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In It For The Long Haul: The Michael Musillami Trio

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.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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