Part Pitbull
Playscape PSR#J122001

Put aside any preconceptions you have about the guitar-piano duo before you listen to this CD, especially if your reference point is Jim Hall and Bill Evans’ dreamy UNDERCURRENT session.

While guitarist Michael Musillami and pianist Peter Madsen have impeccable contemporary credentials and play their share of slower tempo pieces among the 11 here, they’re aiming for something deeper with this recital. Essentially they’re out to prove that in the right — and left — hands, using all original, improvised tunes, the two instruments can sustain moods in many tempos. Cognizant of a potential limited palate, the longest pieces here wisely clock in at 6½ minutes so they don’t wear out their welcomes.

Especially impressive is the guitarist, who operates with a bright, in-your-face tone. Curiously the only other contemporary plectrumist who improvises in a similar style is Chicago’s George Freeman, who put in considerable time in the combo of organist Richard “Groove”" Holmes, as did Musillami, when he too played the chitlin circuit. Since his move east in the early 1980s, the guitarist, a working class Californian, has probably been best known for the work he did with the late woodwind player Thomas Chapin and bassist Mario Pavone.

With enough straightahead documentation in hand to be a neo-con if he wanted to be, Madsen spent a year touring with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and has held down chairs in both the Mingus Big Band, and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. But it would seem that his defining moments have come more recently, where as a regular part of Pavone’s band, he’s been exposed to as much outside as inside playing.

Throughout this CD the pitches for most pieces are definitely leggero and staccato, with the two musicians rushing through many tunes at a breakneck speed. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t time for unexpected detours, such as Musillami’s under-the-bridge harp-like strums on “Swagger”, or the combination of speedy glisses on top and sustain pedal on the bottom from Madsen on “Braids”.

Even if the two bring what could be called rock’n’roll energy to pieces like the title tune, listen to their interaction as if they were participants in a relay race, passing the themes from one to another rather than sole competitors in the 800-metre run. Additionally, while there are times here and elsewhere where the pianist’s bearing down on the keyboard may remind some of Cecil Taylor, and the guitarist’s metaphoric string-shredding suggest Sonny Sharrock, genuine melodies abound. “Zaragoza” especially sounds instantly familiar as if it’s been a jazz club standard for years.

Both men know musical history and have technique to spare, but they don’t batter you ears with it; they have fun with it. Thus when Madsen slips into a rickety-tick semi-ragtime line on “Circus Arts”, Musillami counters with some muffled, elastic chording from his bottom strings, that sound all the world like surf guitar. Meanwhile, Madsen’s inside-the-piano explorations produce short, sharp string barks from Musillami on “Cush”. A bluesy undercurrent in all of the guitarist’s work is always there, so much so that you can detect traces of “Go Down Moses” in “Kinship”, and his single-string warmth prevents pieces like “Heroes” and “Mr. Tiara” from becoming too formal or atonal.

If Musillami, who wrote it, called the tune and this disc Part Pitbull to distinguish it from the lazy lapdogs that make up most other piano-guitar duos, the description is only partially correct. The other part of this animal seems to be made up of an adventurous hunting dog — say a Labrador Retriever— that’s friendly enough to be appreciated by nearly everyone.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Part Pitbull 2. Swagger 3. Cush 4. Fragile Forms 5. Kinship 6. Zaragoza

7. Braids 8. Mr. Tiara 9. Circus Arts 10. Restaurant People 11. Heroes

Personnel: Michael Musillami (guitar); Peter Madsen (piano)