Michael Musillami's times

Michael Musillami

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 12, 2004) – If it were by anyone else, confesses independent jazz label honcho Michael Musillami, he probably wouldn’t have released the newest album, “Those Times,” on his Playscape Recordings label. For one, the recording features a quartet led by a guitarist, and Musillami is not a huge fan of that instrument. And more importantly, the music is a little too mainstream or “tonal,” as he puts it, favoring standard repertoire as opposed to the label’s usual fare of original music “with an edge or an urgency,” as he says.

But favoritism, in this case, won out over the usual criteria for a Playscape album, and Musillami agreed to release and promote the latest recording by jazz guitarist Michael Musillami.

You read that right.

In a recent phone interview from his home in Longmeadow, Musillami – who brings his quartet to the Castle Street Café on Saturday night at 8 – spoke candidly about the musical right turn his latest recording represents.

“Most of the other CDs I’ve done have either been original material or more adventurous vehicles for improvisation,” said the guitarist, 50, who will be accompanied at Castle Street by drummer George Schuller, bassist Dave Shapiro and pianist Armen Donelian. “But a great deal of the work I’ve done in my life, for about the last thirty years, has been in the standard jazz repertoire. It’s a big part of my musical life, so I thought it was time to say so.”

The hour-long recording features Schuller, Shapiro and Ted Rosenthal, Musillami’s regular pianist, on seven numbers that stretch the meaning of “standard repertoire.” These aren’t standards in the sense of the so-called Great American Songbook; rather, these are beautiful tunes by the likes of Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Sam Rivers and Musillami himself, played in standard fashion.

The impetus behind the recording was to try something different from Musillami and Playscape’s more typical, outside fare. “It’s more tonal,” he said. “A lot of the other material I do is more open. The improvisational sections are more based on motifs, harmonic or rhythmic, as opposed to standard tunes that have a standard harmonic vocabulary. It’s’s tricky ground, because you wind up sounding like everyone who came before you. But the area of these tunes are more centered, more standard.”

With these musicians, most of whom have their own albums as leaders on Playscape, even so-called standards are never pedestrian or commonplace. Schuller has a fleet, swinging touch on numbers including Matt Dennis’s “Angel Eyes” and Musillami’s title track, and Shapiro drives the tunes in the pocket between Schuller’s rhythms and Rosenthal’s cleanly-articulated comping and solos.

As a result of Musillami not particularly caring for the guitar, he approaches his instrument differently. As a result, his playing steers clear of the clichés that afflict so many jazz guitarists. His fluid lines and patterns draw their inspiration more from horn players, and it shows.

“I don’t listen to a lot of guitar,” he said. “When I came up there was a lot of use of effects. I just plug into an amplifier that’s as clear but as punchy as I want. I dig hard as far as attacking the guitar and the strings.

“I listen to saxophone players, to be honest. That’s how I hear the instrument. I try to accent it and give it a voice instead of this mundane, linear sound that bores you to tears.

“Think of Sonny Rollins on the guitar. He’d spend five minutes on one note. That’s how I approach it -- rhythm is as important as harmony. It ends up becoming much more exciting than just playing tunes.”

While Musillami entertains with his quartet at Castle Street, teen pop-jazz phenom Sonya Kitchell, all of 14, leads her ensemble, including local musicians Jason Ennis on guitar, Jon Suters on bass, Conor Meehan on drums and Emiliano Garcia on saxophone, into Club Helsinki at 8:30. On Sunday night, a group of local musicians gather at Helsinki at 8:30 to pay tribute to the musical legacy of the late Johnny Cash. Recent additions to the calendar at Helsinki include power-pop group Brilliant Mistakes on March 5, guitarist/keyboardist/producer Al Kooper – whose resume reads like a history of rock, including stints with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, as well as co-founding the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears – on March 20, and singer-songwriter/provocateur Dan Bern on March 30.

Maine singer-songwriter Ellis Paul returns to the Berkshires tomorrow night for a solo show at the Railway Café at St. John's Parish Hall in North Adams. Local country-rock outfit Dooley Austin regroups for a show at Bogies in Great Barrington on Saturday, while over in Northampton, Amy Fairchild, who just released a live CD, is at Harry’s Music Club.

(Castle Street Café, 528-5244; Club Helsinki, 528-3394; Railway Café, -664-6393; Harry’s Music Club, 586-9155; Bogie’s, 528-5959.)

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 13, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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