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The artist declined to be photographed for this article, so here’s his album cover.

Guitar Player

A longtime fixture on the area jazz scene, George Muscatello gets wet with his first proper record, Angel Dust

By Josh Potter

George Muscatello is a shredder, but he gets a little bashful when you say so. It’s not that he denies the designation; he’d just prefer to leave the naming and classifying to other people. The 40-year-old guitarist has been playing jazz gigs around the area for the past 15 years—at Justin’s with the Brian Patneaude Quartet for the last six, and currently every Thursday night at Quintessence with his eponymous trio—but he even hesitates when you try and call him a “jazz guitarist.”

“I wouldn’t call myself anything,” he says. “I’m like the least traditional guitar player there is. I can play the music—not the whole history of jazz, but my little thing that I do. Surrounded by the right guys in the right club, I feel pretty comfortable. I just feel like I have so much to learn.”

This isn’t the kind of postured humility that simultaneously screams for attention. After three years of work, Muscatello just released his first album, Angel Dust (available through CollarCityRecords.com), a virtually unclassifiable record that draws on a lifetime’s worth of disparate musical influences—but he opted not to put his name on the album cover. For this article, he refused to have his picture taken. And whenever conversation lingers too long on his compositions, technique, or distinctive tone, he changes the topic to his collaborators, teachers, and heroes.

The name he most often returns to is Leo Brouwer, the Cuban composer and classical guitarist whose music changed Muscatello’s life when he encountered it at age 17. “I first heard this guitar player, Joel Brown [Muscatello’s colleague at Skidmore], play this [Brouwer] piece ‘Danza Characterística,’ and after that everything seemed to turn upside down,” he says. “It completely changed how I felt about everything. I felt like I knew the way the universe worked. It taught me about love, loss, human interaction. I became a bit of a Brouwer addict, buying all his sheet music and CDs. It’s been almost 23 years, but I always keep coming back to it.”

The six pieces on Angel Dust are all based on a Brouwer piece called “Variations on a Theme of Django Reinhardt.” Most explicitly evidenced by the track “Variation on a Variation,” the album is just that—Muscatello’s reimagining of Brouwer’s reimagining of Django Reinhardt. The thing is, though, that unless you were told that these pieces were adaptations, you probably wouldn’t know it. More than homage, the album draws on, as Muscatello says, 90 percent of the work he’s done throughout his life, from heavy metal to funk, ethereal jazz ballads to spoken-word accompaniment.

Each piece begins with a short passage from a group of preludes by the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández. Muscatello had one of his Skidmore guitar students translate the pieces into English, and then local poets Pierre Joris and Nicole Peyrafitte, with whom Muscatello has collaborated a great deal over the years—even traveling to France on two occasions to perform—recorded the snippets. Bits of wisdom and irony, the text functions as a lens through which to consider the following compositions.

“Composition,” however, might not be the most accurate way to describe the instrumental pieces. Not surprisingly, Muscatello hesitates to call himself a composer. “I hate that word,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a composer at all. A definition I’ve read by Stravinsky is ‘organizing any elements of music,’ so, technically I’m wrong, but none of these ideas were written out.”

Recorded, at their urging, in the basement studio of Sten and Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen, the disc was, as Muscatello says, “recorded completely ass-backwards.” Bassist Mike DelPrete, who’d never heard the music before, played through the chord changes using a metronome. Then drummer Danny Whelchel synched his part to the bass track. Finally, Muscatello arrived with no idea what he was going to do. “I would go into the studio,” he says, “and get ideas there. I’d improv a little bit [on the Brouwer themes], and then start again,” a process Muscatello decides is like “composing in real time.” As a result, the album features a ton of multitracked guitar, panned all over the sonic space. But while Muscatello describes the songs as “blowing tunes”—songs with an open form that allow for improvisation—the interlocking parts create the effect of complex composition. “Tons of Fun” features Patneaude on saxophone, and “Variations . . .” features Adrian Cohen (who also mixed the record) on keyboard.

Anyone who’s seen Muscatello perform should know his approach to jazz isn’t exactly conventional. At a recent Quintessence gig, the guitarist with a black ponytail and a white shock of a soul patch performed effects-laden renditions of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock tunes, wearing a Sanford and Son T-shirt with the slogan “You Big Dummy.” He attributes his spacey delay-and-volume-pedal tone to an obsession with guitarist Allan Holdsworth dating back to his days as a student at Manhattan School of Music, and a 15-year effort to make his guitar sound more like a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It’s his approach to the instrument, though, that’s most distinctive.

“I was really into death metal, Slayer, early Metallica, Venom, right when that shit was really happening,” he says. One of the many people Muscatello insists on mentioning in this story is Paul Armstrong, a friend of his growing up in Troy. At 13, Armstrong showed Muscatello how to play “Diary of a Madman” by Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhodes, which tipped off an obsession with metal guitar. Incidentally, the song was inspired by “Etude No. 6” by none other than Leo Brouwer. Not surprisingly, Angel Dust features plenty of wicked metal riffs and flashy tapping. But unlike a lot of metal players, who claim jazz chops due to a knowledge of weird scales and preference for odd time signatures, Muscatello uses the metal flourishes to complement the bread-and-butter jazz playing he learned from his mentor Rodney Jones in Manhattan.

