Guitar duos can be a dangerous thing. With 12 strings and four hands, there's the potential for serious train wrecks; but if the two players are really listening
, there's also potential for inspired greatness. Ralph Towner
and John Abercrombie
's two albums for ECMSargasso Sea
(1976) and Five Years Later
(1982)exemplify how two can, indeed, conjoin for a greater whole. So, too, does Live at The Jazz Standard
, culled from 2008 performances at the venerable New York City venue, where student and teacher become equals a quarter century after first meeting, with a set of sublime standards and in-the-moment improvs.
The entire set featuring the criminally undervalued Mick Goodrick teacher to now-iconic (and better-known) guitarists including Pat Metheny and Bill Friselland once-student/now owner of Material Records, Wolfgang Muthspiel, is filled with in-the-moment spontaneity, even when it's based on defined structure. Conveniently separated into left and right channels, Muthspiel and Goodrickwho came together once before with Dave Liebman on In the Same Breath (CMP, 1996)interact on a deep level throughout Live at The Jazz Standard, going beyond merely acting as accompanists while the other player solos, even when with material normally heard in conventional head- solo-head format. The duo improvises freely on "Minimal," aptly titled for the interlocking but constantly shifting motifs. Muthspiel, as is often the case, uses some discrete sound processing (a pitch shifter, in this case), but never to distraction.
Motif is the key word throughout, whether its adherence to melodies of well-worn standards here like Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" or Steve Swallow's enduring "Falling Grace," or spontaneously created ideas that are mined, explored, and developed concurrently by both guitarists. Muthspiel and Goodrick interact and respond to ideas with nanosecond precision, creating fresh interpretations that, despite an underlying virtuosity, never use technical aptitude as the end; just the means. The end is an album of sublime beauty, approaching Towner and Abercrombie's rarefied stratum of profound empathy. As rich and detailed as the compositions are, it's the free improvs that demonstrate the duo's greatest ability to push and pull, call and respond, and give and take. In contrast to the, well, minimalism of "Minimal," "Zen" is, as the title suggests, a moment of even greater calm during a 45-minute set of largely tranquil explorations, leading to the darkly beautiful "R.E.M.," where an even stronger link to the Towner/Abercrombie aesthetic is forged, combining sophisticated jazz harmonies with unmistakable classicism.
It's impossible not to hear the touchstones that Goodrick imparted to Metheny, Frisell...and Muthspiel, whose debt to Goodrick is clear, even as his own voice has evolved over the years. That too many people hearing Goodrick hereespecially when the duo opens with Frisell's calming "Throughout"will think he's referencing his more well-known students is the real shame. In duet with Muthspiel, Goodrick demonstrates unfailing greatness; hopefully Live at The Jazz Standard will see broad enough release to right the wrong. An album of great adventure couched in gentle ambiance, Live at The Jazz Standard is a guitar duo classic ranking with Sargasso Sea as one of the best.