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Wolfgang Muthspiel: Continuing The Dream

R.J. DeLuke By

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This kind of interaction with a rhythm section and a good drummer is something I love. —Wolfgang Muthspiel
Jazz has always traveled. It finds inquisitive musicians all over the globe, where often, people outside the U.S. receive the message more readily than those in the country where it was born. Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel was already improvising with his older brother, for fun, in the time leading up to his discovery of the art form.

He grasped it quickly. Fortunately for the world of art, he chose to investigate. While he still plays the classical music of his roots, and many things in between, Muthspiel has blossomed as a guitarist of renown, playing over the years with the likes of Dave Liebman, Peter Erskine, Paul Motian, Bob Berg, Ambrose Akinmusire, Marc Johnson, Don Alias, John Patitucci and more.

His most recent example is a new CD, Angular Blues released in late March, a trio outing with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Scott Colley.

"Its a big part of my musical language, jazz. This kind of interaction with a rhythm section and a good drummer is something I love," says Muthspiel.

"I would say that jazz is the music that I got to know when I was about 13. The first part of my musical life, from earlier times, was spent with classical music. It's my second home, not my first home. I went to the States in order to learn about it more. In order to learn how it sounds there, where it comes from. That was a beautiful trip for me, to make that journey ... to meet so many musicians I still play with. Musicians that hired me. Musicians that inspired."

Muthspiel is a curious musician who doesn't limit himself to genres. He's played electronica, done duet projects, vocal projects, worked with orchestras and is a prolific composer. His composing applies to classical and jazz. Through it all, he finds ways to weave his guitar through forms and structures in a way that demands to be heard, without saying, "look at me."

Angular Blues is part of a continuing series of jazz projects. In 2014, his debut as Bandleader on ECM records, Driftwood was a trio date with Blade and bassist Larry Grenadier that receive critical acclaim. Rising Grace in 2016 was a quintet recording with Brad Mehldau, Akinmusire, Blade and Grenadier. The new recording fits into that mold, not just by genre, but by the consistency of quality. Muthspiel appears to not rush into things, growing organically, project to project.

"I've played with Brian a lot ... Scott not so much, but I also know Scott from the 90s when I played with him in New York. It felt really good," says the guitarist. "Those guys played together a lot. It's a very warm and interactive rhythm section."

Muthspiel was booking a series of concerts in Japan, and it was there that the trio worked with the music that became the CD. As circumstances dictated, the band ended up with very little studio time. But seasoned improvising musicians can think on their feet and the result is another fine Muthspiel session.

"When I heard they were available for these dates, I wrote a bunch of music for those concerts. That felt good. I wanted to keep that energy, so we went into the studio after that," he says. "We had one day. But getting there from Tokyo took forever. So basically, we had an afternoon. We played everything twice and that's it. We had a time restriction, so that was kind of good for the music, I think. We had played the whole program six times in a row before, so we knew the material and we felt comfortable with it."

"Wondering," the opener, is carried by Blade's drums and Colley's bass at first, as the slow tempo and its luscious chords illustrates the title; an approach in which one could envision someone sitting under a tree, pondering something. The multi-talented Blade's approach cruises with the melody, but dips into off-rhythms, dressing and accents. Muthspiel plays along in a gentle, running style, but not bashful. His lyricism and tone are captivating. "Kanon in 6/8" is the closest to free form, but it is not. Colley's bass makes its own contrapuntal statement, while Muthspiel slashes and snakes his way over the top, with Blade doing his usual polyrhythmic thing, though not brash. He's a rhythmic mad scientist. The title cut is also aptly named, pursuing an angular approach to the melody and arrangement. Colley and Muthspiel come in at different angles, but for the same purpose. "Huttengriffe" is a dirge-like ballad. The guitarist is at his ethereal best, never rushing, dropping exquisite notes where they fit. "Ride" approaches bebop, with the guitarist spinning fast lines without losing his sweet tone. All the compositions are Muthspiel's, save for two standards, "Everything I Love" and "I'll Remember April," which are given beautiful fresh spins by these three fine musicians.

"I'm very happy about it," says Muthspiel of the CD. "It's kind of like flowing music. I feel relaxed about it. Sometimes with trio music it can be hard to listen only to the music, and not to the police in your head. But it has a natural expression, a natural flow of things. We don't force the music into some place. It feels good."

The guitarist had a supporting tour planned in April, but the coronavirus pandemic has canceled that, as it has with concerts around the globe. "These are definitely wild times. None of us has experienced anything like it before. Musicians that live gig to gig must really hurt. So I hope this can be managed as soon as possible. I don't have too much hope for the States right now to be honest. But I hope they come to grips with it and take the right measures."

Muthspiel will soldier on through the crises. Music is in his blood. He came from a musical family. His father was an amateur musician who instilled a love of music in his four sons, of whom Wolfgang was the youngest. "It was very inviting in our house, to play music ... He got us into music for very good reasons. He spread that love. It was a great environment."

Muthspiel played the violin until about the age of 12, when he started looking for something more; a teenager looking for something that was not imposed on him. "I had to reject that instrument as a symbol of liberation from my parents and to find my own thing. It was expected that I become a violin player."

He happened upon the guitar and began playing it without any help or instruction. Eventually, he sought out and found teachers. Once he got the feeling that he could truly express himself on the instrument, he immersed himself in it. It carried him through the trials and tribulations of teenage years and troubles in school "The instrument kind of guided me out of that crises. I was so happy when I found that."

In the beginning, Muthspiel played classical music, the norm in Austria. But as he sat at home with one of his brothers, the two would improvise together. The seed was getting sunlight and water.

