Guitarist Michael Musillami Returns to New Haven to Celebrate Imaginative Release

Oct 1, 2014

Musillami paints expressionist portraits of feelings ranging from melancholy to joy.

As an intrepid explorer of the human psyche and inventor of wildly imaginative, convention-defying works, guitarist/composer Michael Musillami on his new release, Pride, reveals himself to be a kindred spirit with the late, great Maurice Sendak, the renowned, wizard storyteller and illustrator of children’s books and long-time resident of Ridgefield.

Musillami’s compatibility with Sendak’s inventive, surreal, sometimes snaggle-toothed world view is made manifest on a portion of his fine, just-released two-CD album. It comes beaming through in four short, bright movements selected from a 2013 score for a commissioned work Musillami composed to accompany the reading of Where the Wild Things Are, the most famous of all the brilliant illustrator/author’s books. Musillami knows how to evoke wild things musically in his Sendak-inspired, mini-suite on Disc One, which features four playful pieces: “Max’s Wolf Suit,” “Max’s Moods,” “Wild Rumpus Music,” and “And It Was Still Hot.”

The samples from the short, sweet Sendak suite are merely a small but no less vital part of the exciting, wide-ranging recording that Musillami, with his extraordinary trio and their elegant guest, pianist Kris Davis, will celebrate as they perform at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, October 3, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 at 45 Crown Street.

At the heart of the matter is Musillami’s world-touring flagship trio. A tightly-knit crew, it features the guitarist/composer/arranger at the helm collaborating with his two superb sidekicks of eleven years, double bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller

The Michael Musillami trio. From left, George Schuller, Joe Fonda, and Michael Musillami.
Credit Christopher Capozziello

Pride marks the trio’s seventh release on Playscape Recordings, a celebrated creative music indie label that Musillami founded in 1999. While still a celebration of the art of the trio, these new discs come with appealing bonus attractions, which, if anything, accentuate the trio’s signature interactive energies generated by Musillami and Fonda, a big-toned, fearlessly resourceful bassist, and Schuller, a smart, sensitive drummer who, like his two compatriots, loves to create right on the razor’s edge.

The Michael Musillami trio performs.
Credit Napone Punyagupta
Jimmy Greene
Credit Pablo Secca

On Disc One, you can feel the trio’s creative fire, which is stoked nicely by fine contributions by Davis. A thoughtful, Vancouver-born pianist, Davis brings her own fresh, concise ideas to the trio feast. Her reflections range from pithy, single-note lines to Cecil Tayloresque flourishes. Also on deck is the great tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene. Sitting in on two tracks, Greene brings his own thoughtful expressiveness to the table with beautifully-crafted solos accented by his judicious choice of notes and tone.

Disc Two documents the core trio joined by violinist Mark Feldman, who brings a spontaneous edge and classical flair to the live performance recorded in 2007 at Firehouse 12. The match-up with Feldman was presented on a tour in support of Musillami’s release, The Treatment, which was honored in 2010 by inclusion in The Penguin Jazz Guide’s all-time 1,000 Best Jazz Recordings. 

Musillami’s lyricism becomes soul-lacerating as he paints expressionist portraits of feelings ranging from melancholy to joy. There are expressions of sadness, but these are free of maudlin despair. They’re tempered, in fact, with a life-affirming, existential resolution to not only make the best of whatever you’ve been dealt in life, but also to embrace, savor, and be inspired by all the joys you’ve experienced along the way.

Among the emotionally personal compositions here is “Old Tea,” a moving tribute to Musillami’s beloved son Evan, a gifted 29-year-old who committed suicide a few years ago. Yes, it’s a requiem, but it’s also very much a celebration of a life vividly remembered in a work that was first celebrated on Musillami’s 2010 trio release, Old Tea. “Given the genesis of this piece,” Musillami writes in his liner notes for Pride, “I have received more audience reaction and felt more of a sense of fellowship from this tune than almost any other, and it has become a standard with the trio in performance.”

Out of the mourning process for his lost son, art emerged with “Old Tea,” which is now a continuous celebration of Evan’s life, not a lament for his death. Musillami has described the piece as “like a prayer in a shrine.” More irrepressible art also emerges with the new composition “Courageous David B.” Other new material includes “Uncle Fino’s Garden,” an amusing, Monkish piece with many brilliant corners, inspired by Musillami’s Uncle Serafino, a raffish but lovable professional safecracker. Whenever Uncle Fino went off to serve time in prison, family members told young Musillami that his uncle had “gone off to college.”

Now with his ideal trio, and friends like Kim Davis at Firehouse 12, Musillami cultivates his own garden of delight, stocked with luxuriant poetry and a bumper crop of nourishing reflections on human emotions. Tickets: $20.00 first set; $15.00 second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Esperanza’s 30th Birthday Bash

Since recording her major label debut at 23, a dazzling, eponymous work called Esperanza, Esperanza Spalding, the gifted, Grammy Award-winning bassist, singer, songwriter, lyricist and bandleader, has become one of the hottest, skyrocketing properties on the contemporary jazz scene. Hailed as a jazz prodigy on standup acoustic bass at age 15, Spalding has played with musical royalty from Wayne Shorter to Prince, and crisscrosses all genres from jazz, blues, funk and hip-hop to Brazilian and Afro-Cuban and beyond.

