All through Spirits (Playscape), a set of seven pieces written by the late reedist Thomas Chapin, it sounds like the Michael Musillami Octet wants to be two bands. One trades virtuosic, postbop solos over changes. The other does it up without form, AACM-style. That's great, and it makes for an album that still surprises after numerous listens. Sure, the abrupt change from a series of reed and brass solos to a passage of distorted-guitar-driven chaos during the album's 16-minute centerpiece, "Spirits Rebellious," might cause you to wonder if your CD player is still under warranty, and maybe the chances the band takes don't always work. But Spirits is a world of its own full of sublime harmonies, world-percussion accented rhythm and horn shouts reminiscent of Impulse-era Mingus.
Singling Musillami out as a guitarist betrays the nature of this recording. Though he certainly knows what to do come solo time, as do saxophonist Tom Christensen and pianist Peter Madsen, the music is always as much about what's going on around and underneath the solos: elastic accompaniment that can simmer ominously or groove joyously and climax in full-boil rapture.