"Whatever instruments we had we always improvised together," he says. "But we didn't know anything about jazz. We just played whatever we had at home. That was beautiful playing, like children playing. That was way before any knowledge of theory or anything like that. Then, when we discovered jazz together, the music where improvisation is the core element, we were hooked."

Artists on the iconic European label ECM was his first aural introduction—Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Wheeler and Ralph Towner inspired him. "That was my first wave of jazz. I got hooked on Pat very much. He was very inspiring to me. I tried to learn as much as I could, growing up in Austria."

As his abilities blossomed, the States beckoned. He landed at the New England Conservatory of Music and jazz began to take a stronger hold. It was there he encountered his teacher Mick Goodrick, who became a strong inspiration both musically and career-wise.

"He was the reason I went there. He was an amazing friend and duo partner. After two years, we started to play duo and played a lot together. He was super important to me. He was a deep teacher, who was strict in a way, but also super supportive. Philosophical on one side, and on the other side he had a real pragmatic knowledge about the fretboard. The guitar is a curious instrument. It's laid out so strangely, with those intervals between the strings. To me it makes sense, but many people find it illogical. Mick has this view of it which is super intelligent. He could really pinpoint many areas in my playing that needed work, while he supported others."

After two years, Muthspiel received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and was off, deciding to plunge deeper into jazz. There he met master jazz musician and educator Gary Burton. The association with Burton wasn't a passing thing. It had a deep impact on his life and career. Burton hired him for his band, which started playing concerts in the U.S.

"Gary was a teacher and a great mentor. A clear bandleader who knew exactly what he wanted. It was a good experience for me. Also, he was generously introducing me to people and opening doors for me. A dream had come true," he says. He had listened to Burton albums with Goodrick and Metheny in the guitar spot, "and there I was in Gary's band, so it was amazing."

Another important person at Berklee was teacher Herb Pomeroy, who taught arranging and led a band that played students' arrangements. "That band was great. The way he led that band was amazing to me. I had never experienced someone leading a big band like that. Many great musicians played in that band. It was a wonderful experience."

In the 1990s he was living in New York.

"The next key person was Paul Motian. Paul was amazing because he played with me in my own trio, together with Marc Johnson. Then I also played in his electric bebop band off and on, with different guitar players who were all great. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder and Steve Cardenas. Those were great times for me. Playing that material with Paul was very special."

Johnson also hired Muthspiel for a band called Right Brain Control that toured and did an album. "He was a big influence as well. The way he interpreted the bass roll was new to me. He plays in a very unique way."

All those U.S. experiences melded with his classical training and created an artist who looks at music as something to be enjoyed and explored, regardless of style. He applies his warm tone and fresh, lyrical ideas to every situation.

"I go with the flow. Whatever attracts me, I do," he says. "Electronic stuff. I played around with loops early on when they were first coming out. I had some programs where I played solo concerts where I played a lot of electronics and loops, stuff like that. Then there's that whole singing chapter, which came late. There are two albums where I am singing songs. That, in a way, is continuing. I'm on a journey to Schubert songs. I don't know if that will ever see the concert stage. But I'm working on it. I'm going to a singing teacher and learning that music. To me, they are all related. Basically, I would love it if they would come together more in me.

"I'm just excited about good music. There's a lot of boring jazz. There's also a lot of boring other music. I'm just excited about people who can create their own voice that touches me. I'm excited about interaction in a band. A kind of conversation, musical conversation, that I find interesting. I'm also into a really well-written, two-and-a-half minute pop song, if it's great. I'm not fussed about whether it's jazz of not ... Everybody should go for what they love, but for me the musical world is so much bigger than jazz. Jazz is a great part of it. I'm happy to be in it and play with musicians that I love and speak that language. But I also think the people who are the most important people in jazz are always the ones who try to stretch the art form."

He tries to stay away from cliches in music. "Sometimes things are played, just because everybody does it like that, so everybody else does it like that. But if you look at some great jazz musicians, they have tried to break out of those limits in their own way. Again and again and again. Somebody like Miles [Davis] or Wayne [Shorter] or [Thelonious] Monk, I'm sure they listened to many different kinds of music and were inspired by many different kinds of things."

In 2000, Muthspiel founded Material Records, which produced albums by varied artists and some by Muthspiel. The label has been dormant more recently. Another project that takes his time, and one he's very close to is a program called Focus Year at the Basel Music University in Basel, Switzerland. It's a one-year program for especially talented jazz musicians.

"We put together a band. The musicians are from all over the world. This band gets coaching and teaching from something like 20 people. They also get a scholarship for living. So it's a year where these musicians can dive into the music, coached by masters of the scene. It's something I'm thankful about, because it's not easy to realize this dream. Thanks to some very generous foundations we can do this," he says.

When the coronavirus dust settles, Muthspiel hopes to put a large ensemble together playing his compositions, arranged by Guillermo Klein the renowned bandleader/composer from Argentina who has been living in upstate New York for some time. They have done it before.

"It was really a fun experience. He's a dear friend and also a colleague in the Basel School. He arranged my music for large ensemble. We did a few concerts. We're thinking about a recording and touring with it. That might be the next step."

Assessing his career and life, Muthspiel is content and his decision years ago to take the guitar in his hands is one he will never regret.

"Career is one thing. It's great to be able to play with inspiring people. On the other side, I have been lucky with many things. Even my family. My daughter is four and a late present in my life. There are a lot of things I can be really thankful about. I still love to go to the guitar and play, whether somebody listens to me or not. That's a good thing."

They're listening. Another good thing.

Photo: Nedici Dragoslav

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