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Wolfgang Muthspiel / Larry Grenadier / Brian Blade: Wolfgang Muthspiel: Driftwood

John Kelman By

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Since studying at Berklee College of Music and returning to his home in Austria—though not before releasing a number of American-based recordings either on his own or as a member of bands led by people like Gary Burton, Marc Johnson and Patricia Barber—guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel has largely been focusing on his career through Material Records, the label he founded at the turn of the millennium. And while he's released no shortage of fine recordings for the label—including both studio and live duo recordings with the increasingly ubiquitous drummer Brian Blade (2007's Friendly Travelers and 2008's Friendly Travelers Live), the sublime Live at the Jazz Standard (2010), in duo with the vastly influential but perennially under-recorded guitarist Mick Goodrick, and, perhaps most importantly, the debut of MGT, a dream trio with Oregon's Ralph Towner and Australian classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan, with From a Dream (2010)—he's remained largely on the periphery.

Why was From a Dream important? Because it led to 2013's Travel Guide, a recording with Towner's name on the marquee but an MGT set in every other way, and a move from Muthspiel's less readily available Material Records to Germany's ECM Records, with its broader international reach. A label which has, in its 45-year existence, engendered strong brand loyalty amongst its fans—who often try recordings out, sight unseen, on the strength of its reputation alone—for Muthspiel, Travel Guide has turned into an even more significant opportunity: leading, both logically and inevitably, to Driftwood, the guitarist's debut as a leader for ECM Records, and as sublime, delicately woven and intricately executed an album as he's done in his nearly 25-year career.

A trio date that also features bassist Larry Grenadier—no stranger to the label, both as a sideman and as co-leader of the FLY trio last heard on Year of the Snake (2012)— Driftwood is of even further importance as it represents the ECM debut of Brian Blade, a drummer who has appeared on so many recordings that it's something of a surprise that it's taken him this long to find his way to the Munich-based label.

As much as Driftwood speaks with the voice of three musicians whose distinctive and collective personalities imbue these eight tracks—seven by Muthspiel plus the collectively credited, spontaneously composed title track—there's a certain sense of what came before as well. When Muthspiel performs on nylon-string guitar, there are echoes of early Towner recordings like Batik (ECM, 1978), while his electric work, despite a little tarter tone, possesses an overall ambience redolent of now fellow label-mate John Abercrombie's best recordings for the label, in particular his second trio recording with Gateway, Gateway 2, released the same year as Batik.

Muthspiel's "Bossa for Michael Brecker"—dedicated to the gone-too-soon saxophonist who passed away in 2007 at the age of 57—finds Muthspiel adopting a slightly overdriven tone that, as he slowly builds his solo with the same kind of freshness and avoidance of cliché that's long defined Abercrombie, also gives Blade—a drummer equally capable of whisper-like delicacy—the freedom to lean more towards his more explosive side, building a maelstrom-like foundation that powerfully blends delicately driven ride and unmistakably expressionistic splash cymbals, along with sharp snare punctuations and tumultuous toms. Both players bring things down for Grenadier's pizzicato solo, a melody-rich feature where Muthspiel's ever-shifting voicings drive the bassist to some of his best playing of this 43-minute set before he returns to arco for the coda, where he reiterates Muthspiel's unmistakably plaintive theme.

Muthspiel's comfort with both his fingers and a plectrum means that he can move from almost harp-like finger-style playing at the start of Driftwood's opener, "Joseph," to the mellower phrases in its middle section, and ultimately to the sparsely effected lines that bring this open-ended composition to a gently fading conclusion, its structure acting as nothing more than a sparse pretext for some in-the-moment interplay to establish the trio's inherent chemistry from the get-go. The nylon-string feature, "Uptown," is more firmly anchored in form, Muthspiel's solo demonstrating how collaborating with Towner has influenced his work while, at the same time, illustrating how different it truly is—the guitarist's oblique thematic constructs contrasting with Towner's tendency to sometimes use the upper and lower registers of his guitar as almost a one-man call-and-response.

Driftwood's largely introspective tone is occasionally broken by brighter shards of light. When the tempo is brighter, as it is on "Highline," Muthspiel adopts a more assertive chordal stance—his grittily overdriven tone somehow managing to create sustaining chords even as he layers more deft linear work atop them as the piece builds to its definitive conclusion. Even with Blade and Grenadier's remarkably empathic—and, at times, portent-filled—ability to engage in more active trialogue with Muthspiel, the overall complexion remains impressionistic, the music filled with suggestive implication.

A reliance on three-way conversations along with Muthspiel's clearly conceived approach and effortless mastery of his instrument are but three reasons why Driftwood is the date that should see the guitarist finally gaining the broader recognition his career has eluded to date. A guitarist's guitarist, Driftwood is the inevitable consequence of Muthspiel's activities over the past two-and-a-half decades, and the recording that deserves to finally broaden his reputation from those in the know to those who are, since the release of Travel Guide, experiencing Muthspiel for the first time.

Track Listing: Joseph; Uptown; Cambiata; Highline; Driftwood; Luchtzelle; Madame Vonn; Bossa for Michael Brecker.

Personnel: Wolfgang Muthspiel: guitar; Larry Grenadier: double bass; Brian Blade: drums.

Title: Wolfgang Muthspiel: Driftwood | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ECM Records

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