“The thing with metal guys who claim to have a base in jazz,” he says, “is that the one thing they don’t have is the rhythmic aspect of it.” In response to passages Muscatello thought he’d mastered, “Jones would say, ‘Yeah, that and $1.25 will get you on the bus.’ But the bus costs $1.25.” The point being that a lot of notes won’t get you anywhere if the feel isn’t right. To fix that, Muscatello turned to jazz legends like Grant Green, Charlie Christian and Jim Hall.

On tunes like “Exordium” and “Strega,” searing metal themes give way to hovering, exploratory fusion ballads. Inspired by the way Duke Ellington could generate a huge spectrum of color out of forms as simple as a blues, Muscatello uses these tunes not so much as solo vehicles but as opportunities to explore a range of internal harmonies. This sensibility he attributes to another teacher he insists on mentioning, Eric Rogers, a Troy native with whom Muscatello would study in eight-hour stretches following his time in New York. “He knows as much about harmony as anyone walking the face of the earth,” Muscatello says. “He taught me the higher mathematics of music so that I knew how to deal with these Brouwer pieces.”

Rogers isn’t the last, however, of the names Muscatello will put before his. Of Phil Pascuzzo, who hand-printed the album’s artwork, he says the design is stronger than the record. And without Matthew Loiacono, of Collar City Records, the project probably wouldn’t have materialized. Of the many names listed on the album’s liner notes, no one took any money for the production of Angel Dust, and so Muscatello will be donating all the money it generates to charities committed to feeding hungry people around the world.

There is one aspect of the record, though, that Muscatello was admittedly selfish about, and that was the title. “It doesn’t come from anywhere,” he says. “I know it’s a Faith No More record, but I’ve just always wanted to have an album named that. I remember seeing this movie Faces of Death. It was this ’80s cult thing that every metal kid had to see, where people on PCP get shot and don’t die, then they kill a monkey and eat monkey brains . . .” Like the album art, Muscatello supposes the title is stronger than the record itself, but it does make for a good conversation piece, which was what happened when his 83-year-old mother looked up angel dust on Wikipedia.

“Sometimes I feel like this is the album I should have made when I was 16,” he says. “If something happened and it was the last thing I left, I’d say it represents me pretty well. I don’t know of anything that sounds like it, for better or worse.”

 


ROUGH MIX

RAISING THE BAR It’s hard to talk about the recent fire at Tess’ Lark Tavern without getting a little emotional. So let’s get this out of the way: I co-hosted the open mic at the Tavern for close to six years, formed at least three bands and countless friendships there, and played on that stage hundreds of times since Tess Collins took the reins in 2003. Tess has given me free reign to use her space as my creative romper room—just as she has the entire Capital Region arts community. This fire, it’s a very big deal.

Which is why everyone and their brother is mounting a benefit of some sort to help Tess and her staff get back on their feet and bring the Tavern back to life. Besides the proliferation of art-, comedy- and poetry-themed benefits, there are several music events planned over the next month, beginning at 3 PM this Saturday with Rocking to Rebuild at the Washington Park Lakehouse. The $25 admission includes beer and wine, and music from Super 400, Mirk and the New Familiars, Dezmatic, the reunion of Rocky Velvet, Charmed and Dangerous, and the Best Damn Open Mic Ever Band. (Further disclosure: I’ll be sitting in on drums with the open mic band, for old time’s sake).

Rocky Velvet

There’s more: On June 10, the Linda hosts A Night at Tess’ Lark Tavern, an event featuring the Lark’s “house” bands (those that had standing monthly or weekly engagements). In addition to the open-mic band, this one includes Ramblin Jug Stompers, Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys, Poets Speak Loud, and special guest Bryan Thomas, who will perform “MotherJudge,” his 2008 song about the open-mic host and her weekly event. And on June 21, the Jug Stompers take their monthly residency on the road to Capital Repertory Theatre, where they’ll be “in exile” until the Tavern reopens its doors.

A MORE PERFECT UNION This Saturday brings the second annual heARTS Aligned event to Bread and Jam Cafe. The show is a unique pairing of music and visual arts: Artists create works based on songs, then the songwriters perform their tunes as the resultant artwork is projected above the stage. After the show, the artwork is given away to audience members. Pretty neat. This year’s event, organized by Matt Durfee (who was one of last year’s performers), features the music of Ashley Pond and Katie Haverly, and the artwork of Nick Reinert and Eugene M. Falco, and it’s hosted by Matt Mac Haffie. Doors open at 6:30 PM, and admission is $7.

HOT SAX The boys from throwback rockers Slick Fitty have been quiet for a while, but that all changes on June 4 as they release their new CD, Hot Action. The record was recorded at North Sea Studios in Albany by Brett Portzer, and features 13 new songs that span decades and genres—and continents, as the band has a sizable European fan contingent waiting on their every move. Slick Fitty will celebrate with a CD-release performance at Marketplace Gallery on June 4. For more on the band and the new release, visit slickfitty.com.

INTERCONTINENTAL Another area throwback act with a sizable European fanbase is Doc Scanlon. The hot swing trio will expand to a quartet for their upcoming French tour, which has them playing 10 shows over 12 days, from May 30 to June 10, finishing with four nights in Paris. The group have toured in Europe four times in the last three years, and, they say, two more trips are already in the works. Wish them well when the Doc Scanlon Trio perform tomorrow (Friday) at the Brown Derby in downtown Albany.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1@yahoo.com or metro land@metroland.net.



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