The second of my two nights out demonstrated jazz’s inexhaustible variety: two guitarist-led bands with completely different agendas. In Boston — a guitar-mad town — the draw is the star soloist. All the guitar geeks want to see Metheny shred and watch Sco dig into those thirds. John Scofield was indeed in the city for two nights at the Regattabar; Michael Musillami played Thursday at MIT’s Killian Hall. Both were impressive soloists, but their writing and band concepts were as important as their individual playing.
Musillami writes tricky pieces — multiple lines, contrary rhythmic motion, varied textures. The compositions are important, but they’re pretty much inseparable from his band’s performance of them. At MIT he had his usual trio with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, plus violinist Mark Feldman. (All are on Musillami’s new Playscape release, The Treatment.) There were wide open spaces, extended passages of indeterminate meter and tempo — “free jazz,” if not for all the written parts, the arrangement of ensemble shifts, and the solo entrances.
Musillami doesn’t write standard verse-chorus song forms — when his pieces are really chugging along, they’re all hook, usually based on a deep ostinato groove that gets passed around as the players trade solos. The head of “The Treatment” is a set of repeated angular triplets, with a drum break and short bridge section. But at MIT the solo sections settled into a syncopated four-note ostinato, and by the time the solo sequence came around to Fonda, he was deep into it. His extended solo was like an object lesson in motivic development — he solo’d in and around that groove, built big runs off it, reversed direction when he and Schuller fell into bashing triplet quarter notes. By the end of the piece he was barely suppressing a coughing fit, but it was so apposite that the coughs could have been part of the score.
The arrangements occasionally broke down into duo sections — guitar and drums, guitar and bass. Musillami has a bright, clean attack, and he spins lines with a tensile strength and elasticity, accelerating, decelerating, exploding into fanned-chord exclamations. Feldman is his perfect foil; even playing through a borrowed Roland guitar amp, he maintained a pure, natural tone. His runs were thrilling. But the core of this band is Musillami’s relationship with Fonda and Schuller. They know where to leave space and when to fill it. The music never goes slack.
Scofield is Musillami’s conceptual opposite. Just as ferocious a soloist, and capable of his own free-form outbursts, he’s at heart a pop songwriter. Early in his career, he was a funk player, and he’s never left that far behind. He likes the logic of tight pop song structures, even if he likes to fuck with it. At the late set Thursday night at the Regattabar, he played the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Charlie Rich’s classic country ballad “Behind Closed Doors.”