Playscape PSR #J21001

Quirky, jaunty, yet uncomplicated improvisations produced by Michael Musillami, Mario Pavone and their quintet have an antecedent in Chico Hamilton’s pace-setting quintets of the 1950s and 1960s.

Hopefully guitarist Musillami and bassist Pavone will take this as a compliment. For in terms of instrumentation, skill and sheer joy of playing, drummer Hamilton’s West Coast combo was as pace setting as it was musically satisfying.

Over the years, West Coast jazz has got a bad rap. But bands like the drummer’s which initially included multi-reedist Buddy Collette, pioneering jazz cellist Fred Katz, inimitable guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Carson Smith, were able to show that you could be inventive and exploratory without being heavy handed about it. Surely Musillami, a California native, must have heard the band in his youth.

Not that there’s any direct emulation. But the guitarist, who played with funk organist Richard “Groove” Holmes and done more experimental work with woodwind player Thomas Chapin, Mario Pavone and pianist Peter Madsen may have internalized the Hamilton quintet sound. With Schulldogs leader George Schuller on drums; George Sovak, member of the bassist’s octet and a longtime associate of the guitarist and Chapin on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet and flute, the line-up is also similar to Hamilton’s. Instead of a cello, though, a trombone has been substituted, here played by Art Baron, whose employers ranged from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder. But, come to think of it, Hamilton made the same switch, when the woodwind chair was held by Charles Lloyd.

Made up of a series of post-bop excursions, written ,except for one group improvisation, by the bassist or guitarist, this CD lives up to its appellation as do the musicians. On the title track, for instance, they pivot with split second timing, creating pieces with out-of-the-ordinary modulations beneath what sound like standard changes. Alternating faster and slower theme variations, led by unison guitar and horns, Musillami then comes up with a speedier section that is more overtly electric and experimental, as Pavone plucks out his lines in the mid-range.

Named for a granddaughter perhaps, Pavone’s “Bella at Six” is a frisky romp that expresses heedless joy without being smarmy. Revolving on a single note vamp and featuring Schuller’s light-toned yet propulsive syncopation, it includes a quicksilver soprano saxophone solo and some weighty trombone burr that add sobriety without darkening the mood.

Baron’s plunger work is on display elsewhere, especially on faster rhythmic pieces. With Musillami often chording behind him, like Hall did with Sonny Rollins, Sovak’s tenor work ranges from having a subtle, many-noted, effortless lilt à la Zoot Sims — who was a Californian — to razor-sharp, reed-biting obbligatos that reference tougher tenors like Booker Ervin, who spent more time in Texas and Manhattan than on the West Coast.

Brooklyn-based Schuller, who has worked with other impressive bassists like his brother Ed and Mark Helias, knows how to drive the players without overpowering them. His skill involves brushes as much as mallets and sticks. He even introduces a shuffle rhythm on the bassist’s “Trio”. Musillami contributes some folksy flat picking, updated with a reverberating resonance at the end, while Pavone modernizes the rhythmic drive of the sort of slap tone bass solos with which Pops Foster made his reputation in the 1930s and 1940s. “Parallels”, a group composition, with its circular guitar lines, split-tone saxophone squeaks and trombone bleats can be related to the strain of West Cost experimentation that was added to the jazz language and extended by the New Thing in the 1960s.

Fearful types shouldn’t be frightened by talk of experimentation, since nearly everything the five play here has a buoyant, swinging base. But at the same time it’s done at the highest level of professionalism, so that the 10 numbers won’t turn off the most committed musos.

The only question remaining, since it figures in both the first and final track, is what is a Swedish fish and why is it celebrated?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Swedish Fish 2. Sequence 3. Bella at Six 4. Drop Op 5. Pivot 6. Halos 7. Trio 8. En Tandem 9. Parallels 10. Swedish Fish Anthem

Personnel: Art Baron (trombone); George Sovak (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute); Michael Musillami (guitar) Mario Pavone (bass); George Schuller (drums)