Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Michael Musillami‘s e-mail handle is “Jazzbiker.” He isn’t a biker, in fact, but he looks the part: tall and brawny, with a goatee and mustache, a long ponytail, and the personality of a teddy bear. “Moose,” a fine guitarist who is pushing 50, came to the East Coast from Sacramento in 1981 and settled in Connecticut. Apart from busking twice a week in Washington Square Park, he stayed local, becoming the house guitarist at the Hillside Club in Waterbury, where Mario Pavone, a cutting-edge bassist and composer, was doing the booking.

Pavone is the opposite of Musillami in many respects: dwarfed by his instrument, full of nervous energy, a relentless yet affable self-promoter. He and Musillami became close friends, and now they form the creative core of Playscape Recordings. Musillami launched the label in 1999, intent on creating a forum for himself and his Hillside peer group. “It was truly the last thing I wanted to do,” he says. “But I had to do it in order to survive. Even guys who’d been putting out releases all their lives were struggling at that point.”

Playscape, it could be said, came into being for another reason as well: to fill the void left by the loss of Thomas Chapin, one of the most influential of the Hillside peers. Chapin was an alto saxophonist and flutist who attained something close to jazz sainthood when he died of leukemia in 1998, at the age of 40. He was a free-spirited wizard in the mold of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy, steeped in jazz tradition but unafraid to transgress. He once compared playing music to making mud pies. His music is awash in kinetic, earthy, funky rhythm. It can amuse, it can haunt, it can make you dance. Most of Third Force, Chapin’s debut on Knitting Factory Records, was recorded live at the Hillside. Pavone was the bassist on the album, and on every subsequent Chapin title for KFR until the end.

The first three Playscape releases were Musillami’s own dates, and Chapin played on all of them. Groove Teacher, which also featured Ralph Moore and Claudio Roditi, was manufactured just in time for Musillami to sell on the road in Spain. Soon to follow were two earlier sessions, Archives and Mar’s Bars, which boasted names on the order of Randy Brecker, Ray Drummond, and Nat Reeves.

Musillami also had some reissues in mind. The first was Sharpeville, a politically inspired statement of Pavone’s dating back to 1985. Originally released on the bassist’s Alacra label, this session featured the astonishing twin reeds of Chapin and Marty Ehrlich, with Pheeroan akLaff on drums. Playscape also reissued Andy Jaffe‘s Manhattan Projections, a 1984 Stash session buoyed by three of the pianist/composer’s former Berklee students: Branford Marsalis, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Wallace Roney.

New statements by alto saxophonist Ted Levine (Event #6) and the Playscape Quintet, a house band of sorts, filled out the fledgling catalog. But it was the 2000 release of Motion Poetry that truly began to solidify Playscape’s identity. Here were four players who shared the closest of musical connections with Chapin, or “Chape,” as they still call him. Drummer Michael Sarin joined Pavone in the Chapin trio following the departure of Steve Johns in 1991. Pianist Peter Madsen had performed with Chapin and Pavone, separately and together, for over five years. Musillami’s previous contact with Madsen and Sarin was limited, but the three quickly established a compelling rapport. The record, with a smiling close-up of Musillami and Pavone on the cover, featured vibrant original music by the two co-leaders, along with pieces by Chapin and Marty Ehrlich. (Ehrlich has not only played on, but also produced, several of Pavone’s finest albums, including Song for (Septet), Toulon Days, and Dancer’s Tales.)

The quartet followed up in 2001 with Op-Ed, continuing to ply an aesthetic that Chapin, according to Pavone, liked to call “the Connecticut sound.” That sound is edgy, often modal or atonal, with a strong rhythmic foundation and an emphasis on motivic development. “We try to almost remove the bar lines,” Musillami comments. Both Motion Poetry and Op-Ed abound with gritty excursions in groove and free-bop, but this is a band that can move in any number of directions—witness the ballad “Emmett Spencer” and the soaring fuzz-tone rubato of “Today the Angels.” One certainly hears the spirit of Chapin in Pavone’s rumbling bass and Sarin’s nimble traps. Madsen has the chops and harmonic skills of two pianists; Musillami’s guitar is biting yet fluid, angular yet melodically inquisitive.

Several permutations of the Motion Poetry band have cropped up on Playscape. Musillami and Madsen made an intimate duo album called Part Pitbull. Madsen and Sarin appeared on Pavone’s Mythos, with Steven Bernstein, Tony Malaby, and Matt Wilson joining on several cuts. Musillami and Pavone formed a new, more explicitly avant-garde band for a record called Pivot, with Art Baron on trombone, George Sovak on saxophones, and George Schuller on drums.

Schuller, for his part, is becoming a regular presence on the label. With his Schulldogs quartet he released a raucous free-blowing session called Hellbent. And along with bassist Joe Fonda (another Hillside peer of old), he graced Musillami’s first-ever trio session, Beijing. Madsen, the most wildly underrated of the whole bunch, stepped into the spotlight with a priceless solo piano meditation on Monk, titled Sphere Essence.

Because Playscape has developed something of a reputation, its roster is expanding well beyond the inner circle it was initially set up to serve. At this point the catalog includes works by mainstream pianists Ted Rosenthal and Kazuko Baba, multi-reedist Tom Christensen, and a co-led Peter Brainin/Steve Johns ensemble. Another recent Playscape addition is Michael Pavone, son of Mario, a fleet-fingered, Metheny-influenced guitarist with a bright future.

Some of these projects came about through networking, others through unsolicited demos in the mail. Musillami’s criteria are straightforward and broad: he favors working bands, original compositions, “honesty,” “vitality,” and high-level, uncompromising musicianship. The label has hit a good stride, releasing six to eight albums per year, usually two or three at a time.

Musillami and Pavone co-design all of Playscape’s covers, and thanks to Pavone’s skills as a photographer and painter, they’ve arrived at a rather distinctive look. The first few designs were decidedly low-impact, with an artist snapshot offset by a block of solid color. Now a typical cover features one of Pavone’s abstract paintings, or an extreme close-up of a photograph, retouched to evoke mysterious shadows and shapes. These images, together with the label’s idiosyncratic approach to text—small type, futura font, all lower-case letters—result in a stylish yet simple package, easily spotted on the shelf.

Another quirk of Playscape releases is the catalog number, derived from the date the session was recorded. Part Pitbull, for instance, is PSR#J122001, recorded on December 20, 2001. The “J” stands for “jazz,” and if Musillami fulfills his goal to launch a classical series, we’ll see that letter change to a “C.”

Distribution is a thorny issue for Playscape, as for most indies. Musillami seems satisfied by his dealings with NorthCountry (Cadence‘s distribution arm) and happily notes Playscape’s strong presence in Europe and Japan. But he describes U.S. distribution as “a terrible problem.” While some labels find it useful to pair up and pool resources to increase their reach, Musillami prefers to go it alone. “I’ve been approached by a few different people,” he notes, “but I’m pretty conservative. I’m doing OK and I’d rather not deal with the uncertainty of being connected to someone else. It’s a scary thing, giving up control of the product.”

Musillami’s paramount concern is to reach the public while remaining focused on his music. “I’m not a fat cat,” he says. “I’m just a guitar player who came up with a simple way to get this music out.”

From Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels
by David R. Adler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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