wolfgang muthspiel trio
by Chris May
Like the earlier guitar master Johnny Smith, whose extraordinary melodicism and dazzling technique he shares, Wolfgang Muthspiel offers a rare combination of accessibility and sophistication. And with Bright Side he's created an album as lyrical, elegant and poised as Smith's 1953 masterpiece, Moonlight In Vermont (reissued by Roulette, 2004). It's the sort of heart-stoppingly beautiful music which requires me to severely marshal my eruptive enthusiasm, lest I come over like a gushing schoolgirl with a crush. Let's just say I haven't heard anything as gorgeous, luscious, joyous, shimmering, subtle and divine since Hendrik Meurkens' Amazon River (Blue Toucan, 2005) last summer.
Though he's won numerous awards and competitions and he has a serious and multi-faceted recording history, Muthspiel's profile is shadowy outside Europe. Born in Austria in 1965, he graduated magna cum laude from Berklee in 1989 and joined the Gary Burton Quintet (the first guitarist in the lineup since the departure of Pat Metheny twelve years earlier). He's worked with a heap of other A-listers, including Paul Motian, David Liebman, Django Bates, Peter Erskine, the Vienna Art Orchestra and Steve Arguelles. Bright Side is the debut release from the trio he formed two years ago with the Pilcher twins, bassist Matthias and drummer Andreas.
Without overemphasising the synergy, there are significant parallels between Muthspiel and Smith. Fluent, jet-speed single note runs alternate with lovely chord-voiced passages; harmonies are as rich and complex as the flavours of a mature burgundy; prodigious technique is put to the service of creative music-making rather than the other, sterile way around; and the melodicism never, ever, ever stops.
There are contrasts too. With the exception of Mingus's “East Coasting,” all of these tracks are Muthspiel originals (Smith wrote some great tunes, including, bizarrely and lucratively, ”Walk Don't Run,” that twangtastic 1960 hit for the Ventures, but he mostly played standards). And Muthspiel requires his bass and drums team to do more than keep impeccable time behind his main event. Like Smith fifty years earlier, he uses effects (here mainly some loops) sparingly.
Alongside the absorption of fifty years of jazz development, perhaps the biggest contrast with Smith's style is Muthspiel's occasional fondness for getting hot, urgent and high octane. “Dhafer” starts out chilled and trippy over treble-end Tibetan temple bells, before the trio kicks into an ecstatic trance state, Muthspiel's guitar coming on like a hard-driving oud and Andreas Pilcher swapping the bells for strange, free-rhythm cymbal splashes.
”Mehldau” isn't at all what the title suggests: despite its tricky 7/4 time signature, it's funky and throbbing, with an abandoned, visceral, rapid-fire guitar/drums duel. Most of the time, though, the trio stays gorgeously balladic. “Shanghai”—passingly reminiscent of Roberta Flack's “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”—and “Etude #1” and “2” are as exquisite as exquisite gets.
Spin Jazz Club, Oxford
Saturday March 18, 2006
Wolfgang Muthspiel, the brilliant Austrian jazz guitarist, has an original called Mehldau on his new album. It's not an unexpected connection. Like American piano star Brad Mehldau, Muthspiel is the kind of comprehensively resourceful improviser who can head off in directions that might seem mystifying at first - but he's so much at ease in his personal musical firmament that you know it will be fine to go along.
Muthspiel is now road-testing a new all-Austrian trio, with twin brothers Mathias and Andreas Pichler on bass and drums. The Pichler twins let Muthspiel take the lead with less peremptory pushing and challenging than the dynamic previous drummer Brian Blade did, but the group offers a On the opening After 6 (a rising three-note melodic motif distributed among irregular silences and dark, shimmery chords) Muthspiel got into his formidable stride in a long solo of clipped and fragmented figures, headlong runs bumping into dead-end chords, growling rock-guitar low notes or yodelly treble sounds.
Etude Number Two began as a solo feature, played on an instrument with a folksier timbre, eventually accelerating into rolling fingered chords and zither-like clangs over Andreas Pichler's discreet brushwork. As with Brad Mehldau, Muthspiel's improvisations seem to laterally grow (as if alternative options continually tug at him) rather than take a conventionally jazzy linear course.
Muthspiel did provide plenty of fast-moving and melodically twisting postbop variety, however, some of it recalling the fluency of Pat Metheny at his jazziest. But it was the second half's Dhafer (a tribute to Tunisian oud-player Dhafer Youssef) that confirmed the Austrian's widening horizons - sparingly using loops and repeats, a little ethereal chanting, rich percussion tapestry, and some of the most creatively loose guitar improvising of the evening. A major talent moving into a new phase.
Jazz Review, May 2006
'bright side' mre 016-2
Muthspiel had dropped off my radar a little since his Verve albums of the 90s, but this exceptionally attractive release number among his most satisfying discs. The opening moments, a simple melodie figure played with eyquisite precision, seem to let you know that you're in for a very agreeable time. Precision is, as it turns out, something of a keynote in the record. If you're a bit tired of the woolliness of pitch and endless note-bending of the Frisell school, Wolfgang's your man. His playing is so clean, lucid and absolutely on the note that simply hearing him play a scale is a pleasure.
He has a new trio with the Swiss Pichler twins, and these guys are a find, too: delicately strong, you might call them. They refuse to foreground themselves, but they play support with the keen workrate that is the modern rhythm-section way. Even on a busy piece such as "Mehldau", you don't feel as if they're pushing the guitarist towards any kind of grandstanding.
Muthspiel can play multi-note improvisations that can racket their way around any environment: I once heard him sit in with an Abbey Lincoln group, and he tore the stage up. but he doesn't do any of that here, even whem he puts out a lot of notes. The music's beautifully balanced. The writing's spare and interesting, too: "Homebody" starts out like Monty Norman's James Bond theme, then finds a coolly lyrical place. "Sleep", introduced by a singing bass solo, works its harmonies with quiet certainty. And even though Muthspiel knows his electronics, he only rarely tries anything fancy with the effects pedals, saving it for the very end: the fade on the final "More Igor" is the loveliest minute I've heard on a record this year.