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Resurrection Jazz at Hotchkiss

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Sep 16th, 2017

From left: George Schuller, Joe Fonda, Michael Musillami, Jason Robinson, Kirk Knuffke

The Hotchkiss School Concert Series kicked off its new season by presenting the Michael Musillami Trio +2 this past Saturday at 7 p.m. in Katherine M. Elfers Hall. Composer and guitarist Musillami is known for extended chamber music ensemble works that at times rise to a nearly symphonic level. This characteristic was on full display last night. Musillami recently suffered serious illness, nearly dying but surviving, and during his long bed-ridden recuperation had little to do but write music. What was played on Saturday was probably his most autobiographical composition, certainly his most visceral.

Musillami, whose Trio has been playing with him for the past 17 years, began with a solo guitar prologue which was followed by five movements. Beginning with “Dr. Mohammed Neurosurgeon,” in which George Schuller’s explosive rhythmic drumming created dramatic tension, the quintet solidified their sound around Schuller. “June Recovery” began with a fierce, exciting bass solo by Joe Fonda whose lightning fingering projects with startling resonant force. “Hammer or I: Countdown” provided intense, energetic crescendo with notable sidebars of guitar and tenor sax solo by Jason Robinson. This movement was my favorite, most symphonic, astonishing trip into the stratosphere.

“Visions” was the most sophisticated movement as it offered each of the players, including Kirk Knuffke on cornet, to perform a set solo within the developing music arc. Musillami noted that the inspiration of this movement derived from morphine dreams during his recovery. “Think of Something Beautiful” was the concluding movement: mellow, lyrical, yet freighting a meditation on last things or last thoughts about life. That last movement, a coda to the entire suite, is also the title of the work as a whole.

This concert was a public rehearsal for the imminent recording of the composition for Playscape Recordings (jazz pianist Ted Rosenthal is also on this label), from which it will be shortly available. Musillami has always possessed his own distinctive style, but here he is more fluent, denser, more energetic, and more authentically self-transcendent than his previous original recordings, which are available from Playscape here. It’s good to hear that reborn-Musillami now has a second life. An excerpt video of “Pulse” appears below.