|Michael Musillami stands out in the crowded field of jazz guitarists for his ability to synthesize different traditions into a personal style. In Musillami’s music, the bluesy hard-bop feeling of Grant Green meets the harmonic daring and the extended techniques of Eric Dolphy in an irresistible combination of down-home intimacy and sense of adventure. Performing with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller at Zeitgeist Gallery last Friday, Musillami meshed his zigzagging, contoured lines with a postmodern, free-jazz rhythmic sensibility that slipped easily among funky beats, swing, and free pulse.
The trio released their debut, Beijing, on Musillami’s Playscape label in 2003, and they drew a couple of pieces from it, but the album doesn’t prepare you for the extended explorations they’re capable of live. On the opening "Dachau," they slowly gathered steam, starting with off-tempo colors and textures that gave way to a medium funky groove. Musillami leapt on and off the beat, alternating among short repeated riffs, blues-drenched chords that complemented Schuller’s furious accenting, and long spidery lines with snaggle-toothed contours. "Today the Angels," a beatific modal tune, inspired some searching playing from both Musillami and Fonda. Musillami built a long arching solo in which blues sonorities and bop embellishments infused his spiraling explorations. Fonda’s double-stop chords were church-organ rich, and his melodies were simple but profoundly felt. Fonda was a standout on "Part Pit Bull," with quick, knotting flourishes of notes punctuated by sharp, low, woody tones that snapped like a tree limb cracking. Musillami’s solo on the following number, "Swedish Fish," knit itself into the ensemble while making an individual statement. Beneath it all, you could hear his understanding of bop’s aerodynamic speed and detail, and his knack for chord voicing that would be right at home in a greasy organ combo. Schuller wove himself into the ensemble without dominating it, achieving a rich, balanced sound that swapped roles between responsive fills and a drive that goaded the band forward.
Musillami’s trio have been working off and on for the past three years, and they’ve developed an easy rapport. They sound comfortable together, but not complacent. It was exciting to hear a band so involved in the arduous process of growing and pushing themselves — and so clearly loving it.