Friendly Travelers is an attractive set of guitar and drums duets by two widely-traveled (and apparently friendly) musicians. Guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel's ample use of overdubs, loops and other effects is endlessly entertaining and certainly prevents any ennui. This proliferation of guitar voices nevertheless also prevents the listener from focusing carefully on Muthspiel's musical personality. Though capable of classical precision ("Gnadenwald," "Andrej Rublijow"), his soloing on the more explicitly rock-derived numbers is appealingly rough around the edges and expressive.
For his part, Brian Blade's drumming is much less subject to overdubs and effects (if in fact there are any applied to his playing) than is Muthspiel. Indeed, Blade sounds more like he showed up to play an intimate duo datelike, say, Ed Blackwell on El Corazón (ECM, 1982) with Don Cherry, or Billy Higgins on Which Way Is East (ECM, 2004), with Charles Lloyd.
The compositions, generally atmospheric, run the gamut from truly engagingas in the case of "Gnadenwald" and "Heavy Song," which could pass for rock 'n' roll anthemsto the merely decorative. "Youssou," dedicated to Senegalese master musician Youssou N'Dour, approximates a fusion of jazz and West African music competently but, it must be said, kind of primly. (Compare the guitar rave-up on Sean Noonan's approach to the same material on his Stories to Tell (Songlines, 2006) to see what I mean.)
Overall, Muthspiel and Blade strike a balance between an unencumbered improvisational encounter and a lushly-produced album. I wish they had leaned more toward the former and less toward the latter. When the record succeedsand it does most of the timeit's because the playing is tasteful but not too tasteful.
Track Listing: Gnadenwald; Between The Beats; End On 4; Vallekilde; Youssou; Friendly Travellers; Balladino; Heavy Song; Andrej Rublijow; Cold Summer; The Tuning Of The Bells.
Personnel: Wolfgang Muthspiel: guitars, voice; Brian Blade: drums, guitar, voice.
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