Michael Musillami Trio Jazzes It Up at Masterclass

This past Sunday afternoon, Michael Musillami of his own jazz trio leaned over the amp, fiddling with the plug and strumming his guitar. He shook his head, adjusting his tortoiseshell glasses, and spoke to Eric Thomas, the organizer of the jazz masterclass, who was puzzling over the cords. He wanted the instrument to sound like itself, without any machination or manipulation from the technology. “Simple is best,” Musillami said. The pair found a Fender amp in a closet and brought it out. He plugged in his guitar, picked some chords, and smiled.

Indeed, the trio favors a simple chemistry that makes their music fresh and vibrant. The group feeds off each other incredibly as they play, taking cues from one another and joining in when appropriate. The sound is organic, constant, and energetic. Musillami has an impressive musical resume, spanning from his founding the prestigious Playscape Recordings, an independent jazz record label, to teaching at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT. He has been playing the guitar for 54 years, to a point where his drummer George Schuller said to him, “they should be naming guitars after.” Musillami smiled and looked thoughtful, responding. “They should, shouldn’t they?”

The trio has been together for fifteen years, released eight CDs, and toured in America, Europe, and Canada. “Musicians in this area of jazz music always know each other, so it seemed proper that in 2002 we’d be empathetic to the same cause—original music that fits our style,” said Musillami, strumming his guitar and nodding to his groupmates. “[We] try to create a theme like you would in any music. [We make] a musical canvas, work[ing] in harmony, tempo, and contrast.” The musicians chatted easily before the class began, trading jokes back and forth and bantering in a way that befits a solid, and well versed group. They spoke of playing abroad and asked each other what songs they wanted to start with.

Students filed into the classroom, some holding instruments and others holding notebooks. They sat in two rows, looking at the jazz trio in interest, chatting amongst themselves. The masterclass was a comfortable give and take between the professionals and young student musicians. “[We] nudge off of each other [while we play], so let’s see what happens. You’re in it with us,” said  Musillami, nodding to the students. The trio performed, and after took comments and questions from the audience. As they played, the musicians looked as though they didn’t use instruments; they seemed to feel the music rather than play it, leaning and swaying with the beat and expressing the musical intensity. The music itself seemed to be experimental jazz, with the melody bouncing from instrument to instrument, and sometimes fading out completely. The musicians were simultaneously enveloped in the music, yet also conscious of what the others were doing. They passed solos to one another with barely a nod, feeling the energy and rhythm rather than outwardly communicating. They played with a seamless, synchronized pace that demonstrated years of practice and comfort with each other’s habits and talents. The students nodded and tapped along to the music, clapping enthusiastically when the trio finished. They asked questions about the music, about the improvised solos, and about specific parts of the piece. The trio was welcoming and gracious, answering questions and chatting easily. The masterclass was a sharing of talent in an all-inclusive, all-encompassing manner.

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