by Ian Mann
May 22, 2020
A classy piece of work from three hugely talented musicians. Relaxed, nuanced and finely detailed, with the emphasis on the instrumental interplay between the participants.
(ECM Records – ECM 2655, Bar Code 081 4506)
Wolfgang Muthspiel – guitar, Scott Colley – double bass, Brian Blade – drums
“Angular Blues” represents the Austrian guitarist and composer Wolfgang Muthspiel’s third album for the ECM label and teams him with a stellar American rhythm team featuring Scott Colley on double bass and Brian Blade at the drums.
Muthspiel was born in 1965 and studied both jazz guitar and classical guitar in Austria and Germany before emigrating to the US to further his musical education at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was there that the young Muthspiel was spotted by vibraphonist Gary Burton, who invited the guitarist into his quartet. Burton has an eye for young guitar talent and his list of protégés also includes Pat Metheny, Mick Goodrick and Julian Lage.
Muthspiel lived and worked in New York between 1995 and 2002, working with many leading musicians on the US jazz scene. After returning to Europe he started his own record label, Material Records, based in Obendorf, Austria, which has released Muthspiel’s own music, alongside an impressive catalogue of material by other artists. Muthspiel’s output includes jazz, classical and world music projects and full details of his extensive career and discography, numbering over forty albums as a leader, can be found at his website http://www.wolfgangmuthspiel.com, which also includes a link to the Material Records catalogue.
In addition to his recordings for his own label Muthspiel has enjoyed a parallel career with ECM, making his début for the label in 2013 with “Travel Guide”, a ‘guitar summit’ featuring Muthspiel, Ralph Towner and the classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan, the programme consisting of a mix of Muthspiel and Towner originals.
The following year saw Muthspiel leading a more conventional jazz trio featuring Larry Grenadier on double bass and Brian Blade at the drums. The album “Driftwood” placed the emphasis solely on original material, both written and improvised.
Muthspiel then expanded the group to a quintet with the addition of two big American names, pianist Brad Mehldau and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. This truly heavyweight line up released “Rising Grace” on ECM in 2016.
Eric Harland replaced Blade for a second quintet album, “Where The River Goes”, in 2018. Once again the focus was solely on original material, primarily by Muthspiel but with Mehldau also contributing to the writing process.
Following the two quintet albums “Angular Blues” represents something of a return to basics, particularly as the programme includes a couple of jazz standards alongside seven Muthspiel originals. It’s the first time that the guitarist has recorded standards on an ECM record.
“Angular Blues” introduces a new trio with Blade returning to the fold, but with Scott Colley replacing Grenadier on double bass. Like Muthspiel Colley is a Gary Burton alumnus and has played with an impressive variety of musicians including keyboardist Herbie Hancock, pianist Andrew Hill, saxophonists Michael Brecker and Chris Potter, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and vocalist Carmen McRae. He has demonstrated a particular affinity for working with guitarists, among them Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Julian Lage and, perhaps most famously, Jim Hall. Muthspiel previously worked with Colley in the 1990s and describes the bassist as an “extremely giving musician, with a warm tone and flexible, dancing rhythm.”
Besides his earlier work with Muthspiel drummer Brian Blade is a bandleader in his own right, leading his own Fellowship Band on a number of albums. He is also a prolific sideman, most famous perhaps for his long running tenure as a member of saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s quartet. Others with whom he has worked include saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, bassist Charlie Haden, as well as more mainstream artists such as Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones and Bob Dylan. In total he has appeared on well over one hundred recordings and has also performed as a singer/songwriter in addition to his career as a drummer.
In many respects “Angular Blues” is an old fashioned recording, concentrating on the close relationship between just the three instruments – guitar, double bass and drums. Released in March 2020 the album was recorded at Studio Dede in Tokyo in August 2018, immediately after the trio had played a three night residency at the city’s Cotton Club. The rapport that the trio had developed in their live performances can be heard in the music here, which is relaxed, nuanced and finely detailed, with the emphasis on the instrumental interplay between the participants. The tapes from the Tokyo sessions were later mixed by producer and ECM label owner Manfred Eicher in the South of France.
The album commences with Muthspiel’s “Wondering”, which features a bass melody that the guitarist wrote specifically for Colley. The piece is introduced by Blade at the drums but it’s Colley’s bass playing that is the focus in the tune’s early stages. The conversation then becomes more democratic with Muthspiel’s acoustic guitar coming to the fore, building on the foundations established by Colley. Blade is a busy, but discrete, presence throughout providing subtle, finely detailed drum commentary. Colley then takes over the melody again, before exchanging phrases with Muthspiel as Blade roams freely around his kit. “Brian is famous for his sound and touch, that floating way of playing, how he creates intensity with relatively low volume”, remarks Muthspiel, perceptively.
