Michael Musillami: Playscape Recordings Celebrates Fifth Anniversary

Franz A. Matzner By

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I don't know where the future of jazz music is, all I know is this: guys are gonna continue to play, and that is all you can ask. —Michael Musillami
Guitarist Michael Musillami has been part of the jazz world for over forty years. Composer, player, and most recently label founder, Musillami has explored the full range of the jazz spectrum.

Five years ago this month, Musillami took a leap of faith and put together a remarkable new label that has since proven itself a powerful creative force. Comprised of a core group of composers, Playscape is artist driven and dedicated to pushing the music forward. Each of the core members have led multiple groupings, put out various albums ranging from trio's to octets, and all are dedicated players who put their own voices to work as both leaders and sidemen.

From Ted Rosenthal's poised trio album Threeplay , to Mario Pavone's progressive trios and quartets, to Musillami's experiments with instrumentation on current release Spirits , Playscape continues to put out work that captures the individuality of its members and strives to establish new musical voices.

It was my distinct pleasure to speak with Mr. Musillami last week about the founding of Playscape, his new release, and his vision for Playscape's future.

All About Jazz: We owe you double congratulations this month because it is the fifth anniversary of Playscape Recordings and you have a new album out, Spirits. We'll talk about both a little later, but for those who may not be as familiar with your earlier work, I'd like to back up to the proverbial beginning.

How old were you when you first felt yourself strongly attracted to music?

Michael Musillami: I made that decision probably in my early twenties. In your early twenties everything is in the open. You've got the world ahead of you. You only think of the positives, and you don't really think about how difficult things are really going to be. You think that if you work hard that it will come to you, and that you will be able to make a living. And you know what? Now that I'm saying these words, it actually happened.

AAJ: Maybe not as smoothly as you first imagined.

MM: You just let it all go and it becomes you. You live the music life and it has its high points and its low points. Someone told me long, long ago that half the battle is just keeping it going. Getting from A to B and [from] B to C. That's what a lot of guys do. You have your bright moments, and then you have those stagnant moments. Without those stagnant moments, you wouldn't go forward, really.

AAJ: When did you start playing?

MM: I was nine years old. I've been playing the guitar for over 40 years.

AAJ: So it was always the guitar?

MM: Yes.

AAJ: How did you choose the guitar?

MM: It was the trendy thing. I was a kid. Let's go back. I was born in '53. In '62 you have the beginning of Pop music. Mass media. T.V. Screaming fans. And the Beatles. All that stuff. That's appealing when you are a little kid. I just started right there at the beginning.

AAJ: How did jazz become the focus? Why did that happen?

MM: Wow, why did that happen? A couple things come together. Some people play—people usually start out with some folk songs, getting your chords together, and you learn you can make music with this thing. Then that's not a challenge anymore, so you move to the next place. For me, it was trying to put the simpler song forms together, trying to understand what elements you need to get the blues form together. Blues music, Rock bands. I did all those things. Performed at high school bands .

AAJ: Is it the challenge of jazz that drew you to it?

MM: Yea, it's the challenge, but that's the whole part of jazz. It's the whole uncertainty of it. If you've already done it, there's no excitement to it. So let's go to the next place. Let's change it. That's the whole essence of jazz music, is the need, the necessity to change. Just like as a person. That's what most jazz musicians are, they are always moving from point A to point B. And that's how the music is supposed to be as well.

And to be honest, I was always obsessed with the guitar. I think to be really successful at something you have to be obsessed with it'so it wasn't really a choice. It's just the way it was meant to be.

AAJ: Have you always been able to survive on your music, or have there been lean years?

MM: I think all years are lean years. (Laughing).

You always end up augmenting your situation by teaching. But yes, there were some tough, tough times to be honest. When I wasn't teaching and only working one, two, three gigs a month. In the early '80s and the gigs were paying fifty bucks a hit. But you just make do. Somehow you just get through it.

AAJ: Did you ever have any really horrible side jobs?

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?

Another reason we've been successful is that the musicians are so close to their releases. When someone releases a record here—each cat is going to sell a certain number of records—but let's say somebody doesn't sell a high volume of records. That doesn't mean it's not necessarily successful. They get gigs and tours out of it. Whereas at a bigger label, they might not feel the reaction, or the ripple from the release. Most everyone here—we do pretty well on radio, considering the state of jazz radio in this country—and everyone gets work from it.

AAJ: As the founder, do you control the direction of the music? Do you push certain sounds and directions, or do you keep it totally open and eclectic?

MM: Well, I don't want to say it is closed off, but it is my final say whether something gets put out or not. I get a lot of submissions. I get a couple a day. The focus is on being creative, on not holding back in anyway. If you want to make an album of beautiful ballads, that's fine. Is it burning? Is it swinging? Whatever the intention, does it hold up? Is it realized? That's what I'm looking for.

AAJ: You have a core group you continue to work with.

MM: It's important to hear the development of an artist. Putting one record out by someone is silly to me. Let me hear three or four or five—and especially if it is the same group. Let's see how the group develops. That's what I'm focused in on now. Mario [Pavone] has I think eight releases with us. He's honed in on his trio now, and it's making its mark. The music, the writing, and the players, have all found their niche.

AAJ: Listening to the full breadth all at once, it becomes noticeable that some of the earlier recordings were a little more traditional. You've been moving in a more progressive direction.

MM: I guess what you are saying is that the music is in flux. And I don't mean any disrespect to any other label. Anybody who puts a label together—man—I'll wash their car. Because I know what it takes to make it happen. I give them all the credit in the world.

