One day in June 2016, guitarist Michael Musillami
woke up with a massive headache. Tests soon revealed that he had a brain hemorrhage and also an unrelated brain tumour. He slowly recovered from his illnesses and is now in good health. Life Anthem
is his musical testament to his ordeal, realized in this recording by his long-standing trio with bassist Joe Fonda
and drummer George Schuller
plus guests Kirk Knuffke
and Scott Robinson
The music, structured as a suite that follows the progression of Musillami's treatment and recovery, assumes different forms. Sometimes, as on "Sirens," it goes on a wobbly, careening path with all five players rolling and pitching separately. On other tracks, like "MRI Countdown," the group plays tight unison heads together before breaking into solos and duets. Whatever the setting, Musillami's guitar is a focal point. He picks out tight, clipped notes, in the manner of Jim Hall
, with no electronic effects or delays, a style that lends itself equally well to roller-coaster runs of notes and solid rhythm playing.
"ICU Blues" has Musillami running over a lazy 4/4 shuffle groove that slowly slips out of sync before Robinson's saxophone and Knuffke's cornet howl over Fonda's throbbing bass. "Dr. Mohamad Khaled," named for Musillami's surgeon, is a stomp laid over a busy drum pattern that gives Robinson room to bellow on tenor while Knuffke blows hard-bop flurries and Musillami twists and burrows. On "June Recovery" the core trio stirs up a slick tango rhythm before the horns enter and Knuffke solos with a smeary melodicism reminiscent of Don Cherry
. The hushed "Nurse Roe" is a showcase for some of Musillami's tenderest playing; Fonda and Schuller give him sympathetic support and the horns provide muted coloration. "Visions" is a twelve-minute marathon with a fast, steady pace that has the leader chopping chords like a cleaner version of John McLaughlin
in the Mahavishnu Orchestra
and also features a twittering blues solo from Knuffke and deep, singing tenor from Robinson. Fonda's bubbling, unrelenting bass, a highlight throughout the CD, is at its best here.
Interwoven through these lengthy workouts are shorter, more introspective interludes like the mysterious guitar, flute and bowed bass trio of "Family," the abstract rattles and moans of "Night Walker" and the hopeful theme "Life Anthem," which is played as a poignant solo by Knuffke at the start of the CD and defiantly by the entire ensemble at the end.
The interplay between these five musicians is outstanding. Fonda and Schuller underline everything with a pulsing carpet of rhythm, Musillami's guitar is alternately lyrical, gritty and exploratory, and Robinson and Knuffke bring in an added element of soul and life. This is powerful, urgent stuff. It leaves you feeling that this is the music of someone who has gotten through a serious health crisis and is responding with joy and gratitude. It's one of the year's best recordings so far.
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).
Michael Musillami: guitar; Joe Fonda: bass; George Schuller: drums; Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Jason Robinson: tenor and soprano sax,