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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

Conviction and commitment. Those are words that come to mind thinking about the Michael Musillami Trio, which enthralled over 100 of us on Saturday, March 11. The concert at the 121 Club at Eastworks in Easthampton was a Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event.

The Trio has been together for 13 years. They have five recordings as a threesome and another four with added guests. Joe Fonda (bass), George Schuller (drums) and Musillami (guitar) have logged so many shared miles of collective performance they can anticipate each others’ gestures and direction. Musillami has kept the Trio together through turbulent personal times, the bottom falling out of the record business and now the rise of fascism in the United States. He has invested personal fortune to keep Playscape Recordings, the wonderful record label he started in 1999, afloat.

Coming out the other side of those tribulations is a real working trio with over 80 tunes under their belt and a thirst to add more. The 80-minute concert included previously recorded Musillami compositions like Uncle Fino’s Garden (a nice uncle who happened to be a safecracker) and Old Tea (dedicated to his son who committed suicide.)

Another set of tunes chronicled Musillami’s recent journey through an aneurysm and subsequent brain surgery. Pieces like MRI Countdown and Nurse Rose that recall the trauma, will be recorded and released within the year. The band seemed equally assured on both the old and new tunes.

Assurance. Your trusted band mates creating a comfort level. Countless days on the road, countless hours in rehearsal and on the bandstand, a shared history. That assurance is the reward for putting in the time and energy. There are no shortcuts to forging a group sound and creating chemistry.

We are the beneficiaries of all that effort, as three profoundly self-possessed musicians thrilled us with their sense of invention.

Joe Fonda, who was in the area last week performing with Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes and Barry Altschul at Amherst College, is a magnetic performer and magnificent bassist. An extended, unaccompanied solo late in the set unleashed the loudest spontaneous applause of the evening. His earlier arco solo was brooding, blues-like, ancient. The pings he produced playing below the bridge of his instrument provided the perfect accompaniment coming out of Schuller’s note-bending solo.

George Schuller’s bent notes, especially audible during solos and subdued sections, resulted from a unique technique of handling the cymbal after striking. Stick rubbing on drum skins produced similar undulated sounds. His time, whether playing in a rock, swing, funk, Latin or free vein, was as impeccable as his dynamics. Schuller is the son of the late composer, conductor, historian, educator and NEA Jazz Master Gunther Schuller, and has spent considerable effort to preserve and disseminate his father’s legacy. He is also an astute historian of the music. We had a great time, long into the night, discussing musicians, bands, recordings, and his on-going projects.

What a pleasure to hear Michael Musillami, who only lives in Longmeadow, MA, but works in the other direction at the Hotchkiss School in the northeast corner of Connecticut. Without the pedals and effects that occupy many contemporary guitarists, Musillami’s well-articulated notes, tart and sweet, kept us engaged all night. His intricate compositions provided a sturdy framework with an open floor plan.

He told me this was his first concert in the area in over a decade. For someone that close and that talented, it makes no sense. But where are the opportunities? That’s the big question everyone’s asking. That the Michael Musillami Trio has persevered despite the lack of a good answer shows an inspiring conviction and commitment.

Over the years many people have urged Barry Altschul to write a memoir. The 74-year old drummer, composer and bandleader has certainly led an eventful life. The subject of collecting stories came up over drinks at the High Horse after the OGJB Quartet (Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes, Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul) gave a spirited performance at Amherst College’s Buckley Recital Hall on Sunday, March 5. The concert kicked off the 28th season of the Magic Triangle Jazz Series.

Altschul told us how as a 12-year old, he introduced himself to Louis Armstrong after an outdoor concert. “Let me give you a piece of advice,” Armstrong told the budding drummer, “if your wife isn’t your biggest fan, fuck it.” The Bronx-born percussionist graduated from Taft High School with Larry David (“sarcastic even then”), along with a crazy dude named Kramer. He told us about an early crossroads experience, having simultaneous offers to join the bands of Chick Corea and Jimi Hendrix. Paul Bley, his boss at the time, told him “you’re a jazz drummer.” He went with Chick. We heard stories about an alto saxophonist named Gambino who sounded just like Bird and never left Sicily, about Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey sharing drum secrets with him, and his life-long friendship with Roy Haynes (Graham’s father and grandfather of fellow drummer Marcus Gilmore.)

When I asked Joe Fonda, who lived in the Valley in the second half of the 1970s, if he had ever played in Buckley, he told me he had not, although he had a peak experience hearing Altschul play there in 1975 with Anthony Braxton.

