Michael Musillami: Celebrating Life

by Troy Collins

Michael Musillami                                                                                                                © Yixiao Guo

For over 25 years, guitarist Michael Musillami has worked as a performer, bandleader, composer and educator. Born and raised in California, Musillami was inspired early on by classic post-war jazz legends, like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Bill Evans. A former student of guitarist Joe Diorio, Musillami moved to the East Coast in the early 1980’s, working primarily in organ trios led by Richard “Groove” Holmes, Bobby Buster, and others. In addition to sideman duties with musicians such as Junior Cook, Curtis Fuller, and Dewey Redman, Musillami eventually became associated with the Waterbury, Connecticut scene, which included future collaborators Thomas Chapin and Mario Pavone. Musillami has since led a variety of ensembles, with over a dozen releases as a bandleader to his name. Along with his longstanding trio, featuring bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, Musillami has organized groups that range from duo to octet, featuring such artists as Cameron Brown, Drew Gress, and Matt Wilson.


In 1999, Musillami founded Playscape Recordings to regain control over his recording career, and to provide other musicians with a supportive environment to document their own creative music. Built around a core group of frequent collaborators, the imprint has issued more than 40 critically-acclaimed releases. Half of the guitarist’s Playscape sessions have been recorded by his flagship trio (formed in 2002), which is often joined by guest artists. In addition to running a record label, Musillami is also the longtime Director of Jazz Studies at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT.


Life Anthem is Musillami’s ninth Playscape release with Fonda and Schuller. As in the past, this latest effort finds the trio augmented by guest musicians – this time featuring cornetist Kirk Knuffke and multi-reedist Jason Robinson. The conceptual album documents Musillami’s month’s-long recovery from a sudden illness; on June 8th, 2016 the guitarist woke up with what he thought was a migraine, which turned out to be a brain hemorrhage, and an unrelated brain tumor. I interviewed Musillami in the Spring of 2018, on the eve of the record’s release.




Troy Collins: Let’s talk about Life Anthem. You’ve used non-musical events as the subject matter for your albums in the past, so I’m curious how this particular event inspired the current recording?


Michael Musillami: Life Anthem is a new beginning for me. The events that transpired during early June, 2016 changed me as a musician, as well as a person. For me, the idea of pairing pivotal life experiences with music composition and performance is as natural as someone writing in their journal at the end of the day.


Life Anthem is a celebration of life in song.


In the middle of the night on a Wednesday in June of 2016 I woke up from a deep sleep by the most severe head pain one could imagine. My skin was screaming and there just wasn’t any place to hide from this terrible pain in my brain. Being the entirely capable self-taught Sicilian doctor that I always think I am, (and not realizing I was actually dying) I diagnosed myself with a sinus infection and prescribed a hot compress and a continued push with both hands on all parts of my skull. This ridiculousness went on around the clock for two solid days with absolutely no relief. My wife was away at the time, but after a brief conversation with me Friday morning she sensed I was having a serious health problem so immediately following our conversation she jumped in her car and made the 3-hour trip home in record time.


When she walked into the house she could hear me vomiting with the roar of a lion, a very sick lion we would find out later. She told me later as she was frantically dialing for an ambulance I kept saying “This is so embarrassing. Who calls an ambulance for a headache?” Ultimately she won that round and I can’t thank her enough for making the right call.


After an ambulance ride, a chaotic visit to the ER and multiple tests, it turns out that I not only had a brain hemorrhage, but I also had an (oddly) unrelated brain tumor. All of that led to nearly a week in ICU, brain surgery and a long and grateful recovery.


As a musician the sounds produced by the machines keeping everyone in the ICU alive and monitored kept my imagination going.


I’m a composer. The heart machine, respirator, the alarms each of us had were all moving in and out of sync 24/7.


It became a thing of beauty, a symphony of sound.


The music contained on Life Anthem was written during late June, July and August as I slowly recovered from my ordeal. I’m happy to report I’m fine now and better than ever.


TC: I have more than one question in response, but I’ll start with this: Can you pair up any of the rhythms and sounds you heard during your hospital stay with pieces from the album? Is there a direct correlation between anything you heard there to what we as listeners hear on the record?


