. Then Knuffke offers a subtle, cool solo, which is echoed by the guitar chords, and Musillami's own meditative solo is in turn echoed by Schuller's drum beats.

"Nurse Roe" and "Family" provide respite from the darkish mood. The two intimate ballads are like gentle breezes on a warm summer evening, and while disarming, they are not unsophisticated. "Family" is especially noteworthy. Like a desert landscape, Musillami's guitar reaches out to the listener beneath the wind drift Robinson flute solo.

The longest composition, "Visions," begins with a Schuller solo that explores various colors and timbres of the trap set. Then a steady rock motif emerges. Musillami, Knuffke, and Robinson provide syncopated counterpoint to Fonda's sharp and roving attacks on the bass before the motif disassembles. Out of the ramble, the rock and roll theme remerges, with Robinson's fiery solo and Schuller's driving rolls paving the way. Towards the end of the piece, Fonda's fingers literally explode up and down the neck of the bass.

There is much to admire about Life Anthem. Its sense of purpose, musical story-telling, the complexity of the vision and the songs, and the top-flight musicianship make it an album of interest. Unfortunately, Musillami's complex and sometimes chaotic style of writing, combined with the moody and dark cerebral musical themes, hinder his challenging narrative about a close brush with death. One should admire him for making the attempt.

Track Listing: Life Anthem (solo cornet); I Hear Sirens in the Distance; MRI Countdown; Slow Bleed; Dr. Mohamad Khaled, Neurosurgeon; I’m Beginning to Feel Life’s Pulse Again; June Recovery; Nurse Roe; ICU Blues; Visions; Night Walker; Renewed Focus; Family; Think of Something Beautiful; Life Anthem (full ensemble).

Personnel: Michael Musillami: guitar; Joe Fonda: bass; George Schuller: drums; Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Jason Robinson: tenor and soprano sax, alto flute.

Title: Life Anthem | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Playscape Recordings

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