Dachau - review by John Kelman
John Kelman for All About Jazz, published September 26, 2005
The intrepid Playscape Recordings imprint, founded at the turn of the century by guitarist Michael Musillami, has been responsible for a small but consistent catalogue of releases that constantly look for new ways to combine forward-thinking compositional form with a more exploratory aesthetic. Working with a relatively small core group of veteran players, the label has already made a mark on jazz. Albums like woodwind multi-instrumentalist Tom Christensen's remarkable New York School and percussionist George Schuller's imaginative rethinking of Miles Davis, Round 'Bout Now, have managed to define their own musical spaces, while at the same time fitting into the label's broader philosophy of creative music. With freedom a fundamental consideration, Playscape's albums seem to cleverly avoid the kind of jagged extremes that often make it so unapproachable.
Musillami has released a dozen albums under his own name since the label's inception — the kind of output that is only possible with a small and focused independent outfit — with ensembles ranging from duo to octet. Dachau is the second by his working trio with Schuller and bassist Joe Fonda. This time, however, he enlists trumpeter Dave Ballou and labelmates Tom Christensen and pianist Peter Madsen to expand the sonic palette on four of his seven original compositions. By ranging from trio to sextet settings, the album is as much a vehicle for Musillami the conceptualist as it is Musillami the writer and performer.
The trio tracks show just how far the group has come since its 2003 release, Beijing. Musillami's tone may be soft and round, but his lines are often angular — logical extensions of his almost mathematically precise compositions. While he travels in different circles than saxophonist Tim Berne, an inner logic that links the two. Even when Musillami's trio is exploring the outer boundaries of the material, there's always a path — obscure though it might seem — leading back to form. The interplay among the three is so intrinsic that it's not only impossible to tell who is reacting to whom. It's irrelevant.
When the guests are brought in to create denser textures — especially on the sextet title track — the bond between Schuller and Fonda is brought into even greater focus, as is Musillami's clear direction. The twelve-minute "Dachau" traverses considerable terrain with clearly delineated soloists at times, but a more collective approach to its development at others. Madsen is especially on point, here and on "Part Pitbull" — which the two originally recorded as a duet — avoiding a more conventional accompanist role during Musillami's solo, instead engaging in interactive conversation.
Musillami's complex world owes a lot to guitarist Joe Diorio — whose book Intervallic Designs pushed a number of known guitarists in new directions, even as Diorio himself has remained almost completely beneath the radar. But Diorio's innovatively anti-linear approach has provided players like Musillami an alternative foundation from which to evolve. Dachau continues to repay the debt, building a musical universe with its own unique lyricism, albeit one of a more oblique design.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2006 All About Jazz and John Kelman.
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