MM: We have 15 tracks on Life Anthem, here are two examples of pairing my life experience to composition and performance.


Before recording the first full ensemble track, “I Hear Sirens In The Distance,” I told my story to the band members. I tried to describe my ordeal in detail focusing on the fear and helplessness I experienced. The sound of the ambulance getting closer and closer (check out Jason and Kirk playing long tones against my relaxed melodic lines). Music, like life, has a push and pull ranging from a feeling of complete control to complete chaos. Some of the greatest creative moments can come from the times when you are not in control. Survival instincts kick in and if you’ve done your homework, this is where the magic happens. “I Hear Sirens in the Distance” turns my journey of fear and helplessness into song, demonstrating sounds and feelings with an urgency to live.


“MRI Countdown”:


Magnetic Resonance Imaging. I was rolled into what felt like a basement. It had the vibe of Frankenstein’s lab. I had been given a variety of drugs at this point, morphine, as well as fluids and drugs to keep my blood pressure down to avoid bursting that bubble in my brain. The MRI lasted more than 1 hour straight, without a break. The longest MRI in medical history ... at least that’s what it felt like.


In an effort to not move, I just kept breathing in time, quarter notes and started counting rhythms out against my quarter notes using the sounds of the banging, clanging machine. There were times when I would briefly pass out with dreams – nightmares, really – due to lack of sleep and drugs. These episodes were 10 to 20 seconds at a time (I had not slept in 3 days) and my pal, Mr. Morphine was creating a new mental reality.


When composing “MRI Countdown” I referred to my experience in Frankenstein’s Lab. I worked on a constant change in time signatures because that’s actually what was going on while this procedure was taking place. As I breathed in 4/4 time the machine would layer a variety of rhythms against my deliberate and even pulse.


“MRI Countdown” weaves between 2/4 3/4 4/4 5/4 6/4 7/4. The improvised section also depicts the MRI experience by layering guitar, bass, drums, and at times we’re all playing different rhythmic figures. The downbeat of beat one is constantly being reinvented. As stated earlier, some of one’s greatest creative moments can come from when you feel you are not in control. Survival instincts kick in and if you’ve done your homework, this is where the magic happens.


TC: This isn’t the first time you’ve drawn on harrowing life experiences for an album: Old Tea was inspired by the death of your son Evan. Are there any similarities between these two records as far as how you approached writing the material?


MM: Unlike any other music I’ve written and/or recorded, Old Tea and Life Anthem needed to be made. I had an urgency to frame these life markers to truly understand how to come to terms with what really happened, as well as find a healthy and creative path forward.


I’ve worked my entire life refining my ability to communicate and express myself through music. I needed to capture and document these two experiences because they were life altering events that have had a profound effect on who I am and what I believe.


I approached the writing for both projects by outlining pivotal markers in each experience. For me, once I have the big picture, the details slowly reveal themselves. If you’re a composer, you’ll compose and if you’re a musician, you’ll play music. If I were a public speaker I’d find a podium on some street corner and share what I had learned. I’m a jazz musician, so ...


A few years ago the MM Trio was performing in Lafayette, IN. We played the concert and at the end of the performance the listeners were able to ask questions to Joe, George and myself. Someone in the audience asked each of us to describe what we do in one word. My response was “emotion”. It’s everything to me at this point in my life. I express my emotion through music. So, when Evan passed I was teeming with emotion and raw from the inside out. The balm for this emotion was Old Tea. Similarly, to lay in a dark room for a week with a leaking artery in my brain along with a tumor that needed to be removed was emotion on steroids. When you examine life and death in real terms, for me the catalyst for a sense of order is music.


Both albums celebrate life. Old Tea celebrates the life of a beautiful and brilliant young man and Life Anthem celebrates the gift of life through music for a 65 year old jazz musician.


The evening before my surgery, I gave a copy of Old Tea to one of the surgeons to play in the operating room. As I laid on the operating table I could hear Old Tea playing. In the OR I had Evan, George, Joe and my whole clan with me through music. The last thing I remember the anesthesiologist saying as he placed the mask over my face was, “think of something beautiful.” And I did ... I thought of my wife as Old Tea played in the background.


