Michael Musillami Trio +2

Life Anthem
Playscape PSR #091717

From great suffering comes great art or at least that’s what one cliché insists. But in the case of Life Anthem an argument can be made for the statement’s veracity. Recorded a little more than year after an emergency neurosurgery excised the American guitarist Michael Musillami’s unexpected brain hemorrhage and brain tumor, the over-70-minute session has some of the most accomplished writing and playing he’s produced in his more than quarter-century career. Musillami isn’t alone in this. Backing comes from bassist Joe Fonda, known for his work in bands like Conference Call and the FAB trio and drummer George Schuller, with his own Schull Dogs group, both of whom have played with the guitarist since 2002. Musical heft is added by two new collaborators: cornetist Kirk Knuffke and saxophonist/flutist Jason Robinson, both active on the New York scene.

Although there are solo features plus different instrumental combinations among the 15 tracks, the most profound impact is made when all members of the quintet are on board. Take, for instance, multi-sectional “Visions”, the CD’s lengthier track. Set up with a rangy drum solo, the theme is soon elaborated with spray of harmonies from the guitarist underlined by horn smears. When the pace slow down half-way via a duet between cornet rasps and double bass plucks, it regenerates and marches to a gutsy 21st Century Jazz Messengers-like finale with multi-timed press rolls and low-pitched gutsy sputters from the saxophonist.

Similar vitality comes across on “Dr. Mohamad Khaled, Neurosurgeon”, a heartfelt salute to Musillami’s doctor, with the exposition propelled by Knuffke’s volatile grace notes and the guitarist’s snapping runs that manage to be both Boppish and dignified. Furthermore the title of “ICU Blues” seems worse than its interpretation. In fact, the band motors along rhythmically, powerfully lead by stinging riffs from Musillami and answering thwacks from Fonda, concluding at a near canter, This vitality continues throughout with the circular movement of “Renewed Focus” made up of shuffles from Schuller, relaxed guitar lines and an intense solo from the cornetist that appears to emulate the “Work Song” head; and a stretched out foot-tapper in “MRI Countdown” with the guitarist elongating the tasteful theme with satisfying plucks plus some intense double-tonguing from Robinson.

Distinctive sound alchemy also noticeable on the sequential “I'm Beginning to Feel Life's Pulse Again” and “June Recovery”, with the first a slap-bass exhibition; and the next blending subtle Red Mitchell-like rhythmic flow from Fonda and Jim Hall-like storytelling chords from Musillami. To keep the section from growing too cloying, Knuffke adds some peeps and squeaks to move the performance into modernized swing.

A potential catastrophic and life-threatening situation has been internalized by Musillami and reflected into compositions that may include delicate touches but gleefully avoid lachrymose sentiments. This tenacity may reflect on the guitarist as a person as much as the compositions performances echo his worth as an artist.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1, Life Anthem (Solo Cornet) 2. I Hear Sirens In The Distance 3. MRI Countdown 4. Slow Bleed 5. Dr. Mohamad Khaled, Neurosurgeon 6. I'm Beginning to Feel Life's Pulse Again 7. June Recovery 8. Nurse Roe 9. ICU Blues 10. Visions 11. Night Wailer 12. Renewed Focus 13. Family 14. Think Of Something Beautiful 15. Life's Anthem (Full Ensemble)

Personnel: Kirk Knuffke (cornet); Jason Robinson (tenor and soprano saxophone, alto flute); Michael Musillami (guitar); Joe Fonda (bass) and George Schuller (drums)