Years ago, back when Santa Fe and Albuquerque bands released albums a little more regularly, or, perhaps, were a little more willing to submit them to SFR for review, local multi-instrumentalist Mustafa Stefan Dill played guitar with a band called Pray For Brain, and I absolutely loved ‘em.
As a guitarist, Dill channeled the likes of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Yes’ Steve Howe, but at the core of his instrumentation laid a heady foundation of free jazz and improvisation. The music was complex and layered, but it remained accessible and, at times, just plain rocked. Today, Dill brings a similar ethos to his current project, Love Unfold the Sun, which performs for the first time in years this week. This time, though, Dill’s a little more interested in the oud, a lute-like stringed instrument with origins in Turkey and the Middle East. You might not know the name, but you certainly know the instrument’s sound. And though it appears more often in certain types of regional music from faraway lands (and played by bigger names like Naseer Shamma), Dill’s approach with decidedly more modern musical styles proves the universal nature of music: It is the one thing we all have in common, really, and a skilled player can sometimes insert any type of instrument into any type of music.
Of course, that kind of implies a high bar for entry.
“I don’t think about it at all,” Dill tells SFR during a recent afternoon get-together at a downtown coffee shop. “Or, I take that back, actually, because I think there’s a balance in finding what connects and resonates with your audience, and yet not pandering to it. I am of the firm conviction that if you play anything with passion and honesty, it’ll carry the day.”
Dill and his stalwart band of notable locals, including bassist Ross Hamlin, drummer Dave Wayne and trumpeter Dan Pearlman do, indeed, carry the day with the more recent Love Unfold the Sun recordings, namely, a 2019 live performance from the now-defunct Duel Brewing, which closed that same year. Aptly titled Live at Duel, it’s a triumph for numerous reasons, not least of which being Dill’s forays into the oud. Again, you might be more familiar with the instrument than you’d think but, generally speaking, its ancient sounds placed at the forefront of experimental and improvisational jazz is novel. In fact, Live at Duel kind of undoes possible preconceived notions about what free jazz means (shoutout to Wayne’s drumming skill), Dill says. Like his teachers at the New England Conservatory told him while he was earning his master’s in composition in the 1980s, if the purveyors of the then-new style of jazz wanted it to take hold outside of the niche markets, the players were gonna have to get weird with it and they were gonna have to take it far and wide. The oud’s not weird by a longshot, though it is not distinctly American, as jazz tends to be; you wouldn’t much expect it to appear with mathy, jazzy riffs and syncopated signatures—maybe it’s more common the bigger cities’ nightclubs and conservatory classrooms, but in Santa Fe, Dill’s usage is more singular.
But then, you would expect such commitment from the guy.
“Music has been with me since day one,” Dill explains. “My mom will tell you the story of me reaching up to the piano to make sounds before I could see the keys; I could read music before I could read words; I took piano lessons, but my teacher at the time gave up on me because I wouldn’t practice the written stuff—I was writing and improvising.”
Dill came up in Las Cruces and has deep ties to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos. When he was a young child, however, roughly 8 or 9, his then-stepdad, an educator, took a sabbatical and brought the family to France. There, Dill says, he became enamored with the disparate international musical styles that had made their way to Europe from Algeria and Morocco and beyond.
“It was like being in a trance,” he says, “but then, of course, we came back to the states and I discovered rock ‘n’ roll, so I had to plug in and play the electric guitar.”
Post-college and throughout the mid-’90s, Dill enjoyed some success on the road as an anachronistic guitarist and niche festival mainstay. He even joined forces with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor, whom he’d originally met while in college in Boston, for a series of shows. Still, he says, instruments beyond the guitar called to him often, and a chance encounter with an energy worker he won’t name, ultimately left him feeling like the oud was more an inevitability than a decision. Beyond that, he’s always wanted to redefine boundaries.
“Here’s the thing—you can say being grungy or edgy is bold, but to be really fearless is to play something that’s inside you,” he tells SFR. “I’ve told people, ‘I don’t really care what kind of music it is, if you’re authentic to yourself, it can come out in any number of ways; and I don’t care what genre it is, whether it’s loud or complicated or simple or whatever, the one thing music can never be is lazy or complacent.’”
Dill doubled down on that philosophy last year when, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer. A surgery removed the troubling tissue from his mouth, and more than once during our interview he voices concerns over how he speaks because of it. In that way, Love Unfold the Sun’s resurgence makes a sort of melancholy sense. This isn’t downer music by any means, but it does represent Dill’s best means of communication: The oud, the free jazz, the improv, the experiment? They’re more indicative of his essence than words and speech can explain.
“When I die and you write my obit, there’s the common linchpin of tradition,” he says. “The common thread you’re going to find in my work, in sounds of flamenco, mariachi, oud, country, rock...all of it comes into the mix.”
Love Unfold the Sun: 8 pm Friday, Sept. 23. Free. Second Street Brewery (Rufina Taproom), 2920 Second St., (505) 954-1068
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story featured information about local musician Alysha Shaw, aka Nocturne Spark. Shaw is no longer on the bill.