TC: Speaking of family, you’ve been playing with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller for a very long time now. The jazz bands of a previous era featured long-term personnel for extended tours, but that has largely changed today, for various reasons, both aesthetic and economic. But you’ve managed to lead your trio for well over a decade. What advantages and challenges do you find in maintaining such a longstanding group?


MM: Although most elements of keeping a band together for the long run are positive, there can be challenges associated with players who know each other so well on a variety of levels.


Many years ago I read an article in JazzTimes magazine where master bassist Ron Carter was lamenting the fact that he misses a time – long past – when groups would stay together for the long haul. He went on to say that only then would there be time for an evolution, growth and a group personality to take place.


Though I play guitar, the main instrument is the MM Trio. For me, this is the single most important benefit in keeping the MM Trio together for so long. It’s an evolving journey of growth, a living musical diary, not only for the band but also for the listener. Keeping this trio together for the long haul provides the opportunity for a building of trust on a human and musical level, as well as an opportunity to challenge one’s commitment to the trio and to the music.


The trio also provides a non-judgmental platform for fearless improvisation, as well as original compositions and arrangements tailored to specific band members. The give and take of musical ideas and shared group think with an eye on the future can all be attained over time with hard work and commitment to the group.


This philosophy fit perfectly into my plan for an improvising guitar-led trio using my original compositions as a canvas for expression.


It’s human nature to have family disagreements and because we are so close on a human level the interaction can be stressful and pointed at times, especially on the road when you’re tired, wanting for a decent meal and in need of sleep ... tempers can flair. But if the music is happening, cats will find a way to work it out. We have been pretty careful about not letting negative issues fester. We deal with disagreements sooner rather than later.


Scheduling and availability can be difficult at times.


George has been working quite a bit these last few years with Lee Konitz and Joe is working with a half dozen groups at any given time. As the leader I always try to schedule our tours and performances around their availability. It’s so healthy to do all you can as a leader to accommodate all in the group, if possible.


In an effort to provide enough work for the trio and compensate the cats respectably, I’m always the last to be paid. I wish this reality was different but there are times where I’ll lose money after a tour, but for the good of the group and the need to perform, as leader you accept the fact that at times you’ll take a loss.


There is always pressure to present new material. New musical tangents – new environments – a new creative canvas to create upon. We’ve probably recorded near 100 compositions over the past 15 years, each unique, presenting a kaleidoscope of colors to explore.


I’m fortunate to be director of a 28 piece jazz ensemble called Right Brain Logic at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. I love working with these young creative souls. These young musicians are committed to playing my music and my arrangements resulting in two major concerts per year. A single score can have between 300 and 400 written measures as well as plenty of sections for improvisation. So I write something and I get to hear it played. In fact much of the music the MM trio has come to record and perform was first presented by Right Brain Logic. I’m blessed to have this opportunity as a composer and arranger. I imagine it would be much more difficult to keep composing music if upon completion of writing a piece I would be forced to set it in on a pile of never performed charts.


TC: Have you ever considered recording your large ensemble compositions?


MM: Recording a large ensemble would definitely be a bucket list contestant. The idea of making this happen crosses my mind often. The largest groups I’ve written for and recorded to date are my 1994 release titled Groove Teacher with Thomas Chapin, Ralph Moore, Claudio Roditi, Chip Jackson, Steve Johns and Kent Hewitt. Also on that list would be the 2012 release of Mettle, with the MM Trio + 4 so along with me George and Joe I added Matt Moran, Ned Rothenberg, Jeff Lederer, and Russ Johnson. So, septet is the largest group I’ve written for and recorded.