More history was made on Sunday, as the Quartet played a 70-minute concert to over 250 people. The collective, whose first recording is due next month on the outstanding Finnish label, TUM, has only performed live a handful of times. But the veteran band (Lake is 75, Fonda, 62 and Haynes, 56) played with a loose cohesiveness, while exploring originals by all four members of the ensemble.

In creative music, terms like “front line” and “rhythm section” lose meaning. Figure and ground constantly shifted within each piece. So did roles. Neither alto saxophonist Oliver Lake nor trumpeter Graham Haynes play a lot of notes or hog the spotlight. But each has a distinct and easily identifiable sound that lent personality to each composition.

Highlights included Just a Simple Song, a beautiful ballad written by Altschul that began with a haunting unaccompanied solo statement by Haynes. Another high point was a Haynes composition, Bamako, a spiritual journey featuring Haynes on the West African stringed ngoni, Altschul on thumb piano, Fonda playing arco bass and Lake reciting an original poem. The finale, Listen to Dr. Cornel West, written by Fonda, was the most overt swinger of the set, anchored by an insistently funky bass line. In general, the music was delivered in knots of sound in sure-footed, but shifting meter. The engaged listener was rewarded with a coherent, well-balanced evening of music made by four active modern masters.

Although jazz musicians come in all types and shapes, it should come as no surprise that many are master storytellers. They are, after all, contemporary griots, itinerant world-travelers, constantly accumulating experiences across cultures. Their job is to communicate feelings, translate emotions into sound. Let’s hope Barry Altschul puts down his drum sticks long enough to pick up a pen and share some anecdotes.

  • Glenn Siegel

I always cringe when I hear jazz organizations and backward looking aficionados lamenting the death of jazz, full of half-hopeful hand-wringing about “keeping jazz alive.” Some pine for bygone days (80 years ago!) when jazz was the popular music, others huff and puff about jazz being “America’s classical music.” Both attitudes are hindrances, locking the music into acceptable styles and conventions and furthering the thing they hope to avoid: turning a vibrant, expressive art into a museum piece, far removed from the world we live in. Those filled with nostalgia are always disappointed in the current state of affairs, always fearful of uncharted territory. But from my vantage point, there has never been a better time to be a jazz fan. Today there are hundreds of creative musicians forging pathways to the future. Darius Jones is one of them.

The alto saxophonist and composer cut through the inclement weather on Saturday, January 7 to deliver a searing, jaw dropping set of music for 70 intrepid listeners at the Parlor Room in Northampton. The concert was the second part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ double whammy, which hosted the Jean-Paul Bourelly/William Hooker Duo in Jim Olsen’s same cozy venue the previous evening.

Jones and his trio, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary, mostly drew from Big Gurl (Smell My Dream), their outstanding 2011 AUM Fidelity release. “Equally earthy and avant-garde,” wrote Carlo Wolff in Jazz Times in his album review, “intellectually stimulating though anything but academic… Jones can keen, weep, caress–and cut, too. The appealing unruliness to his music coexists with authority.”

Jones introduced “A Train” by paying homage to its composer, Billy Strayhorn, Strayhorn’s employer, Duke Ellington and especially Johnny Hodges, the alto saxophonist who made the original come alive. As a blustery introduction slowly revealed the contour of the melody, the pace blistered, and the tune, while still recognizable, was turned inside out. It looked backwards without sentimental longing. It looked forward with unblinking courage. It was an exhilarating 10 minutes.

There was also E-Gaz, a tribute to another alto saxophone master, Eric Dolphy. An original by Jones, it too evoked the spirit of the original without imitation. It was all there: the cry, the moan, the advanced technique, groove, blues and rage. The rhythm section was in lock step all evening. Lane providing deep, spiraling bedrock bass lines, Nazary pushing and accenting, smiling all the way. In contrast to Friday’s duo concert, which uncovered meaning through episodes of probing interplay, Saturday’s event was a concentrated display of well-oiled precision.

Jones told me of a summer spent in deep study of the approach of Steve Coleman, one of the most influential jazz musicians of the last 30 years. He said at the end, it made his head hurt. He meant it without disrespect. Though they share a prodigious technique and a predilection for precise, knotty heads and modern phraseology, Jones hues closer to the blues and embraces a multitude of tempos and moods.

At one point in the concert, Jones repeatedly shook his head and said “2017.” He talked about the beauty and promise of the American experiment, and remarked how as “a free black man from the South,” he had been able to create and thrive. Without mentioning the incoming president by name, he braced himself for the days ahead and launched the band into a Jones original, “Ol’ Metal-Faced Bastard.”

If the days ahead fill us with dread and apprehension, at least we can rest assured that with musicians like Darius Jones coming into their own, the future of jazz is now.

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