For 10 years now, guitarist Michael Musillami has had the kind of hand-in-glove fit with drummer George Schuller and bassist Joe Fonda that is truly rare in jazz. A prolific composer with a freebop bent, Musillami paints on a much bigger canvas here by augmenting his core trio with likeminded musical insurgents Ned Rothenberg and Jeff Lederer (reeds), Russ Johnson (trumpet) and Matt Moran (vibraphone). With a tinge of nasty distortion in his fleet-fingered lines, Musillami’s spiky single-note playing on outré showcases like the explosive “Iceland,” from his eight-movement Summer Suite: Twenty Ten, may recall subversive six-stringers like Sonny Sharrock and Tisziji Muñoz. But there’s far more here compositionally, owing at times to Monk, Mingus and Dolphy while still observing a scorched-earth policy with regards to the solos. And while he and his crew explode with wild abandon throughout, Musillami also shows an aptitude for advanced horn voicings and counterpoint on these 11 intriguing pieces.
The dark and edgy opener, “Piana Dei Greci,” sets the tone with each of the horn players and Moran exchanging rapid-fire eights in quick succession over a driving ostinato. Tenorman Lederer contributes some ferocious Pharoah-inspired overblowing to “Iceland,” while altoist Rothenberg demonstrates his circular breathing technique on the freeboppish “Blues for the Wounded Warrior.” Johnson takes his time developing melodic ideas in duet with Fonda on “Bald Yet Hip.” His lovely muted trumpet work also helps create a poignant vibe on the heartlandish interlude “Nebraska.” Moran, a devilishly creative and fluid improviser, as he demonstrates on the tango homage “Piazzolla on the Porch,” underscores the proceedings with rich harmonic touches and pianistic comping using four mallets. Fonda, a stalwart on the free-jazz scene, combines physicality and virtuosity on the solo bass showcase “High Likeability Factor,” and Schuller is unleashed on the solo drum piece “Moe.” The slow-grooving “Thuggish Mornings” has a klezmer-ish flavor, particularly during the adventurous two-clarinet break that has Rothenberg and Lederer engaging in an animated dialogue. Mettle is Musillami’s most ambitious and exhilarating effort to date.