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Wolfgang Muthspiel: Rising Grace

Mark Sullivan By

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Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel made a big splash early in his career, playing with vibraphonist Gary Burton and recording for PolyGram Records (including 1990's The Promise, produced by Burton). Since founding his own label Material Records in 2000 he has had a somewhat lower profile, although in addition to a number of his projects the label released From A Dream (2009), the stunning debut of the cooperative trio MGT (with fellow guitarists Slava Grigoryan and Ralph Towner). Muthspiel made his ECM debut with that trio on 2013's Travel Guide, followed by his leader debut in 2014 with the trio album Driftwood (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade).

Rising Grace adds to that winning combination with now-veteran pianist Brad Mehldau and young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. That's a lot of potential virtuosic firepower, but the group is characterized by lyricism and a conversational style. The approach can be heard in different ways throughout the program. "Intensive Care" begins with an unaccompanied nylon-string guitar introduction (he uses nylon-string on about half of the album), which suggests how an acoustic solo recital might sound. A group dialog ensues, with various instruments alternately taking the lead.

"Father And Sun" has a bass solo from Grenadier, but Mehldau's accompaniment is so active it is almost a duet: then Muthspiel takes over on nylon string guitar while the piano commentary continues. Akinmusire is especially lyrical here. "Wolfgang's Waltz" was written by Mehldau, the only selection not composed by the leader. It features electric guitar on the head; then after trumpet and guitar solos the piece ends in a collective exchange. So while there certainly are clear solos, "head followed by a round of solos" is not the default mode.

The title tune opens the set, featuring a long melody over an ostinato pattern in a style that suggests label-mate (and trio partner) Ralph Towner. "Boogaloo" finds Muthspiel using overdrive on his electric guitar—the only time on the album—giving it a more assertive edge. With "Den Wheeler, Den Kenny" (which translates to "this Wheeler I know") he pays tribute to another ECM artist, the great trumpeter Kenny Wheeler—specifically to the album Gnu High (ECM, 1976) which was a big influence while Muthspiel was growing up, as well as a model for this group's interaction. The trumpet playing is worthy of the dedication, and Mehldau contributes a beautiful, rhapsodic unaccompanied section.

Good as Muthspiel's previous recorded work has been, he really takes things to a new level here. His playing and composing have grown in richness and subtlety, and these excellent musicians are all at the top of their game, individually and collectively. They sound like they were always meant to play together.

Track Listing: Rising Grace; Intensive Care; Triad Song; Father And Sun; Wolfgang's Waltz; Superonny; Boogaloo; Den Wheeler, Den Kenny; Ending Music; Oak.

Personnel: Wolfgang Muthspiel: guitar; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: double-bass; Brian Blade: drums.

Title: Rising Grace | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records

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