At The Hotchkiss School I’ve been writing for Right Brain Logic since 2006 with two major pieces each year, so I’m sitting on 24 arrangements for large ensemble. In fact, in 2006 our first ensemble was observed and critiqued by the late Roswell Rudd. Roswell was an alum of The Hotchkiss School and in 2006 the school honored him as alum of the year. Because the school’s enrollment is small and tops at around 550 students, instrumentation is always atypical. This year we have 8 alto saxes, 3 tenor saxes and 1 soprano sax, 4 electric basses and 1 string bass, 2 drummers, 2 guitars, and one each of piano, trumpet, tuba, flute, a clarinet and a bass clarinet. When I first started Right Brain Logic, I knew if I was going to survive I would have to view the color spectrum of available instrument pairings with an open mind. As a result, I spend hours every day during the summer composing this music so next year’s students can have original and hopefully challenging compositions to play. Because I’m used to writing for a large ensemble packed with atypical instrumentation, if I were to record a large ensemble it would likely be similar to the ensemble at Hotchkiss, probably with the addition of a string quartet.


Of course there are challenges to consider when you finally decide to go forward with a big project. Logistics come to mind, though completely doable, the idea of putting 20+ carefully selected musicians together for a series of rehearsals, performances, and ultimately to record the set would be a complex and daunting, but also an incredibly exciting task. It takes me roughly 150 hours of writing to put about 30 minutes of music together. My most creative time is early in the morning so I usually wake up around 6:00am to write when I’m most able to clearly focus on the task at hand. I use pencils and a ruler, old school. I’ve tried the computer programs but I guess I’m a dinosaur, I really enjoy the process of writing every note by hand, it feels like a ritual at times. When looking at my hand-written completed arrangements, I can see the eraser marks and edits I made along the way, and hence ... a more personal document, in my opinion.


TC: Speaking of recording: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?


MM: Recording studios produce a product, live performance is a creative moment in time shared by all participants, performers and listeners.


The goal for each process is very different.


Live performance is really the prize, it’s why I do what I do.


For me, the single most important aspect of being a jazz musician is to create art in the moment with intentions of fearless and unapologetic music making. The idea of creating art with like-minded improvisers weaving in and out in real time with an eye on achieving something greater than one’s self is among the most beautiful of human efforts.


Live performance is also visual. There was a time when jazz musicians would wear no less than a coat and tie ... dress with respect for the music. So I try to consider all aspects of performance. How you sound, look, and carry yourself on the bandstand is all connected. Live performance should touch as many of our senses as possible. I mentioned earlier in this interview that music for me is emotion. Seeing emotion from a performer as well as seeing other performers react to that emotion is something only available on the bandstand. At times I’ve been screaming, laughing and/or crying on the stand, and almost none of that can reflected in a recording studio.


The audience at a live performance can also affect the players in a substantial way. As a performer, you can feel and see the connection the performance can have on the listener. That energy can, and usually does, transfer back to the bandstand.


Studio recording is a bit like sausage making, the process can get ugly, but the results can be beautiful.


The easiest way to record creative music is to set up in a big room and position microphones in the proper places, so you play a live gig but in a recording studio. The problem with this setup is unwanted bleed from one instrument to the other which presents problems in editing. Isolation booths can solve the bleed problem but now the musicians are separated by space and glass windows – not the best recipe for group improvisation.


Physical and mental demands of a long session can also affect creativity.


The stress of the recording process can bite into the creative process. By the time you get to the 3rd take of the 4th composition and you’ve had a number of false starts and a few unforeseen technical issues, you run the risk that the creative bubble will start to deflate. Couple that with the reality that you’re paying $100 – $200 per hour to record and stress can eat away at everyone involved.


As the owner of Playscape Recordings I’ve often been involved in the production of what now totals about 70 releases. For some releases, other than my own, I’ve been part of the complete process, recording, editing, mixing, as well as mastering. I love doing this. For me, it’s much like the process of composing and arranging music. The ritual of going through all takes and picking which heads worked best, which solo sections worked best, and seamlessly mapping out minute by minute a course for building a track is a task I truly have come to enjoy. It helps to have an engineer on a similar wave length to bounce ideas and possibilities back and forth with.


TC: Similarly, as a label proprietor, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry, specifically regarding archival documents (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?


MM: As a young wanna-be jazz musician decades ago I have fond memories of spending hours on-end going through the bins at Tower Records in my hometown of Sacramento, CA. The ritual of fanning through stacks of LPs of my favorite artists, as well as the purchasing of LPs to enhance my record collection, played a big part in my journey to be a professional jazz musician.


