A jazz label that fosters development of a group "gestalt" is rare these days; but Playscape Recordings, led by guitarist Michael Musillami, is doing just that. Armed with the late Thomas Chapin's musical dream of compositional creativity coupled with genre transcending excellence, Playscape is connecting the dialectics of classical with jazz and the mainstream with the avant-garde. At the center of this musical tetrahedron is a growing cadre of artists who move easily from downtown to uptown and from concert hall to club. In 1999, Playscape began with the release of a powerful trilogy of CDs: Archives
, Mars Bars
and Groove Teacher
. Recorded between the years 1990 and 1994, they feature Musillami as leader and Chapin alternating flute and alto sax. One can hear Musillami's musical development in both composition and style across these releases and witness Chapin's genius as he effortlessly moves from machine gun sax honks to subtle classical flute in ways reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Newer releases evidence that Musillami has come into his own. Alongside former Chapin bassist Mario Pavone and pianist Peter Madsen, he is producing some of today's finest music within a developing group format. With a nod to the Atilla Zoller - Don Friedman guitar/piano classics from years gone by, Motion Poetry and Op-Ed reveal a guitarist who can dazzle but who also allows for the group's "sixth sense" to take over. Immediately apparent throughout the Playscape catalog is the high quality of musicianship and the bonds that have formed amongst the players. The addition of drummer George Schuller to this fertile breeding ground has already served to produce a mini-masterpiece, Pivot , whose Bernstein-esque, tritone-happy opener and closer "Swedish Fish" indicates that this assemblage of musicians has reached a new plane.
In describing the label, Musillami says, "I'm looking for real serious players who have put their time and life into the music, who play like it is the last gig of their life. We are about making creative intelligent music. This accessible swinging music can also be adventurous and accidental. It is unique, not the same thing done over and over again. We are providing a home for this and an opportunity to get the music out." It is clear in speaking with Michael and hearing the results, that this is a musicians’ label. It promotes development within the context of excellence and has not fallen into the trap of becoming a vanity label where the latest farts and whistles of friends are bestowed upon listeners as the next evolution in the avant-garde.
Musillami continues, "There is communication here amongst the musicians. We have "X" amount of players and "X" amount of groups. Part of one group can form another group. It is corny to say, but we are like a family. Here the groups are the musical instruments. Our sidemen are developing their own groups with Playscape musicians. That is what is happening." This sharing of ideas both musically and intellectually has resulted in the Pavone-led Mythos and Musillami-led Part Pitbull, both of which feature Madsen on piano. "Mario Pavone has been my right arm with Playscape, we talk a lot about the music...a lot of us had played with Chape [Thomas Chapin] who Mario says wrote big band music for small trios...this allows the trio to sound bigger than it is. The quiet passages can be most important. I don't listen to a lot of guitarists. I listened to a lot of Bill Evans whose chord voicings were barely audible. We want the listeners to lean forward and to bring them into our world. Also, I am colorblind and Mario has a great eye for art. I will pick out a cover and Mario will say ‘What are you seeing there?’ Needless to say, Mario has done a lot of the covers." About pianist Peter Madsen; "One of the most incredible pianists in the world...A bold statement but I do stand by it. I think anyone who plays with Peter will agree." Madsen will take his turn as leader on an upcoming 2003 release of Monk compositions, "The one's you never hear."
The emphasis on classical accuracy and flexibility combined with jazz technique and interpretation has resulted in other musicians who share these qualities becoming part of the family. Pianist Ted Rosenthal's Threeplay blends Monk and Gershwin with self- composed pieces and The 3 B's of Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Beethoven presents an in-your-face treatment of what some consider untouchable. With Paths , Tom Christensen blends chamber and world into a jazz base through sopranino, English horn and wood flute. The percussion of Satoshi Takeishi and Ben Allison's bass are beautifully understated to allow the complexities of this music to shine. Ai, by the young pianist Kazuko Baba's trio, is an elegant debut that delights. Kazuko, a classically trained musician, fell in love with jazz and is able to efficiently meld the two, at times in a single phrase.
Future projects whet the appetite. Dates are set that will feature Musillami and Schuller in a trio with bassist Joe Fonda and in a quartet with Rosenthal and bassist Dave Shapiro. This will be released as a two CD set. Tentatively slated for the end of 2003 is the Thomas Chapin Brazilian Songbook. " I am trying to get together musicians that had a close association with Chape: Marty Ehrlich, Andy Jaffe, Art Baron...to do arrangements. I already have some of the charts. A lot of this music has never been recorded. Baron would do an arrangement for brass trio, Ehrlich for woodwind trio, Jaffe for string quartet. The music will be given a different voice...centered around a guitar quartet with Madsen, Shapiro and drummer Mike Sarin." With its impressive track record in such a short time and strong commitment to its artists, Playscape's vision of "Recording creative music by serious uncompromising musicians" has now become reality.
For more information, visit www.playscape-recordings.com