Dhafer Youssef & Wolfgang Muthspiel
At long last! It was inevitable in more ways than one that Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and French-based Tunisian oud player and singer Dhafer Youssef would finally get round to making an album together. Both musicians are united not just by the converging chapters of their biographies but also by a shared musical ideal. Both of them internalised the musical traditions of their home countries before going on long journeys to the far reaches of jazz and kindred musical forms, eventually arriving at a style which is divorced from all outside preconceptions, categories or commercial formats. At this point, Muthspiel and Youssef have come together again to lay out their common manifesto “Glow“.
“Glow“ is a duo album, and yet it isn’t, as both protagonists enter into direct and virtual dialogue with a number of guests. “Glow“ is a live album, and yet it isn’t. All the pieces are based on improvisations and real-time sequences, which have, however, undergone multiple metamorphoses in the studio.
What’s for sure is that “Glow“ describes the shared journey of two people who know each other well. And as with any journey, there is also baggage to be taken care of. “I’ve always been fascinated with Dhafer’s expression as a singer“, says Wolfgang Muthspiel, describing his preparations for this particular departure. “I wanted to create different surroundings for this expression, especially in my musical and harmonic language. Essentially, we got together for a few days and worked out three pieces. Everything else came out of an improvisational process. Altogether, there were four stages, in which we slowly carved out the pieces from our improvisations. It wasn’t the usual jazz-style working process where you go into the studio for three days, and you’re finished. We were going for the long haul. It was thrilling for me to try and inspire Dhafer’s singing. As a musician, Dhafer doesn’t take a lot of verbal suggestions. You have to seduce him to make sure he feels comfortable in the music he plays.“
But Muthspiel doesn’t just provide Youssef with new surroundings, he also ventures into completely different sonic areas himself. On his last CDs as part of a trio with Matthias and Andreas Pichler as well as a duo with American drummer Brian Blade, Muthspiel presented himself as a guitarist who knows how to use his resources in a relaxed manner. He no longer feels the need to show off all his goods all the time. Instead he uses his instrumental qualities as a platform from which he can survey the architecture and map out the vision of his music in depth. Never before has he handled his playing with such understatement as on “Glow“. He constructs backdrops, designs the dramatic structure and provides each song with an unmistakable ambience. “I enjoyed the process of directing,“ is how the guitarist sums it up. “It’s as if we made a film together, and then I did the edit. I always played the end product to Dhafer. There were certain parts that we played again in the studio and re-integrated into the pieces. We circled the point that we had set our eyes on until we finally got there. Of course, I am hugely influenced by who I am playing with, and Dhafer’s sound is so strong that he provokes an immediate reaction in my style. I am always on the lookout for music which is so powerful that I don’t have to think about anything except to follow the impulse which is present in the room.“
However, their openness for each other’s expression is by far not the only point of convergence at the heart of “Glow“. There is a multitude of traditions which playfully interact, blending together first within each of the players, then fusing afresh in the interplay of the duo. Some of these traditions are hundreds of years old, others are based on the achievements of the newest technologies. But even there, the personal aspect comes into play, as Youssef describes. “It was never new for us. Mostly, we played live without recording all that much. In spite of all the work that was done afterwards, the live performance is the core element of this record. There is a human factor which I would simply describe as beautiful.“ And Muthspiel adds: “We are both musicians whose musical identities go back to our childhoods. But after that we both branched out into completely different territories. You can hear this clearly in Dhafer’s vocals. He always seems to feel the need to surround himself with musicians that come from totally different worlds. I myself come from a clearly defined classical world, and later on I also got interested in jazz. We are both into traveling, not just in a geographical sense, and sometimes without knowing where we’re going. At the beginning of an improvisation you often don’t know the destination of your journey. With Dhafer there’s nothing stressful about that. You don’t get the feeling that you have to work things out beforehand.“
On “Glow“, Muthspiel and Youssef transcend the common notion of the “crossover“. It is more like a careful dance around one another, which leads to some surprising moments where they actually come to touch. But the two musicians don’t cling on to each other, they always let go straight away to create as much space as possible between them. This duo works in a completely different way from others, where both participants are keen to claim their share in the density of the information accumulated over the years. On the contrary, the space created between voice and oud on the one hand and guitar and electronics on the other contains the actual information. Each of them only gives what the music absolutely needs. “One of Wolfgang’s strengths,“ Youssef confirms, “is his way of embracing a vocal. You feel as though you get captured by him and you only have to fly along. Not a lot of musicians can do that. Wolfgang doesn’t just play chords, he takes you along to a different place. That’s why it’s such a great experience to improvise with him.
