Mick Goodrick and Wolfgang Muthspiel: Musical Synthesis

Matthew Warnock By

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When guitarists Wolfgang Muthspiel and Mick Goodrick walked up to the stage on January 30th, 2008, they were not only preparing to record a live album for Muthspiel's Material Records label, they were celebrating a musical and personal relationship that stretches back more than two decades. First meeting at the New England Conservatory, where Muthspiel studied under the Goodrick's tutelage, these two iconic players have continued to work together as duo partners over the years, with 2010's Live at the Jazz Standard being their first recorded document together. While the duo has limited their musical output to live performances over these many years—holding off until now to eternalize their sound on record—the end result was definitely worth the wait.

From left: Wolfgang Muthspiel, Mick Goodrick

The album is exactly what would be expected from two players who have known each other as musicians and friends for so many years. Each a master of their instrument, both are able to weave in and out of the other's harmonic and melodic textures until it is often hard to tell one from the other. Their openness as improvisers, and a carefully crafted sense of musicianship, provides for a level of interactivity and cohesion that only adds to the level of excitement on the record. Yes, both guitarists possess advanced harmonic knowledge and melodic chops, but it's musical interplay that defines this duo, that really brings their music to life.

After waiting for this release for so many years—and with Goodrick in semi-retirement—fans of the duo are left with only one question after hearing this release: "When are Muthspiel and Goodrick planning a follow-up?"

All About Jazz: Live at the Jazz Standard seems to be a project that was twenty years in the making, since that was when the two of you first met. Wolfgang, what was it like meeting Mick for the first time as a young student?

Wolfgang Muthspiel: I came to the U.S. from Austria, when I was twenty-one. After having looked through promotional material for a number of schools, I found out that the New England Conservatory offered both classical and jazz lessons with David Leisner and Mick Goodrick, which was a dream combination for me. From the first lesson on Mick was a fantastic teacher. At the beginning he was kind of tough, because at the time I was heavily influenced by Pat Metheny, and slowly we went through his approach to try and wean me away from imitating Pat. It was very inspiring, and for me it was the perfect master-student relationship.

After a year or so we began playing duos, and the relationship grew from student- teacher into musical partners. I transferred from the New England Conservatory to study at the Berklee College of Music, but I continued to perform with Mick. There was always this interweaving fabric that came out in our playing. Where we don't really adhere to the traditional roles of comper and soloist; it's more interactive than that. Over the years we've done a few recordings, which were cool musically, but they were never cool audio-wise, with crowd noise and stuff. It was great to finally be able to release a high-quality recording with Mick after all these years.

AAJ: Is that how you remember it Mick?

Mick Pretty much. We, David Leisner and I, had heard about Wolfgang through an audition tape that he had sent us. The tape had Wolfgang playing classical guitar on one side and jazz on the other, and both were of such high quality that we easily accepted him into the program at New England. The fact that he could play both genres, and instruments, at such a high level was just mind-boggling. He was, at the time—and has remained—the flat-out most talented guitarist I've ever worked with. The only person that I've seen comparable recently would be Julian Lage. Julian's also very gifted, in different ways, but those would be the two that I would have to say were the very, very best students I've worked with over the years.

AAJ: Mick, over the years you've developed the reputation as one of—if not the—top guitar pedagogues on the planet. Have you always had an affinity for teaching, and how did you first become involved in guitar education?

MG: I began teaching when I was fifteen years old back in my hometown. I got into it at an early age and found that I enjoyed it. After I graduated from Berklee, and was asked to teach there, I kind of got itchy because I wanted to get out on the road with my friends and tour as a performer. Over the years I was able to balance the two careers—that of a teacher and of a performer—and it's worked out nicely I think.

AAJ: Wolfgang, since your classical playing made such an impression on your audition tape, do you still keep up your classical guitar chops or is that not a part of your repertoire anymore?

WM: I still play the classical guitar, I practice it a lot at home, but I don't play classical music anymore. I don't play classical repertoire, but I love playing the instrument. Back in Boston I had to make a decision between pursuing jazz or classical music and I made that choice. I felt that in order to perform at a high level I was going to have to pursue one or the other. Jazz seemed to me, at least at the time, to be freer in many aspects than classical music, and so I choose that genre as my main pursuit. But I still love the classical guitar and classical music.

AAJ: Mick has that ECM type sound in his playing, as does Ralph Towner with whom you recorded an album [MGT, From a Dream (Material Records, 2009)], where the music is very open and fluid. It's not quite jazz and it's not quite classical, but something in-between. Did the ECM sound have an influence on you when you were coming up?

WM: Absolutely, Ralph is another player who's solo records really influenced me because he mixed improvised music with that classical sound. Years later we were able to meet and work on a project together, which was really fun for me. Guys like Ralph, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and the albums of Dave Holland were an initiation into the jazz world for me. Only later did I go back and check out the older, more traditional players like Bill Evans, for example.

AAJ: Live at the Jazz Standard finds the two of you in a duo situation, sans rhythm section. Why did you decide to record the album with just the two of you, rather than also bring along bass and drums?

WM: That question never came up because when we perform, we always play duo. There were rare occasions where we had bass and drums join us, but basically we always play duo. It's nice not to have those other two instruments in this setting, especially when playing standards, because we have a bit more freedom to explore the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic possibilities of those tunes.

I think that freedom would be hard to uphold if we had a bassist or drummer in the group. I love this fabric with Mick because it's an interaction, but each of us is doing our own thing, which becomes interactive as we play. It's a different kind of interplay than what would happen in a full band and I really enjoy playing in that setting with Mick.