Esperanza Spalding
Credit www.esperanzaspalding.com

On October 18, the onetime wunderkind turns 30, a milestone birthday she celebrates this month with a whirlwind, two-week tour called “Thank You October,” which opens October 1 in Connecticut at the Ridgefield Playhouse. Other stops include a concert on Saturday, October 4, at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both start at 8:00 pm.

Spalding is joined on her birthday tour by longtime collaborators, Argentinean keyboardist Leo Genovese and drummer Lyndon Rochelle. An opportunity to hear the free-spirited performer in an intimate trio setting, the concerts will include selections from her acclaimed releases, Junjo, Esperanza, Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society. Tickets at Ridgefield Playhouse: $60.00 orchestra; $55.00 mezzanine and balcony. Information: ridgefieldplayhouse.org and (203) 438-5795. Tickets at Calvin Theatre: $45.00, $35.00 and $25.00 at iheg.com and (413) 586-8686.

Makanda’s Legacy Lives

The Makanda Project, a Boston-based ensemble dedicated to preserving the legacy of the under-recognized but highly creative composer/multi-instrumentalist Makanda Ken McIntyre, performs at 7:30 pm on Saturday, October 4, in the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert series at the Springfield Community Music School, 127 State Street in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Ensemble leader and pianist John Kordalewski, who studied with and performed with Makanda, has written arrangements for the 13-piece legacy band, working directly from the lead sheets found in the prolific, cutting-edge composer’s notebooks. Tapping this rich, unmined lode, the band can perform an enormous body of Makanda’s works that he never had the opportunity to record or perform in public before his death at 69 in 2001.

Besides its leader on piano, the ensemble features: Joe Ford, Jason Robinson, Charlie Kohlhase, Kurtis Rivers and Sean Berry, reeds; Eddie Allen, Bill Lowe, Ku-umba Frank Lacy and Jerry Sabatini, brass; John Lockwood, bass; Yoron Israel, drums, and Diane Richardson, voice. Tickets: $15.00 at jazzshares.org and at the door.

Elling Plays Infinity Hall

Kurt Elling, the bold, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who explores infinite variations on musical themes, presents his hip, edgy expressiveness as he performs at 8 pm on October 1 at Infinity Music Hall and Bistro at 32 Front Street.

Not only is Elling a master of scat and vocalese, a perennial winner of the Downbeat Critics’ Poll and a fervent favorite of the Jazz Journalists Association, but he is also much admired for his craftsmanship as a writer. His lyrics have been lauded by such renowned American poets as the late Robert Creeley and Robert Pinsky, a former poet laureate of the United States.

Set to song, Elling’s poetic images even expand into allusions to such literary heavyweights as Rainer Maria Rilke and Marcel Proust. Elling’s way with words, Creeley once wrote, “takes us into a world of sacred particulars” because they “are informed by a powerful poetic spirit.”

Waxing no less eloquent, Pinsky mused that with Elling’s artful lyrics “the voice of jazz gives a new spiritual presence to the ancient, sweet and powerful bond between poetry and music.”

But we probably don’t have to drag along a premier poetry scholar and exegete like Helen Vendler as our date at Infinity Hall to help us understand the vocalist’s Beat poetics. And, besides, there’s no ambiguity of any type in Elling’s delivery of original compositions and modern interpretations of standards from pop to bop, launching pads for his high-flying improvisations.

So, just relax. Go with the flow. Have a good time. It’s like being a guest at the wedding between jazz and poetry. Best of all, you get to imbibe all the intoxicating words and music at the wedding that you could possibly consume in one sitting. Tickets: $30.00 and $45.00. Information: (866) 666-6306.

Great Music for a Great Cause

The Jazz Samaritan Alliance, an elite band with a strong social conscience, performs a benefit concert for Foodshare at 8:00 pm on October 18 in the Music for Humanity Series at Asylum Hill Congregational Church (AHCC) at 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford.

The core cadre for the swinging Samaritans consists of three premier Connecticut-based musicians. They are pianist Noah Baerman, alto saxophonist Kris Allen and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, old friends, frequent collaborators and lifetime evangelists for creativity through spontaneity. They’ll be joined in the church’s sanctuary by vibraphonist Chris Dingman and drummer Rudy Royston.

Steven A. Mitchell, AAHC’s minister of music and arts, predicts “an evening of inspired music” at the historic church, a longtime friend of jazz in Hartford. “This new ensemble,” Mitchell says, “is a collective of established composer/educator/performers using their collaboration as a means of creating and presenting socially-conscious, original jazz.”

As part of the church series’ charitable practice, the full ticket price will be donated to Foodshare, the region’s largest food bank working to end hunger as part of the overall community effort to alleviate poverty in Greater Hartford. Tickets: $25.00. Information: ahcc.org and (860) 278-0785.

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