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Michael Musillami Trio: Pride

Karl Ackermann By

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With ten albums as a leader in his portfolio, guitarist and composer, Michael Musillami remains disproportionately under the radar in the public domain. Working in formats from duo to octet and inspired by classic artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Musillami has a gifted touch for arranging the traditional and highly improvisational together in accessible ways. Pride features Musillami's decade-long established trio of bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, a rhythm section made for this kind of versatility.

Having worked earlier in his career with bassist Mario Pavone and the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin, Musillami has at various times augmented his ongoing trio with trumpeter Dave Ballou, saxophonist Tom Christensen and pianist Peter Madsen who has also worked in a duo with the guitarist. The remarkable pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Jimmy Greene add their considerable talents to the first disc of the collection. Violinist Mark Feldman—another past Musillami collaborated—contributes significantly to the second Pride disc in the two CD set.

Musillami offers a number of previously recorded studio pieces in enhanced form on disc 1 and in a live venue on disc 2 and in every case his arrangements and improvisational contributions of the group breathe new life into the compositions. "Uncle Fino's Garden" opens disc one with Musillami's shimmering chords vibrating with a light touch and followed by a more intricate pattern of single notes. It sets up Davis' tossing much of the melody aside and reorienting the sound to the point that only a complete stop allows Musillami to reclaim the lead. "Bald Yet Hip (Intro)," with an excellent solo from Fonda, and the subsequent main piece demonstrate why Davis is one of the most in-demand musicians of recent years. She takes the piece from lyrical to abstract and back in a seamless transformation of performances.

There is plenty of engaging interplay between Greene and Musillami on "Courageous David B.," one of Greene's two appearances on Pride. In both cases Greene takes the tenor through its full range while Musillami loosely anchors the melody. "Mountain Pride" is a showcase for Musillami's musical inventiveness and tonal subtlety. "Wild Things Music," the four-song commissioned suite that wraps up disc 1, is based on Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. Musillami opens the section up to a more electric and hard-edged sound appropriate to the adventurous nature its origins.

On disc 2—recorded live at the Firehouse in New Haven, Connecticut—Feldman's presence adds an element distinctly different from the previous disc. On "Swedish Fish" he offers an alternative take on the studio version which originally featured a relatively abbreviated contribution from Pavone Pivot (CD Baby, 2002). Feldman adds a unique hybrid of European chamber jazz and western swing that completely changes the dynamics of the group. "Beijing"—the title track of a previous Musillami trio outing (Playscape Recordings, 2002) similarly embellishes the original. Feldman imparts just the right tone for the piece with a very slight Asian flavor complimented by Musillami approximating a Chinese pipa to further the effect.

Clocking in at well over two hours, Pride is an entirely fresh and modern collection that not only highlights Musillami's strengths as a player, composer and leader but more importantly as a master improviser with an understanding of individual performance aspects. Fonda and Schuller surpass the ability to take on the challenging, and ever-changing constructs of the music. The core trio creates energy and feeds off the same and the effect is to broaden the scope of improvisation. Pride is engaging on every level and a major achievement for Musillami.

Track Listing: Disc 1: Uncle Fino’s Garden; Bald Yet Hip (bass intro); Bald Yet Hip; Old Tea; Courageous David B.; Mountain Pride; (Wild Things Music): Max’s Wolf Suit; Max’s Moods; Wild Rumpus Music; And It Was Still Hot. Disc 2: Swedish Fish; Human Conditions; Beijing; Today the Angels.

Personnel: Michael Musillami: guitar; Joe Fonda: bass; George Schuller: drums; Kris Davis: piano (disc 1); Jimmy Greene: tenor saxophone (disc 1: 3, 5); Mark Feldman: violin (disc 2).

Title: Pride | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Playscape Recordings

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