Wolfgang Muthspiel is a shining light of the contemporary jazz-guitar generation.
— The New Yorker
Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel makes his ECM leader debut with Driftwood, a trio album of subtlety and depth featuring Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade. Muthspiel – who recently made his first ECM appearance on Travel Guide as a member of a cooperative trio with fellow guitarists Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan – has enjoyed long, productive musical friendships live and on record with both bassist and drummer. The trio creates a ravishing sound, captured with fidelity at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. Muthspiel has been praised by The Times of London for his “restless musical imagination.” Lyrical, grooving and atmospheric by turns, his compositions on Driftwood include tributes to Joe Zawinul and Michael Brecker.
Driftwood sees Muthspiel exploit the rich sonic qualities of the guitar – electric and acoustic – even as he aims for a sort of ‘piano-trio ideal’ in terms of harmonic density and polyphony. “I wanted to feature the liquidity and wide horizon of the guitar,“ he says, “while also approaching the contrapuntal possibilities of a piano trio.”
Although this is the first album featuring Muthspiel with both Grenadier and Blade, the guitarist has worked with each of them separately for years. Muthspiel first played alongside Grenadier in Gary Burton’s band in the mid-’90s, with their subsequent work together including a 2011 album as the trio Drumfree with saxophonist Andy Scherrer. The guitarist has known Blade since the late ’90s, and the two eventually recorded a pair of trio albums with bassist Marc Johnson. Muthspiel and Blade have also recorded studio and live albums together as a rare guitar-drums duo, Friendly Travelers.
Muthspiel – who studied with guitarist Mick Goodrick – says he had “the whole wide ECM landscape in mind when composing for Driftwood... I was thinking about Manfred Eicher’s sound aesthetic while writing for the album. The music then became more focused in the studio, through Manfred’s participation but also because of the sound, which always guides you as a player. There is an organic sonic landscape, with layers and a certain depth of field and very conscious dynamics. The pieces on the album where I play acoustic guitar are special, I think, because it is an instrument with a certain classical sound ideal – yet I’m using it totally in a jazz context.”
Among the pieces featuring Muthspiel on acoustic – half the album – is the moody, almost Morricone-like “Cambiata,” originally written for a group of the same name featuring the guitarist with Svante Henryson, Stefano Battaglia and Alegre Corrêa. Muthspiel also plays acoustic for the bright “Uptown” and pensive “Madame Vonn,” the latter written for Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. “I was watching a race, and she crashed terribly – so out came this ballad.”
One of the album’s highlights is the fluidly ruminative title piece, a free improvisation with Muthspiel on acoustic. “It was Manfred's suggestion to play something free,” the guitarist recalls. “We did a few, and this was the most thrilling. I like the fact that it has a clear form and doesn't necessarily sound like a free piece. I think the term ‘free’ playing is often misunderstood. One always composes a piece in the moment. This kind of playing is the ultimate challenge.”
Muthspiel plays beautiful electric on the darkly melodic opener “Joseph,” with the piece also showcasing Grenadier’s rich, live-oak tone. Muthspiel’s title makes reference to a fellow Austrian: the late keyboardist-composer Joe Zawinul, a prime mover in such pioneering Miles Davis projects as In a Silent Way and co-founder of Weather Report. Muthspiel also plays electric on “Lichtzelle,” a piece written “under the spell of Messiaen”. The version on Driftwood is a spontaneous, free-spirited duet between Muthspiel and Blade, who reacted with atmospheric percussion on the spot, having never heard the piece before.
The closing track is “Bossa for Michael Brecker,” with Muthspiel on silvery toned electric and Grenadier framing the piece with melodic arco lines. About the dedication, the guitarist says: “I have always loved Michael Brecker’s playing. I feel that now young players have a very different sound ideal and so they might not listen to him so much – but they’re missing out on his incredible harmonic intelligence and focus. I guess the changes on this guitar solo section made me think of him, because I could imagine how he might have played on them.”
Wolfgang Muthspiel was born in 1965 in Judenburg, Austria. He played violin from age 6 and took up guitar at 15. At the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, he studied both classical and jazz guitar, subsequently winning national competitions for classical music as well as the International Guitar Competition in Mettmann, Germany. Interested in improvisation from an early age, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1986 to study at the New England Conservatory. At the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he met Gary Burton, who invited him to join his quintet. While based in New York from 1995 to 2002, he performed with a diverse array of artists: Trilok Gurtu, Youssou N’Dour, Gary Peacock, Dave Liebman, Peter Erskine and Rebekka Bakken, among others. Current projects include his duo with Brian Blade, a quartet featuring pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck, and a trio with Larry Grenadier and saxophonist Chris Cheek. In addition to his jazz projects, Muthspiel writes for contemporary classical ensembles and has received commissions from the Ensemble for New Music Zurich, Klangforum Wien, the Austrian Ministry of Arts, the Boston-based Marimolin ensemble and more.
Larry Grenadier was born in 1966 in San Francisco. Along with formative experiences touring in the bands of Gary Burton and Joe Henderson, the bassist toured and recorded in the Pat Metheny Trio with drummer Bill Stewart. Grenadier was a co-founding member of the original Brad Mehldau Trio with drummer Jorge Rossy, and he continues as a member of the Mehldau Trio with drummer Jeff Ballard. Grenadier’s cooperative trio Fly with Ballard and saxophonist Mark Turner has made three albums, including two for ECM. The bassist has worked with artists from Paul Motian to Kurt Rosenwinkel, as well as recording several albums with his wife, singer Rebecca Martin. Grenadier has played on ECM albums by Charles Lloyd, Chris Potter and Enrico Rava.
Brian Blade was born in 1970 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and raised with gospel music in the Baptist church, later studying in New Orleans and working with many masters of Crescent City music. A member of the Grammy Award-winning Wayne Shorter Quartet, the drummer has also recorded with artists from Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois to Bill Frisell, Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman. In 1997, Blade formed the Fellowship Band with pianist Jon Cowherd; the group has recorded four albums, including most recently Landmarks. In 2009, Blade released Mama Rosa, his first album as a singer-songwriter.