Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mighty Musillami Music + Joel Harrison's New Music

That's guitarist Michael Musillami and bassist Joe Fonda on the left in concert at The Hotchkiss School earlier this year.  The guitarist-composer teaches there and chose the school's auditorium to debut "Mettle" (Playscape Recordings), his new collaboration with the Michael Musillami Trio + 4

The Trio - guitar, bass and drummer George Schuller - and the + 4 - Matt Moran (vibraphone), Russ Johnson (trumpet), Ned Rothenberg (alto sax, clarinet) and the irrepressible Jeff Lederer (tenor sax, clarinet) - perform Friday March 30 in the performance space of Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street, in New Haven.  The new CD, arguably Musillami's finest, features the 8-part "Summer Suite" is extremely personal (each piece or section of a composition has a story connected.  The arrangements are tailor-made for these musicians, the interplay and communication is quite evident even on a studio date, and the vast majority have good melodies, harmonies and room for improvisation. Messrs. Musillami, Fonda and Schuller have played as a unit for over a decade and their "sonic identity" has grown nicely since their early days.  And the 4 additions really fill out the sound as well as bring their own strong identities to the music - honestly, this music should soar even higher in person. 

They'll play 2 sets, 8:30 and 10 p.m.  For ticket information, go to or call 203-785-0468.

The music on guitarist/composer Joel Harrison's new CD, "Joel Harrison 7: Search" (Sunnyside) was road-tested at Firehouse 12 in December of 2010.  The band (same as on the live gig) is magnificent and includes Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone), Gary Versace (piano, Hammond B-3), Christian Howes (violin), Dana Leong (cello), Stephan Crump (acoustic bass) and Clarence Penn (drums). Harrison does a fine job of creating a program, especially the original material, that plays to the strengths of the ensemble. Kudos to the rhythm section who maneuver their way through these challenging arrangements. Crump, who is the anchor in the Vijay Iyer Trio, really allows Penn to punctuate the melody lines and solos with his exciting, poly-rhythmic, approach.  The blend of the strings, guitar and McCaslin's active tenor saxophone on the 2 long pieces that open the program will capture your imagination.  "Grass Valley and Beyond" sounds like a combination of Aaron Copland and Bruce Springsteen in the wide-open chords and Versace's piano lines.  His long solo goes through a number of twists-and-turns before McCaslin takes the spotlight.  His solo is fiery, brusque, playful and soulful, with Penn leading the charge below.  The longest track, the 15-minute "A Magnificent Death", opens with dazzling string work from Leong (with accents added by Howes); the melody enters next from the guitar and tenor sax, with a catchy latin-esque at the end of the verse that helps to raise the intensity level for McCaslin's dazzling solo.  He enjoys the interaction with Penn (you will, as well) and, at the climax, the piece suddenly takes a turn towards a dirge with a barely audible poem making the music all the more mysterious.  Versace's piano solo, sans accompaniment, moves through the keyboard's upper registers before the band returns.  Harrison and Howes play the melody while the band pushes the intensity, which hardly lets up until the close of the tune. 

There are 2 cover pieces, "Whipping Post" (yes, the Allman Brothers classic) and Olivier Messiaen's "O Sacrum Convivium." In person, the former rattled the speakers in the room with Leong's incendiary cello solo and the leader's wailing guitar,  Here, you have to turn up the volume a bit to get a similar feel but the music really soars, especially after the drum solo.  As for the Messiaen work, Harrison's arrangement transforms the French composer's religious motet into a work with expressive guitar and tenor saxophone solos (also listen for the good work of Versace and Howes.) The title track closes the CD - it's a 2+ minute tour-de-force for Versace on acoustic piano with a melody line at the end that sounds like a variation of "Whipping Post."

"Search" is an excellent title for this program. Over his career, Joel Harrison has created music that bends boundaries (2003's "Free Country", "Harrison on Harrison", the music of the late Beatle, and string quartet + guitars arrangements of the music of  Paul Motian) - this new CD continues his explorations and experimentation with fusing diverse forms of music.  Give it a good listen, then try to find the Septet playing live. For more information, go to  

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