Wolfgang Muthspiel – whom The New Yorker has called “a shining light” among today’s jazz guitarists – made his ECM leader debut in 2014 with the trio disc Driftwood, featuring him alongside two longtime colleagues, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade. The Guardian extolled the album’s “ethereal, reflective and textural qualities,” while JazzTimes praised its “rapt atmospheres,” calling Driftwood “haunting.” For his poetic follow-up – Rising Grace – the Austrian guitarist has convened a very special quintet, adding jazz luminary Brad Mehldau on piano and a star among young trumpeters, Ambrose Akinmusire, to the subtly virtuosic Grenadier/Blade rhythm section.
Characteristically, Muthspiel moves between electric guitar and classically tinged acoustic six-string on Rising Grace, his playing by turns grooving (“Boogaloo”) and enchanting (“Rising Grace”). The lyrical flights of Akinmusire’s trumpet and the probing improvisations of Mehldau run through Muthspiel’s rich set of compositions like golden threads, the tracks including a warm tribute to a late, great ECM artist, Kenny Wheeler (“Den Wheeler, Den Kenny”). The album also includes an intricate, deeply melodious piece that Mehldau composed especially for the sessions, “Wolfgang’s Waltz.”
Muthspiel, who was born in 1965 in Judenberg, Austria, made his first ECM appearance on 2013’s Travel Guide as a member of a cooperative trio with fellow guitarists Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. Muthspiel, Mehldau and company recorded Rising Grace with producer Manfred Eicher in the South of France, the studio atmosphere free-flowing and “harmonious,” the guitarist says. “We all set up in one room, a kind of living-room vibe. There was a beautiful concentration – deep listening, not much talking, only a few takes, just dealing with the notes and what they create. It became almost effortless after awhile, a kind of magic. At some point in the recording, the idea of everybody taking solos disappeared. The music became this web between us. This wasn’t planned; it’s just that everyone likes that mode of making music. This comes out especially in a track like ‘Intensive Care.’ It’s a constant conversation.”
Each of the musicians on Rising Grace has a sound on his respective instrument that’s as identifiable as a fingerprint. “You only need to hear one chord of Brad’s to recognize the depth of his music, just the touch,” the guitarist says. “And Brian Blade is famous for his sound –from how he tunes his drum set, his floating way of playing, the way he makes the kit not a collection of separate drums and cymbals but this single warm, organic vessel.” The same distinctive soundprint applies to Muthspiel, of course, whether with the warm, sustaining lines of his electric guitar or, especially, the almost piano-like sound he gets from his acoustic.
Mehldau – one of the most lauded pianists of the past quarter-century – has made previous ECM appearances on albums by Lee Konitz and Charles Lloyd. Rising Grace marks the first time he has worked with Muthspiel. “Starting with my time living in New York, from ’95 to 2002, I listened to Brad a lot,” the guitarist says, “but to play with him was amazing – he really listens, reacting to the music in the most subtle ways. There’s a beautiful moment on the new record, on ‘Intensive Care,’ where Ambrose plays a very ‘out’ note; instead of changing the whole chord to fit that note, Brad just put that note into his voicing, very softly. Again, he has this subtle mastery, hearing everything but with something ego-less about his playing. His comping also blows me away. He’s waiting for you to make your statement, supporting with whatever he plays – but he never finishes it for you, leaving the door open for your next sentence.”
Akinmusire exploded on the scene while still in his early twenties, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and playing alongside the likes of Steve Coleman and Jack DeJohnette. Muthspiel’s writing elicits a fresh lyricism in Akinmusire’s playing, a kind of cool fire. “Ambrose is an incredible new force in music, a great voice,” the guitarist says. “There’s a fearlessness in his playing, a big joy in taking risks. He will respect the playground of my tunes while always stretching the confinement of the composition, an interesting adventure for me. He always knows the chords and correct notes, but he also likes to play other notes, to create a tension between them and the original harmonies. There are also magical contributions by him that are pure sound and gesture, not even related to pitches or certain scales: whispering, breathing, a high scream, beyond anything you can analyze, really.”
Driftwood was the first album to feature Muthspiel together with both Grenadier and Blade, although the guitarist had worked with each of them separately for many years. Muthspiel first played alongside Grenadier in Gary Burton’s band in the mid-’90s, with their subsequent work together including the trio Drumfree with saxophonist Andy Scherrer. Along with being a longtime member of the Brad Mehldau Trio, Grenadier has worked in the cooperative trio Fly (with saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Jeff Ballard), which has made two albums for ECM. The bassist has also played on ECM albums by Charles Lloyd, Enrico Rava and Chris Potter. Blade has been a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet since 2000 and leads his own Fellowship Band, along with having played with artists from Herbie Hancock to Bob Dylan. Muthspiel has known the drummer since the late ’90s, with the two eventually working in a trio with bassist Marc Johnson. Muthspiel and Blade have also toured and recorded together as a rare guitar-drums duo, Friendly Travelers.
“To play with Brian Blade is a gift,” Muthspiel says. “He seems never to have a preconceived notion of how the music should be. He is always developing in the moment – which is what we jazz musicians long for. He creates intensity with relatively low volume, and he gets the vibe of the music immediately, or even puts it in another place that you had never imagined.” As for Grenadier, Muthspiel says: “Larry has an intense sound, present even when he plays few notes. It’s a high art to play simply. He anchors the music while leaving space for things to happen. When you play with both Larry and Brian, there’s a complete, relaxed focus from the first second to the last note. They make it very easy to get into the sound.”
A particular Muthspiel ideal – beyond casting a spell with sound – is the subtle storytelling of music, even without words. “I think these compositions tell a story that isn’t a straight-ahead jazz story,” he says. “I always like the writing to have the quality of a song, something that you might remember and sing along to. I think everyone in the group shares this love of songs – we all dig people like Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Radiohead. Because of that, we take a certain care to make sure a sense of song comes out of a piece of music, before you mess with it. And even when you do mess with it, you care for song’s being, its color.”
One particular story of Rising Grace stems from the homage “Den Wheeler, Den Kenny,” which translates to “this Wheeler I know.” Muthspiel explains: “This refers mostly to the album Kenny did for ECM in the mid-’70s with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, Gnu High. That was a big record for me growing up, and the memory of it was like a shining star over making this new album. There’s a standard of composing that is very personal with Kenny, and he had a fluid, even liquid way of improvising that’s different from classic jazz trumpet playing. Most important, there’s an incredible interplay on Gnu High, creating the kind of web that I mentioned before. This sort of web effect was another ideal for me while making this record.”
There are other subtle stories within Rising Grace, with the titles of several pieces referring to a new arrival in the Muthspiel household. “A few months before we recorded the album, my first daughter was born,” he says. “This influenced both my writing and my playing. When you have a child, you realize that there’s clearly something more important than you in the room. For me, that reinforced another ideal, that the music in the room is always more important than you.”