The Austrian guitarist conjures a killer trio for latest ECM classic
Artist: Wolfgang Muthspiel / Scott Colley / Brian Blade
Album: Angular Blues
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
With a career verging on three decades, Wolfgang Muthspiel has steadily and quietly made his mark on jazz, eschewing flash for exquisite taste and controlled fire.
With nimble grace on his instrument and a chamber music sensibility, the Austrian guitarist tends to sidestep jazz tradition for a more deliberately ephemeral sound, one that fits in well at his current home ECM. However, on Angular Blues, his fourth album for the German label, he revisits that tradition, bending its forms to his own will.
After a couple of fine records with a quintet ensemble, here Muthspiel returns to the trio format with which he made his ECM debut, 2014’s Driftwood. While he’s once again joined by longtime collaborator Brian Blade (Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Joe Henry, Bob Dylan) on the traps, the record switches out Larry Grenadier for Scott Colley (Nels Cline, Gary Burton, Chris Potter, Fred Hersch) on the bass. While not necessarily better than the versatile Grenadier, Colley’s deep thrum and thick tone give Muthspiel a grittier sandbox to play in than he’s had in a long while. Not that the axeman has suddenly become a Delta bluesman, mind you, but his work here feels earthier, less gentile than has been his usual aesthetic. He’s stepped out of the chamber and into the late night jazz club.
“Wondering,” which opens the record, sounds as if Muthspiel has been spending some time with the Pat Metheny Group’s Brazilian period, though by the end of the recording it starts to take on a more familiar sense of swing. “Camino,” on which he trades acoustic guitar for electric, essays a luscious, bossa nova-inspired ballad, with Colley’s rumbling solo in salty contrast to Muthspiel’s silky playing. For the first time in years, the six-stringer adds a pair of classics – the much-covered Patti Page standard “I Remember April,” given a jaunty reading here, and an smoothly swinging “Everything I Love,” from the catalog of the immortal Cole Porter. But Muthspiel most blatantly courts a retro vibe with “Ride,” an original that goes straight for the bebop jugular. The title cut actualizes its concept, bending the blues into a bifurcated number that twists hard bop rhythms with left-field melodic lines, tying it all together with Colley’s funky bass.
The record achieves its highest flight on “Kanon in 6/8,” a successful fusion of classical training and jazz tradition. This original tune isn’t an adaptation of a classical piece, but it’s a true fusion that uses the technique of one to further the goals of the other. It swings, it burns, and it melds these musicians into a masterful ensemble. Its companion “Solo Kanon in 5/4” is also a highlight, mostly eschewing overt jazz tradition for an almost pure classical piece that gets more ethereal as it goes along. If there were a chamber recital in space, this song would be a lock for the repertoire.
Whether working in the chamber jazz that’s thus far defined his ECM tenure or incorporating more bop into his blend, Muthspiel keeps to his strengths: a keen touch for melody and a simmering energy that keeps his performances compelling even at their most mellow. He expertly balances these instincts on Angular Blues, making it one of his best albums so far.