The core of guitarist Michael Musillami’s band over six albums has been his trio with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller. As for the core of his writing, it’s been kind of an angular post-bop with a taste for grooves, collective improv and some rocking out. On Mettle, Musillami’s latest excursion, the addition of vibes, trumpet and two reeds allows him to experiment with all manner of timbre and texture.
Mixing and matching soloists, Musillami subdivides the band into duos, trios and quartets, sometimes massing all the horns and letting everything rip. And the forms are as expansive as the ensembles. Eight of the album’s 11 tracks comprise “Summer Suite: Twenty Ten.” Most pieces last at least six minutes, with one running more than 14. The first cut, “Piana dei Greci,” opens with gongs and bells before settling into a guitar theme that gains momentum and becomes a groove in itself — a kind of passacaglia around which the soloists take turns. “Bald Yet Hip” is a supple, Monkish bebop line. “Piazzolla on the Porch,” as you might expect, is a relaxed tango.
Although these are all worthy structures, Musillami writes not with abstract forms in mind, but for the individual voices of specific players. So the snaky, comic “Thuggish Morning” breaks for Russ Johnson’s warm trumpet fantasy, a wisecracking dialogue between Ned Rothenberg and Jeff Lederer’s clarinets, and an interlude for Matt Moran’s blues-dipped vibes. Rothenberg’s and Lederer’s sax playing can turn from frolicsome to fierce — the latter bares his tenor teeth on “Iceland.” Also impressive is Fonda’s aggressive, virtuoso intro to “High Likeability Factor.” Then there’s Musillami, delicately comping one minute and summoning rock-influenced firepower the next. Once again, he proves his mettle as a player, composer and leader.
— Jon Garelick