I enjoyed the ritual of after purchasing one or more records, bringing the LPs home and carefully removing the plastic wrap and removing the vinyl record, being sure to only touch the sides of the disk, from the cardboard jacket.


It’s a ritual I miss. I have fond memories of slowly lowering the stylus onto a 12” LP and hearing the subtle scratching sound it makes on the vinyl as I wait for the first note of the music to begin. I would find a comfortable chair and examine the art work and begin to read the liner notes as the smell of the plastic vinyl is released into the listening room.


Fast forward to the mid to late ‘80s to change over from vinyl to CDs. Granted, compact discs did produced a more clear sound, but there is a sterile quality to the sound when compared to vinyl. CDs became the norm and many of us tried to upgrade our vinyl collection to CDs.


Fast forward to March 2018. The LA Times reports that “Since peak plastic in 2001, CD sales have dropped 88%, from 712 million units to 85.4 million in 2017, according to Nielsen Music.” This number reflects all music, with jazz being a fraction of this number and labels like Playscape Recordings – with an eye on developing artists with an open mind and the mission of presenting music on less predictable canvases – are a fraction of total jazz sales.


I started Playscape Recordings in 1999 as a CD only label. We would print up 500 – 2,000 units of all new releases. When inventory got down to around 200 units, we would re-order another 500 – 1,000 copies depending on what was happening with a given artist, considering variables like tours, press, radio, etc.


Now, in 2018 our model has changed once again. Our printing of hard copies is measured, with initial manufacturing numbers at 300 – 500 pieces. Once we drop below around 125 units we consider the possibility of a reorder.


Playscape recordings are available at digital stores, but we have stopped sending to streaming sites like Spotify, but continue to make our music available at download only stores like iTunes and Amazon digital stores, to name a few.


Playscape is an artist-run label and the selling of CDs is a part of the complete picture. We look at the release of a project first as a historical document, but also a calling card with an eye on performance. To be clear, we continue to release new music so that we have opportunities to tour and perform live.


Tom Kohn, owner of the Bop Shop in Rochester, NY and friend to Playscape Recordings suggests that LPs will continue to be collectable for the next 8 to 10 years and CDs will be the next collectable after that.


I don’t know what the future holds for vinyl, CDs, or cassettes but Playscape Recordings will continue with our mantra of “documenting creative music by a core group of composer/improvisors.”


TC: Considering the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?


MM: I can’t speak to technological advances, but as for the other subjects, I do combine stylistic movements and artists that have inspired me. There are a few artists I continue to go back to for inspiration which tends to come in generalities opposed to specifics.


The Playscape Recordings mission statement is “documenting creative music by a core group of composer/improvisers.” I believe that you can truly get a sense of an artist’s reach by listening to them perform their own compositions/arrangements.


From my perspective, the familiar thread that runs through the four artists listed below is that they all compose like they play. It’s a beautiful statement to hear an artist orchestrate their personal musical language, it speaks of authenticity to me. Of course I continue to refer to Mingus, Ellington, and others for guidance as well.


Below are four artists that have inspired me in the past and will likely continue to spark my creativity in the future:


1. Saxophonist/Composer Tim Berne released a few projects in the late ‘80s on the Winter & Winter label. Fractured Fairy Tales and Diminutive Mysteries: Mostly Hemphill are two gems that have been a wealth of information for me through the years. Interestingly enough, violinist Mark Feldman and trumpeter Herb Robertson both of whom appear on Fractured Fairy Tales would eventually be part of two of my projects. Feldman appears on a 2007 release titled The Treatment and Robertson is part of my drummer-less Pulse Ensemble with pianist Peter Madsen and bassist Joe Fonda. Though Pulse never released any music, we did tour Europe on a few occasions.


2. Pianist/Composer/Arranger Michele Rosewomen recorded Quintessence with her group on the Enja label in the late 1980’s – a fearless group with a signature sound. When considering their sound, interpretation of time, and intention, it feels like the compositions, arrangements, and execution by all players, which included Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Anthony Cox and Terri Lyne Carrington, are focused on realizing Rosewomen’s vision in perfect sync.