But I'm not interested in re-releasing record after record that sounds the same. That's not what this is supposed to be about. I'm interested to see what the last piece was and why the next one is going to be different. Different personnel? Different instrumentation? What makes this one unique? That's what I'm looking for. The music is moving forward. That's what makes us unique.

AAJ: You've also been able to attract a lot of very talented side-men in addition to the core group. I'm thinking of people like Donny McCaslin and Tony Malaby. What do you think keeps them coming back?

MM: It gets back to the fact that most of the Playscape artists are composers. When you are a composer you hear a certain sound, or style of play, that fits what you write. Malaby, he was on George Schuller's first record, but he's also been on a couple of Mario's [Pavone] records. He's just incredible. He's an incredibly powerful, strong musician. That's what these guys heard when they wrote this music. And Tony obviously digs it because he keeps doing it. And that makes me very happy.

AAJ: What about your own playing? Has working on the label influenced your style?

MM: Sure it has. I'm old enough now where I've done a lot. I've played in a lot of different contexts. God, I remember a steady gig with guitar and bassoon. Or trumpet and guitar. Or bigger groups. Anybody you rub shoulders with on the stand is going to effect you. But these guys, the core group at Playscape, of course'they influence me a little more. I respect these guys. They're the greatest players in the world and I'm honored to have them be a part of my life.

AAJ: I'm particularly interested in your relationship with Mario [Pavone]. He's on a large selection of Playscape's releases, and I know you'd played together before founding the label as well. I was wondering if you could explain what it is about Mario's playing that has kept you together for so long.

MM: Man, there're a lot of layers to that. A lot of layers. We've known each other—he was one of the first guys I met when I came to the East Cost from California. Our first meeting was a jam session. There were some sessions and we both ended up in the same room. Gigs came up, and we became friends. Outside the music as well as inside the music. You share these musical experiences and there starts to be a point of view... When cats play together a lot—and we played a lot—you converse musically on a different level then people who seldom play together. Through the years, especially the last five or six years, we've played together, toured together, written music together, put out a few release here at Playscape, and he's really a close, dear friend of mine.

And to be honest, I can't think of another player that swings as hard, in that kind of open Bopish style of play. His sound, his time, the weight of his notes just knocks me out.

AAJ: Another distinguishing of aspect of Playscape is the way the roster of musicians contributes to the various albums. Each of the core group leaders writes their own music, but you are also frequently on each other's albums. But when each leader is doing their thing, you get very different results. As players, they all seem very adept at bringing the leader's music to life without imposing their own signature.

MM: Being a creative musician, there's no preconception. [At Playscape] it's not like when you're playing a date and you say, "Well, I'm playing with so-and-so and I'm going to be this guy tonight." You really do what you do, and because everything is in motion—who's on bass, who's on drums—you're going to react in a certain way. So maybe to a listener it comes out as "wow that's different," but as a player, I don't think it starts out that way.

AAJ: You don't think it's the force of the compositions?

MM: It very well could be the shape of the compositions. I guess what I'm saying is that the end is not preconceived beforehand. It just happens to be the way it is. And that's really all that can be asked. The cats do what they do, and what comes out is the way it is supposed to be. Which I think is great. I'm glad you are saying this.

AAJ: I don't want to skip your new album, Spirits. You went with an octet and some different instrumentation.

MM: It was octet, but actually in its conception it was supposed to be much, much larger. The concept just kept getting larger. I had this body of music—I probably drove everyone nuts around me over the past couple of years prior to making this happen because I had been talking about it for a long, long time.

Thomas Chapin wrote this body of work which is very different than what he did in his trio. I tr[y] to avoid calling it Brazilian music, but that's really where these compositions come from. And I had played some of the music with Thomas. I kept thinking, there are some beautiful, beautiful charts. With the time, and the effort, and the right musicians, and a big enough pallet—I wanted a large pallet for this— it could be great. So what we ended up with is this octet with some of the cats playing more than one instrument.

AAJ: You have English horn, the Didgeridoo' is that the next challenge for you, to compose with a broader pallet?

MM: Sometimes. I work most often with the trio, you have the Beijing release, but what I'm saying is that with the octet, the music could support a lot of instruments because it was so deep. The harmonies and the melodies were so strong, I could just hear it.

AAJ: Before we close, I want to ask you about something else a little more general. As a business man and a player, what do you think the future shape of jazz will be?

MM: I can't speak for all the different players. On this issue there are again a lot of layers. There's the recording issue. Players want to put their work out. It's a natural thing. Whether you are a writer or a painter, you want to produce. You want to have product—I don't want to call it product, that's not the right word—you want to have your work, what you do. If you're a composer, you compose, and if you're composing music, you want to hear it. So that is one layer. How can I get my pieces out? And then there is the performance front, which can be, really, completely separate. And then there is the issue of, how do I live? Is this going to support me. And you are constantly balancing these things.

But I'll say this, man, in my time as a player all these musicians are survivors. It's like a pinball, you hit that thing and bounce off somewhere else—except that the way play you have a little bit of choice. Jazz musicians will always be players, and whether you are working at a nursery for a summer because you are busted, you are still a player. I don't know where the future of jazz music is, all I know is this: guys are gonna continue to play, and that is all you can ask.

Visit Michael Musillami and Playscape Recordings on the web.

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Playscape Recordings (2003)

Photo Credit
Jos L. Knaepen


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