It’s surely no coincidence that a concept album documenting Michael Musillami’s 2016 brain hemorrhage and tumor should comprise such cerebral music. At least, it does in the part of Life Anthem that directly corresponds to the experimental guitarist’s trauma; emotion seeps back into the music as it deals with recovery and (to quote the title of one of the most interesting tunes) “Renewed Focus.”
If the point of the heady stuff in the album’s front half is to leave the listener as confused and unnerved as Musillami must have been, then mission accomplished. Certainly the sudden bursts of perfect unison from Musillami, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson—despite the complete lack of steady time in bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller’s putterings—are disorienting, to say the least. Follow that with the unevenly structured 76-bar composition “MRI Countdown” and a 6/4 groove that keeps shifting uncomfortably like an insomniac on “Dr. Mohamad Khaled, Neurosurgeon,” and bafflement ensues (though there are excellent improvisations, especially by Musillami on “MRI Countdown” and Knuffke on “Dr. Mohamed Khaled,” to soothe it a bit).
Once Life Anthem starts to feel things, it remains confused for a while, as on the oddly suspenseful “June Recovery” (with Musillami, Knuffke, and Robinson providing album-best solos over a scintillating ostinato from Fonda) and the deeply mysterious “Nurse Roe.” Yet with the adrenaline- and panic-fueled “Visions,” everything starts to make sense, and the tranquility and gorgeousness of “Family,” with the sense of peace and equilibrium brought on by Robinson’s flute and Fonda’s arco over delicate lyricism from Musillami, make for a remarkable payoff. At least until the next track sets us on edge again.