“Angular Blues” itself is so named because of its “rhythmic modulations and strange breaks”, with Muthspiel citing the influence of both Chick Corea and Thelonious Monk on the writing. There’s a Monk-like staccato quality about the piece that encourages a sharp eared spirit of interaction between the musicians, with Muthspiel again focussing on acoustic guitar. Solo episodes come from Muthspiel, Colley on nimbly plucked double bass and Blade with an extended drum break that forms part of a series of low volume, high intensity exchanges with his colleagues.
“Huttegriffe” is the third track to feature Muthspiel on acoustic guitar and the piece has a relaxed, pastoral, almost folk like quality about it. It has a beautiful and memorable melody that Metheny or Towner would be proud of, and the leader’s relaxed playing is enhanced by the sensitive, low key support of Colley and the brush wielding Blade.
Muthspiel makes the move to electric guitar for “Camino”, adopting a clean, pure sound on the reflective solo guitar introduction. Subsequently the leader’s gently meandering guitar ruminations are accompanied by simpatico bass and drums, with Blade providing subtle but densely detailed drum commentary. Colley enjoys an extended, highly melodic excursion on double bass, underpinned by Muthspiel’s economical chording and Blade’s deft brushwork.
Besides including standards for the first time Muthspiel also performs a piece, “Ride”, that is based on bebop chord changes, another first for him. Jazzy and jaunty the piece sounds as if it could have come directly from the bop era, with slippery ‘archtop’ jazz guitar lines allied to busy bass and the restless chatter of brushed drums. The performance also includes solo episodes for bass and drums, with Blade picking up the sticks to complete a lively and colourful contribution.
The first standard is Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love”, played with a relaxed assurance by the trio.
Muthspiel first heard the song on a Keith Jarrett recording and explains his decision to tackle standard material thus;
“I was inspired to record standards with this trio because everything about the way the group plays feels so free, open and far from preconceived ideas, but at a crucial moment a jazz language is spoken, and what we do does justice to these tunes”.
Muthspiel himself plays electric guitar as the trio extemporise on Porter’s song, with solo episodes from guitar, bass and drums. It’s a relatively orthodox approach, but one executed with consummate skill by three highly talented musicians,
Next follows two interpretations of Muthspiel’s composition “Kanon”, played in two different time signatures.
“Kanon in 6/8” is an extended investigation by the trio with Muthspiel still specialising on electric guitar. It’s tricky, complex stuff with the leader’s spiralling, serpentine melody lines accompanied by bustling bass and drums. Colley and Blade are also afforded soloing opportunities and the dialogue between the rhythm partners is consistently engaging throughout.
The shorter “Kanon in 5/4” is largely improvised, a spellbinding solo performance by Muthspiel on electric guitar featuring mesmerising interlocking and overlapping melody lines.
The album concludes with the second standard, an interpretation of “I’ll Remember April”, co-written by Gene de Paul, Don Ray and Patricia Johnston. It’s a more radical interpretation than that of “Everything I Love”, with a more contemporary feel. Muthspiel first heard the song on a Frank Sinatra album but says of his trio’s re-invention of the tune;
“It’s more about the head and the vamp-like atmosphere that prevails from the start and is savoured again in the end. As in many moments with this trio, it’s about playing with space: leaving it, creating it, filling it.”
Muthspiel’s own playing brings a kind of ‘Americana’ feel to the song, vaguely reminiscent of Bill Frisell. Although he doesn’t really feature as a soloist it’s Muthspiel’s sound that sets the tone and feel, with Colley and Blade both being given the scope to express themselves. Collectively the trio bring something to the performance that surpasses the usual limits of jaunty, jazzy jamming around standard tunes.
Enhanced by a typically pristine ECM production “Angular Blues” is a classy piece of work from three hugely talented musicians. That said, there’s nothing really new here and as enjoyable as the album is, and its qualities are many, there’s still the feeling that musicians of this quality could dash off an album like this in their sleep.
That’s not to say that there isn’t much to both enjoy and admire about this recording. I have to admit that this has been my first extended exposure to Muthspiel and his music and I’m pleased to have discovered his writing and playing. Nevertheless there’s that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I’d probably get even more out of those two quintet albums with the focus wholly on original composition and with the sonic possibilities drastically expanded by the presence of both Mehldau and Akinmusire.
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