Michael Musillami/Rich Syracuse: Bird Calls (Playscape)

Review of album by guitar and bass duo featuring Mingus tunes


Cover of Michael Musillami & Rich Syracuse album Bird Calls

A year after releasing an album of Wayne Shorter’s music, guitarist Michael Musillami and bassist Rich Syracuse tackle Charles Mingus. Bird Calls is a delightful duo session that uses eight Mingus compositions as framework for a free-flowing conversation whose language is improvisation.

The album’s marquee passage is a two-song movement: a snappy, triplet-filled take of “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi USA” that runs right into 10 minutes of “Nostalgia in Times Square,” during which Musillami and Syracuse surface the tune’s bluesiest undertones. Mingus’ best-known songs, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” show up, and both are transformed beautifully. The former is a speedy 12-bar blues on Mingus Ah Um, but Musillami and Syracuse take it extremely slow for most of the tune, each waiting patiently as his partner makes a soulful statement. The latter, a lament written for Lester Young, keeps in spirit with the original, but the players make it their own. And they slyly bring a bossa-nova sensibility to “Carolyn Kiki Mingus,” a lesser-known tune.

Mingus and Shorter are generally regarded as two of jazz’s three greatest composers. Will an album of Duke Ellington covers be next for Musillami and Syracuse? You have to wonder if the final track on Bird Calls—a gorgeous, tender reading of “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”—is a teaser.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Bird Calls by Michael Musillami and Rich Syracuse on iTunes.