3. Astor Piazzolla is another genius that created a language of his own. I hear so much emotion in Piazzolla. His rhythmic insistence layered with a sinister melodic theme, creative and always fully realized. I was able to honor and acknowledge my deep appreciation of Piazzolla on my 2012 release Mettle with a piece I call “Piazzolla on the Porch.”


4. Peter Madsen, a Playscape artist as well as one of my closest friends, continues to amaze me with his reach as a performer and composer/arranger. I’ve been studying at the “school of Madsen” for many years. Specifically, his Seven Sins Ensemble which is a jazz quartet with a string quartet. Playscape released Madsen’s Gravity Of Love in 2012 and just this year released Never Bet the Devil Your Head.


Gravity of Love is a great example of Madsen’s writing and Never Bet The Devil Your Head takes it to another level. What a wealth of beautiful writing contained in both of those octet recordings.


TC: That’s an inspiring group. Much like the aforementioned artists, you obviously have a similar ability to navigate multiple styles within the jazz continuum. Are there any current aspects of the tradition you find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?


MM: The jazz tradition is continually evolving as more information is being added and as one would expect, the addition of a wide variety of personal points of view are the life blood for the jazz tradition to remain healthy. Over time the platform has splintered into a variety of different environments and sub-groups of musical thought and each of those niches evolve within themselves. For me, it doesn’t even matter if I connect to or even agree with any or all of it.


The main objective is for new information to enter the jazz environment, which in turn will inspire new creative ripples in the creative waters of the music as a whole. The hope is when new information is fed into the creative monster, more new ideas will materialize to keep the music moving forward, naturally finding its own path.




Over the past decade one of the changing elements I hear in creative music is a different interpretation of what “swing” is. I have heard a number of younger musicians who sound like they’re coming from a more modern classical framework, i.e. Cannonball was not their model for swing. As intellectually and technically interesting as the playing might be, it feels like there is less of a focus on emotion. This classical feel naturally goes against my sensibilities and instincts, obviously the chitlin circuit from 40 years ago had a lasting effect on my music outlook. It’s healthy to have these different points of view because it keeps the tradition moving ahead, sideways, up and down, and the jazz tent continues to be more inclusive for players and listeners. Among at least a segment of this new generation of improvisers, inflecting blues sensibilities into the music doesn’t seem to be part of their language.


I’ve always said that I’m playing the blues even when I’m not playing the blues ... it’s there, and I feel it.


I love the evolution of the rhythm section. I think this is the biggest positive change in the music. Gone are the days when the drummer is playing time (ting-ting-a-ting) and the bassist is walking quarter notes so a soloist can play chorus after chorus with little to no interaction from the section. The concept of direct interaction for all involved, all suggesting in real time where they think the music should go has given new life and expanded involvement for a group presentation.


TC: I tend to agree with you; the new conservatory-trained generation seems to have a predilection for neoclassical forms that often lack blues and/or swing feeling – elements that go a long way towards expressiveness. Your comment about freeing the rhythm section up is also apt; although it can be its own constraint, M-Base has done much to advance rhythm section dynamics among the same generation.


That said, looking ahead, what immediate projects do you have scheduled for the future?


MM: Playscape Recordings has one more release set for 2018 and three new releases set for 2019.


I’ll begin work in early July to release an explosive duo recording by pianist Peter Madsen and drummer/percussionist Alfred Vogel titled I Ching. This powerful piano/drum-percussion duo reacts to I Ching for some on-the-spot improvising. I Ching will be released in September 2018.


Bassist Rich Syracuse and I will begin rehearsals in late June to start sketching out our next duo release which will focus on the music of pianist Bill Evans. The idea of exploring and exploiting the repertoire of the great pianist is something I’m looking forward to. We have a tentative release date March 2019.


Playscape will also offer a new Ted Rosenthal Trio recording in 2019. This will be Rosenthal’s 7th release as a leader on the Playscape Recordings label.


Following the success of Mario Pavone’s 2017 Playscape release, Chrome, he is once again teaming up with his Dialect Trio, featuring pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey for a Spring 2019 release.


And finally, The Michael Musillami Trio +2 has some live performances booked for September 2018. I’ll begin writing new arrangements to accommodate the 5-piece ensemble and will begin rehearsals in late July.

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