Playscape PSR #J121802

Quietly, while many people have been distracted by flashier and/or better promoted guitarists, journeyman Michael Musillami has gone his own way and become a distinctive, exemplary stylist.

He proves it once again on this 11-track recital by stripping down his accompaniment to that of the classic guitar trio with bass and drums. Of course it helps that the bassist is Joe Fonda, who has worked with everyone from composer Anthony Braxton to guzhengist Xu Fengxia, and the drummer George Schuller, whose list of musical associates range from saxophonist Joe Lovano to bassist Mark Helias.

Musillami, whose own playing partners have included basist Mario Pavone and the late multi-woodwind player Thomas Chapin — both of whom are represented by compositions here — is also building up a book. Each one of BEIJING’s compositions has been recorded at least once before by the guitarist, usually in a very different setting.

Take the title tune, first recorded in 1990, and which celebrates the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in that city’s Tinanmen Square. Built on a repetitive note patterns and elongated, reverberating lines, Musillami’s solo starts andante, then twists itself into a quicker tempo in response to Fonda’s rhythmic countermelody and the merest hint of cymbal pressure from Schuller. Soon the guitarist is articulating single-string runs and multi-faceted harmonies, making the strings ring with a sharp, blusy funkiness. Moving from almost literal bell ringing produced by his strings, Fonda then occupies himself with the axe’s lowest quadrant, somehow hinting at “Nature Boy” in his solo. Using digital delay to give himself a fuller tone, Musillami relies on a series of diminishing chords to end the piece andante.

“Pivot”, on the other hand, begins with a frenetic drum solo and wide, resonating guitar overtones until Musillami forces the sounds into silence, then cuts the tempo to a more manageable, loping beat. Fonda and the guitarist toss phrases back-and-forth from their lightest gauge strings, until the plectrumist produces some sliding rock music-like effects and reprises the theme.

Fonda’s kalimba and Schuller’s shaker and bells come into play on “Dazu” and “Swedish Fish” which run right into one another. The unusual instruments are used to expand the color field, rather than novelty however, and are soon put aside. The latter tune’s thematic line is spun out with such dexterity by Musillami that during this serpentine piece he practically provides his own accompaniment. Still, his sliding flat-picking is on show without braggadocio, merely to advance the composition, as does Fonda’s adagio double-stopping and Schuller’s ratascues.

Despite the traditional guitar trio setting, for the most part the three avoid the standard round robin of solos. Plus, even if they exhibit prodigious technique on the standard compositions and the few out-and-out pure improvisations, they aren’t afraid to swing. Musillami, for instance, may pour many staccato notes into a bar, but thematic development and reprises are always part of his game plan.

This way BEIJING should appeal to those who figure Joe Pass’s trio efforts were the be-all and end-all of jazz guitar as much as improv fans that appreciate how the trio members can stretch the patterns with minimal distortion, yet still create extraordinary sounds.

— Ken Waxman

Track listing: 1. Jade Welcoming 2. Beijing 3. Dazu 4. Swedish Fish 5. Fragile Forms 6. Op-Ed 7. Mogao 8. Icons 9. Pivot 10. The Present 11. Caterpillar

Personnel: Michael Musillami (guitar); Joe Fonda (bass and kalimba); George Schuller (drums, bells, shaker, toy hammer, whistle and percussion)