MG: I think the guitar duo is a really great combination because of the fact that the instruments are capable of doing single-note melodies, multiple melodies, bass and harmonic functions as well. It's one of the best duo combinations period. One of the things that's most pronounced on the recording, is that our playing is very interactive.

We never think, "I'm going to comp and Wolfgang will solo for two choruses and then we'll switch." It never happens that way. Also, maybe if he's soloing and I'm comping and I hear something that he's doing and react melodically, we can change functions. That's one of the things that I think makes us unique when we play in a duo situation.

AAJ: Because you have this extra layer of freedom in the duo, are you thinking mostly of the harmony or melody of the tune when you are improvising in this context?

WM: I think mostly of the harmony and about what Mick is playing at the time. Depending on Mick's comping, I would change my approach to react to what he's doing. I can't praise Mick enough. The comping he does on the record is absolutely brilliant. It very modern, very inventive, but very structural, it's perfect for that situation. To me, even with all his success, Mick is still a highly underrated musician.

AAJ: The record is a mix of original tunes, songbook and jazz standards. Since you've both been playing for a number of years, and have probably played these particular standards thousands of times, how do you keep them from becoming monotonous after all these years?

MG: I guess it's more a matter of who you play with than what you play. With Wolfgang, we never know where the music will lead us at any minute, which is one of the things that I like so much about our duo. The material might not be the most important thing. Maybe it's what we do with it that's important. When we're improvising we're creating our own melodies over the harmonic structure of the tunes, and these standards became standards because they have a harmonic structure that we just don't get tired of playing, even over the course of a lifetime.

AAJ: When I think of a live jazz album there are usually four or five tracks that are much longer than studio recordings. But, you guys choose to feature a longer set list of shorter songs on Live at the Jazz Standard. What was the thought process behind going with more, shorter tracks on the record, rather than featuring fewer tunes where you're both really stretching out?

WM: There was twice as much material from the night that we recorded than made it onto the record. I listened to all of the tunes and just choose the tracks that I felt sounded the best. A lot of the tunes that we featured had long intros that didn't make it onto the record. Featuring long, stretched-out tunes just didn't match with our concept of the record, and so we ended up going with those shorter tracks.

MG: When we're playing we don't know how long a piece is going to be, because we're improvising, but I don't remember any tune going over ten or eleven minutes, with most being around five to seven minutes. I think most of the time we're trying to do shorter tunes so that we can get more variety over the course of a set.

AAJ: Did you ever consider doing a studio album for this project, or did it have to be a studio record given your long history of performing together?

WM: The day after we recorded the record we went into the studio and spent the whole day recording tracks, but we didn't use any of that material on the album. I think it's easier to bring out the interactive nature of our playing in a live setting. It just works better that way. Also, we were in this club with an audience and were feeling really good that night. We only recorded the one night, which is a bit risky, but luckily it all worked out and we were playing well on that particular occasion.

AAJ: Since jazz is an art form that is created in the moment, for the most part, do you feel that the true essence of the genre can ever be properly captured on a studio recording, or is it best heard on live recordings instead?

MG: The advantage you have in a live situation is having the audience interaction, which certainly affects the quality of the music. From the few recordings I've done with Wolfgang I've found that we can get into that deep level of interaction, and make great music, in a studio setting, but that for various reasons it's a lot easier to do with a live audience in the room.

AAJ: The record has a very organic feeling to it that portrays a very spontaneous musical interaction. How much did you get together and rehearse before the concert or did you leave the arrangements to be determined on the stage that night?

MG: It was all just played off the top of our heads, which is what was really cool about it. We figured out which tunes we wanted to play during the set, but that was about it. When we can live in the moment like this with another musician—and I don't feel this way with everyone—I think it's one of the highest levels of improvisational art that one can achieve.

Selected Discography

Wolfgang Muthspiel/Mick Goodrick, Live at the Jazz Standard (Material Records, 2010)

MGT (Muthspiel/Grigoryan/Towner), , From a Dream (Matrerial Records, 2009)

Wolfgang Muthspiel/Brian Blade, Friendly Travelers Live (Material Records, 2008)

Wolfgang Muthspiel/Dhafer Youssef, Glow (Material Records, 2007)

Wolfgang Muthspiel, Bright Side (Material Records, 2006)

Steve Swallow (with Goodrick), Always Pack Your Uniform On Top (ECM, 2000)

Mick Goodrick/Dave Liebman/Wolfgang Muthspiel, In the Same Breath (CMP, 1996)

Wolfgang Muthspiel Loaded, Like New (PolyGram, 1995)

Mick Goodrick Cities (RAM, 1993)

Wolfgang Muthspiel In and Out (PolyGram, 1994)

Wolfgang Muthspiel Black and Blue (PolyGram, 1993)

Gary Burton (with Muthspiel), Cool Nights (GRP, 1991)

Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition (with Goodrick), Audio-Visualscapes (Impulse!, 1989)

Charlie Haden (with Goodrick), The Ballad of the Fallen (ECM,1983)

Mick Goodrick In Pas(s)ing (ECM, 1979)

Gary Burton Quintet (with Goodrick), Dreams So Real (ECM, 1976)

Gary Burton Quintet (with Goodrick), Ring (ECM, 1974)

Gary Burton Quartet (with Goodrick), The New Quartet (ECM, 1973)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Material Records

Page 2: Ralph Gibson

Page 3: Windmueller

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