Wolfgang Muthspiel: Rising Grace (ECM 2515)

Rising Grace

Wolfgang Muthspiel
Rising Grace

Wolfgang Muthspiel guitar
Ambrose Akinmusire trumpet
Brad Mehldau piano
Larry Grenadier double bass
Brian Blade drums
Recorded January 2016, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 28, 2016

Nearly three years after making his ECM leader debut with Driftwood, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel returns to the studio, expanding that trio into a quintet. Carrying over bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade, he adds the potent variables of pianist Brad Mehldau and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. The result is exponential.

Muthspiel is that rare artist who makes arpeggios sound like melodic leads rather than backbones. Cases in point are the title track and “Triad Song.” In both, the band attracts character traits that are to define the album’s master narrative. Muthspiel and Grenadier move in lockstep, while Akinmusire keens, Mehldau sings, and Blade shines like gold in the morning sun. Their flowing sound, studded with occasional peaks, catches the glow of a humbly creative lighthouse.

As composer, Muthspiel focuses on the little things, and in so doing makes them feel all-encompassing. Such highlights include “Intensive Care” for Muthspiel’s nylon-stringed questions and Mehldau’s lyrical answers, “Supernonny” for Akinmusire’s robust exposition, and “Boogaloo” for its riskier details.

The set is fleshed out by dedicatory masterstrokes. “Father And Sun” examines a relationship that is earthly, spiritual, and uncontainable. Its atmospheric integrity, domestically inclined, finds heartfelt analogue in “Den Wheeler, Den Kenny.” This loving tribute to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler especially references 1976’s Gnu High, a longtime inspiration for Muthspiel. Here, the soaring of that classic album is met with an elegiac crawl across a barren landscape. “Wolfgang’s Waltz,” a tune written by Mehldau specifically for this album, finds its own father soloing with a storyteller’s grace between the binding of an adhesive groove. All of which makes Rising Gracea gracious experience filled with love, hope, and extended kinship.

Wolfgang Muthspiel: Where The River Goes (ECM 2610)

2610 X

Wolfgang Muthspiel
Where The River Goes

Wolfgang Muthspiel guitar
Ambrose Akinmusire trumpet
Brad Mehldau piano
Larry Grenadier double bass
Eric Harland drums
Recorded February 2018, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 5, 2018

Where The River Goes doesn’t so much pick up where Rising Grace, guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s second leader date for ECM, left off as add sub-chapters and interludes to its story. Drummer Brian Blade is replaced here by Eric Harland, while core band members Ambrose Akinsmusire (trumpet), Brad Mehldau (piano), and Larry Grenadier (bass) are carried over in the creative equation. While each musician has leveled his own combination of power and grace in respective projects, in this configuration a certain ease of expression prevails, allowing them to luxuriate in the resonance of an exclusive spirit.

The title track introduces the strengths of each player in turn. Muthspiel’s ability to establish a framework of quiet integrity is demonstrated in his unaccompanied intro. Mehldau’s unparalleled lyricism eases into frame with the tenderness of a child awakening in Saturday-morning sunlight. Grenadier likewise transitions from whisper to declaration, lubricating every joint for want of a healthy body. Harland treats cymbals like drums and drums like cymbals, lending warmth to a frost-kissed scene. Akinmusire, for his part, is like a daytime moon: almost surreal yet an undeniable reminder of celestial forces at work beyond the firmament. The more hauntingly rendered “Clearing,” a group improvisation, is another example whereby layers of space and time are delicately upended in favor of a democratic relativity.

Harmonically speaking, this album’s core spins by the magnetic give and take of Muthspiel and Mehldau, whose dialogic interactions in “For Django,” “Descendants,” and “One Day My Prince Was Gone” evoke fantasy and reality in equal measure. Mehldau’s lone compositional offering, “Blueshead,” triangulates that relationship with Grenadier’s muscular refereeing, and gives Akinmusire air through which to soar. Indeed, the trumpeter’s voice soars highest in the present milieu, although there are passages, such as “Panorama,” in which the bandleader duets with Harland, and the nostalgia-brimming “Buenos Aires,” which holds the guitar alone, thus reminding us that no organism can function without a neural network to archive its experiences, ready for recall at a moment’s notice, when communication matters above all.

Muthspiel/Grenadier/Blade: Driftwood (ECM 2349)

Driftwood

Driftwood

Wolfgang Muthspiel guitar
Larry Grenadier double bass
Brian Blade drums
Recorded May 2013 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After making his ECM debut in the company of Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan on 2013’s Travel Guide, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel takes on his first leader date for the label. And with good cause, because its sounds have been an important part of his evolution as an artist, not least of all through his studies with the great Mick Goodrick. With such a background to go on, it should be no surprise that Muthspiel is a suitable fit for, while also expanding the exploratory mission of, ECM. And in the fine company of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade, his star shines even more brightly.

Muthspiel and friends

Excepting the regenerating spiral of the instantaneously composed title track, all tunes are from Muthspiel’s pen, artfully shuffled between electric and acoustic leads. The former bookend the set, starting with the tracery of “Joseph”—in the center of which Muthspiel exploits a range of effects, from grunge to echoing parabolas in single turns of phrase—and ending with “Bossa for Michael Brecker,” an appropriately marbled tribute to the late, great saxophonist. Its opening gestures paint the dotted center line down a road that continues even after the album nominally ends. Muthspiel sails across its pavement toward a classic unity. The electric guitar glows with subconscious hues in the pastel-colored “Highline,” in which its overdubbed ghost keens distantly as the rhythm section gathers momentum for a runway jam that seems about to lift off at any moment but is content in dancing with the anticipation of doing so. And in “Lichtzelle” (Light cell), that same guitar joins drums in a duet of seeking points and lines.

“Uptown” starts off the acoustic selections in groovier territory and, from the underlying pulse and slightly dissonant borders, reveals a touch of Towner. Between the delicious syncopation and a nimble solo from Grenadier, it turns out to be one of the most unforgettable tracks to come from ECM in a long time. “Cambiata” is a uniform, laid-back piece of cinematic beauty, while “Madame Vonn” is the album’s consummate ballad. As the ponderous shadow of “Uptown,” it has a classic—if also melancholic—skin.

Driftwood may be a study in contrasts, but is ultimately one of enmeshment. It shows a musician not at the top of his game, but embodying the game itself, working his fingers into the strings with meticulous freedom until each scores a quiet, melodic goal without the need for fanfare.

(To hear samples of Driftwood, click here.)