The secret of this amazingly open kind of music, for which the word “jazz“ would seem to be a highly unsatisfying description, is to create something new out of a contradiction, forming a common entity, in which particular intentions can no longer be clearly ascribed. “We might come from completely different corners culturally,“ Muthspiel describes the point of departure and the destination of their shared project, “but this difference is not that grave. It’s rather our ways of expression which are completely different. I love making music along to Dhafer’s expression. When you are not using conventional sheet music that somebody has written down - and we didn’t use a single sheet of music paper during the whole project – it’s all about listening, trying out stuff, conserving and finding the things that work. It is the exact opposite of realising a finished concept.“
Another important element of this album is silence. The space between the two musicians creates air as well as a kind of heaviness. You can feel its weight. This silence between the two musicians needs to be there so they can approach each other from different perspectives. Youssef breaks out into the silence from the inside, whereas Muthspiel breaks into the silence from the outside. For Youssef the way he handles silence is a defining feature of his musical career. “It is vitally important to consciously feel the silence within music. It is a challenge which puts a completely different value on the notes. However many notes Wolfgang might play, the breath on which the music is transported is still there. I myself need silence. I come from a tradition where you say a lot by playing little. That’s tough, but it is my concern in music.“
Listening to “Glow“, you can also hear the unfolding interplay of passion and spontaneous architecture. It is breath-taking to behold how both musicians keep finding the balance between these antagonistic principles. As a result of the layered recording process they can afford themselves the freedom to leave spontaneously played passages to themselves and mould them into a shape later on. Muthspiel decribes how certain functions are assigned within this process: “To put it very simply, you could say that Dhafer is the Minister of Passion and I am the Minister of Form. Dhafer sings three notes, and an incredible emotion fills the room. Only very few people are able to do that. I on the other hand am a master of form who consciously creates a dramatic curve. Of course, you learn from one another over the years.“
Between the two of them, however, these functional assignments are redefined for each piece. The working methods, sounds, ways of playing and paths of communication that are available to the duo get newly adjusted and reestablished for every single track. In the process a landscape is created, which consists of far-reaching plains, deep valleys, jagged peaks of looming rocks, picturesque towns and a lot of open air. And yet there are no references to any particular places, because for widely traveled cosmopolitans such as Muthspiel and Youssef, the music itself is the place where they seek and find shelter. “When you play in a duo, there is always a certain potential or an obvious path,“ Muthspiel confides by way of describing the geography of the sound of their record. „If we use only acoustic guitar and a vocal, we move into a certain world. Acoustic guitar and oud evoke a different world. You always have to be careful not to keep coming up with the same song in different variations, so you pick different ingredients for every piece. It could be a static electronic world as in ’Cosmology‘, where nothing much is moving, with Dhafer singing fantastically over the top. Or you build a different piece completely on groove and time, for a change, like ’Sandance‘.“
In order to achieve the highest possible density and variety, Muthspiel and Youssef have introduced some guests into the fold. In percussionist Allegre Corea, bass player Matthias Pichler, trumpeter Tom Harrell and star vocalist Rebekka Bakken, whose contribution is kept discreetly in the background, the duo is assisted by a number of musicians who accentuate, prime or complete the picture according to requirements. “Glow“ – and this is something to be said with pride – is a special album. Not just taking stock, not a live document, neither a fleeting encounter nor a window into the working process of a long-time collaboration, but a sensitively crafted combination of the past, the present and the future, offering no end of room for associations to the listener.