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 heart-stoppingly beautiful music, and 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.
Note: Muthspiel performs at London's Vortex jazz club on March 18.
Personnel: Wolfgang Muthspiel: guitars; Matthias Pichler: bass; Andreas Pichler: drums.