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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Who is this shamanistic cat with the pyrotechnic chops? And where’s he been all my life? Guitarist Tisziji (pronounced tis-see-gee) Muñoz has been flying below the radar for the past 30 years, documenting his fleet-fingered, six-string take on latter-day John Coltrane in the company of such kindred spirits as drummers Rashied Ali and Bob Moses, saxophonist Dave Liebman, bassist Don Pate, pianist Marilyn Crispell and guitarist Henry Kaiser on the tiny independent Anami label. Imagine if Carlos Santana had never strayed from the intensely searching, spiritual path of Love, Devotion, Surrender and you get the picture.

Although his name was brought to my attention a few years ago by ubiquitous taper and record-store owner Bruce Gallanter (proprietor of the Downtown Music Gallery, New York’s premiere emporium for prog rock and the avant-garde), it was not until this recent record release party for Divine Radiance, Muñoz’s debut on the higher profile Dreyfus label, that I actually first set eyes on the over-the-top ax slinger. Appearing in the intimate confines of the Village Underground with his dream band–a sextet featuring the twin tenors of Pharoah Sanders and Ravi Coltrane, Rashied Ali on drums, Don Pate on bass and Paul Shaffer (yes, of Letterman fame) on keyboards–this holy man of the fretboard ignited a set of transcendent music with his infinite sustain, mad machine-gun picking and unbridled passion. Visions of Sonny Sharrock in flight–broken strings dangling in the air as he thrashed away–danced in my head as Muñoz dug in with the heightened intensity of latter-day Trane, blowing “sheets of sound” alongside the former colleagues and son of his main inspiration. His sheer abandon and visceral intent rubbed off on the rest of the musicians to the point where the sextet was practically levitating a foot above the bandstand by the encore. And the audience, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder like straphangers on a runaway rush hour train, took it all in with awed delight.

The tunes were all vehicles for exploration (launching pads, really) that developed out of simple melodic motifs. Pate’s upright bass anchored the proceedings with deep-toned ostinatos and droning pedal-point work while Ali’s drums provided waves of rolling, rhythmic energy underneath, freeing up the principal soloists to chase cosmic tones with impunity. Shaffer, whose keen ears and instincts are tested on a nightly basis as musical director of the David Letterman show, knew intuitively when to switch from block chords on the piano to droning organ mode, or when to lay out altogether. In subtle ways, his presence helped shape the surging music, providing a kind of harmonic nudging, if you will, in the midst of the sonic fray. On the mesmerizing, aptly-named “Initiation by Fire,” he summoned up his finest McCoy Tyner imitation with a forceful left hand while feeding the soloists provocative chordal voicings

Sanders, the 62-year-old avant-garde icon, began the set in a placid state, playing from a seated position on a stool, but by the time they launched into the extended “Divine Radiance,” he was on his feet, up on his toes, caught up in the spirit of this intense music and overblowing with hurricane force like the 25-year-old man he was on Coltrane’s fabled Live at the Village Vanguard Again!

Ravi Coltrane, indelibly connected to this music by birthright, rose to the occasion with some inspired fire-breathing tenor work of his own on “Divine Radiance.” With forceful tones and a deliberate but probing quality, he authoritatively navigated the psychedelic swirl of Sanders’ rampaging tenor, Pate’s frenzied bowing and Muñoz’s shrapnel-spewing guitar work. This kind of collective improvisation–overlapping conversations, really, rather than the neater and more orderly approach of individual soloists stepping out from the ensemble one by one to “tell their story”–reminded me of just how much the avant-garde has in common with early New Orleans jazz.

Shaffer has made no secret of his admiration for Muñoz and the musical debt he owes the man. As the story goes, Tisziji lived in Toronto during the early 1970s and became a musical mentor for Paul in his formative, pre-“Saturday Night Live” stage. In return, Schaffer has coproduced and played on various Muñoz recordings over the years, and just a few days before this Village Underground showcase had the guitar guru appear with the CBS Orchestra on the Letterman show. As Paul said of Muñoz on the air that evening, “He takes you out–and he just leaves you there!” Letterman took that up as an oft-repeated mantra through the rest of the show to great comedic effect. Some patrons leaving the Village Underground a few days later could be heard muttering the same thing after an inspired, goose pimply set by Muñoz and his all-star sextet.

Originally Published