My ears told me there was a saxophone onstage but my eyes told me otherwise. Whether or not this confusion was deliberate on the part of free jazz veteran and former Schenectady resident Tisziji Muñoz, it’s a trick that fit well with the guitarist’s performance of exploratory improvisations and cosmic adlibbing. The longtime Pharaoh Sanders collaborator and proponent of sonic “inner attainment” rather than entertainment is like a free-jazz Yoda, teaching spiritual lessons through his music, speaking in cryptic paradox only when the audience needs the crutch and preferring to demonstrate the power of the force through blistering fretwork belying his ever-serene countenance.
Behind him on the Sanctuary stage were bassist Don Pate, drummers Tony Falco and Adam Benham, and keyboard Jedi John Medeski. No saxophonist. Yet, when Muñoz took his first solo, the earthy growl so perfectly simulated John Coltrane’s tenor sax (with little more than some overdrive and sustain), it warranted a double-take. Despite having suffered nerve damage in his left hand when he was a child, Muñoz plays with incredible velocity, yet his linear approach and fairly clean absence of bends, hammer-ons and other guitar-god filigree situate his style less within chordal instruments and more with his brass and woodwind brethren.
“You may not believe me,” Muñoz intoned after having delivered a lengthy guitar passage, “but you’re just visiting this planet.” The sentiment falls in a rich tradition of cosmic, space-travelling free jazz born of the luminous Sun Ra, yet Muñoz’s musical/spiritual philosophy/practice makes its home on a planet much closer to Earth with strong currents of Zen and Yoga informing his teachings. “The heart is the universe, the universe is the heart,” he continued, as his band vamped. It’s a tradition that Medeski too has spent considerable time in, having garnered many comparisons to Sun Ra himself when situated at an organ or synthesizer. At the piano Friday night, though, his playing was more reminiscent of Thelonious Monk, comping angular chords underneath Muñoz before stretching out on his own atonal explorations. Judging by the extemporaneous yelps and exclamations from the crowd, the approach was working.
While many “free” ensembles thrive on dissonance, zealously ripping open chord progressions to access the primordial chaos underlying harmony, Muñoz’s band seemed content to vamp over simple progressions while the melodic instruments soloed, following the soloists into more complex rhythmic and convoluted harmonic territory only if it fit the moment. “Do the right thing at the right time—now!” Muñoz instructed the audience during one piece, just as he might have been commanding his band. Rather than command them, though, he made subtle gestures to the back line when needed, calling on an instrument to solo or urging the volume up and down with Tai Chi-like hand motions.
“The universe is all sounds, frequencies, silence,” he chanted during one sonic “meditation,” but, more importantly, he seemed to demonstrate this truth with a solo that slowly exercised the full spectrum of his fretboard and sonic territory well outside the parameters of the composition. With eyes closed and a soft expression, the solo deftly circled the “one suchness, 10,000 notes,” to paraphrase the Zen expression. “All of us are capable of peaceful simplicity,” he explained as he landed the solo back on Earth, suggesting we might be able to do with our thoughts what he and his band so clearly demonstrated through sound.