Third time’s a charm. After two false starts, Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares finally got to present the Michael Musillami Trio +3. The six musicians: Michael Musillami (guitar), Jason Robinson (tenor sax), Thomas Heberer (trumpet), Caleb Curtis (alto sax), Joe Fonda (bass) and George Schuller (drums), smoked a 70-minute set at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls on Saturday, March 5.
“It had been almost 2 years to the day since this band had played on stage together,” Musillami wrote in a note of thanks. “I know that the cats were a bit uncertain because of the complexity of the music and the lack of time performing at a very high level. Well, once a few minutes in, it was like old times. It felt natural, yet there was an awareness that these are uncharted waters. We made music!!”
This ensemble, minus Curtis, had embarked on a European tour in mid-March, 2020, just as COVID was beginning to rear its head. Shaking off rust and reviving muscle memory for complicated music after two years away is not easy, and lay listeners tend to take for granted the amount of talent and dedication it takes to pull it off. But nobody on stage was sweating; the heat emanating from the bandstand, however, was intense.
In the main, the music – all written by Musillami – was driving, full of blues feeling and punchy riffs. But Musillami included enough open sections and unaccompanied solos to cleanse the palate. These solo interludes, about five minutes each, were creative tour de forces, while providing respite from the density of the full ensemble.
The well-oiled rhythm section, featuring old friends Joe Fonda and George Schuller, has been together for over 20 years, and through the decades Musillami has invited various horn players, such as Thomas Chapin, Marty Ehrlich and Dave Ballou, to join the Trio. Robinson and Heberer have been the +2 for a few years now while Curtis was making his public debut with the group. “Welcome to the team,” I overheard Musillami tell the 36-year old alto saxophonist at The Rendezvous after the concert.
When firing on all cylinders the sextet produced a welcome wall of sound and I joked that the guitarist might want to finally make a big band record. Schuller reminded me that Musillami does in fact write large ensemble charts as part of his day job as Director of Jazz Studies at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT. The arrangements were elaborate but clean and uncluttered.
Musillami played in organ trios in the early 1980s alongside Richard “Groove” Holmes and Bobby Buster. His comping behind Robinson’s blustery tenor solo was deeply swinging, worthy of Grant Green or Thornel Schwartz. Other highlights included my first live experience hearing a straight alto, the same instrument Rashaan Roland Kirk called a stritch. Curtis played a newly acquired, 85-year old horn that had a woody, soprano-like quality with notes of boysenberry and cinnamon.
One tune ended dramatically by featuring the three horns playing some knotty counterpoint and stretched harmonies that felt like a chorale off the rails. At one point, Heberer’s unaccompanied solo included a thin buzzing sound. I’m used to hearing folks like Nate Wooley, Steph Richards, Peter Evans and Taylor Ho Bynum extend the range of trumpet. But Heberer’s horn was by his side! Was he employing some looped electronics? Was someone else making the sound? It slowly dawned on me that Heberer was vocalizing, making “trumpet” sounds with his lips.
Musillami’s compositions, all written within the last five years or so, had plenty of hooks to hang your hat on, with infectious melodies and well-established grooves. But things were constantly shifting, with someone often blowing freely on top of it all. The combination of driving rhythms and abstract sound made for a crowd pleasing evening of high quality music.
Without much fanfare, Michael Musillami has put together a substantial career in music. In addition to his role as an educator and band leader, the guitarist runs Playscape Recordings, which since the turn of the century has released 75 titles by artists like Mario Pavone, George Schuller, Peter Madsen, Thomas Chapin and himself. And he is invested in the continued health of the music as manifest by his status as a shareholder in Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.