“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.”