Michael Musillami: Life Anthem

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Guitarist Michael Musillami has been making music with his MM Trio since 2002, when he first teamed up with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller for Beijing (Playscape, 2003). Subsequent albums, all for the Playscape label Musillami founded and continues to run, have sometimes involved just the trio, while others have brought in guests—standout players such as Peter Madsen, Tom Christensen and Dave Ballou (on 2005's Dachau) and Marty Ehrlich, Ralph Alessi and Matt Moran (on 2009's From Seeds). On Life Anthem, he's once again augmented the trio, with Kirk Knuffke on cornet and Jason Robinson on tenor/soprano sax and alto flute. The difference this time is the forbidding subject matter of the recording: Musillami's confrontation with a life-threatening brain hemorrhage and tumor in 2016. It's a testament to Musillami's resilience and longstanding commitment to his craft that he's seen fit to document that ordeal musically, and the resultant 70-plus minutes of music on this disc thoroughly justifies his decision.

Musillami is credited with all the composing and arranging of the 15 tracks, but there's a collaborative feel to the recording, particularly as the band spent the first of its two days in the Firehouse 12 studios freely improvising. A few of the briefer tracks maintain that approach, like the spare "Slow Bleed," with Musillami's restraint evident in a patient dialogue with Fonda and Schuller, and "Night Walker," where Knuffke joins the action with an appropriately unsettling, dreamlike delivery that is echoed by the rest of the quintet. But most of the music involves complex, yet malleable, composed structures perfect for straddling the ground between tight ensemble interaction and adventurous moves outward.

An ideal example of the band's ability to maintain its impressive cohesion while still retaining a spirit of the unpredictable is the lengthiest of the tracks, "Visions," where the guys get to stretch out over twelve minutes of inspired burning. Schuller kicks things off with a nimble solo before the rest jump into the rock-inflected post-bop head, Fonda's lithe musicality a particular highlight, with Robinson and Knuffke providing plenty of dynamism and excitement. And when the horns bow out and the trio gets its own space, one can hear the fruits of years of mutual partnership, as the three move as one while leaving strict time behind.

There are moments of somber, low-key intensity dispersed throughout the album, but the most stimulating moments are undoubtedly those where all five bring their full powers to bear, as on the insinuating groove of "Dr. Mohamad Khaled, Neurosurgeon," where Schuller's multi-rhythmic acumen is on display, or "June Recovery," which uses a catchy ostinato line from Fonda to anchor searching musings from Musillami, Robinson and Knuffke.

A recording not only of superb music but also a witness to hope and perseverance, Life Anthem truly delivers on the album's title. And we can all be grateful that Musillami, as he attests in the liner notes, is indeed "fine and better than ever."

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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