Monday, March 2, 2020

Wolfgang Muthspiel's Angular Blues - Reflective and Introspective Jazz

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Spanning genres and historical periods, ECM's recordings in avant-garde jazz, improvised music, contemporary written music, and classical music, set a standard of aural clarity and spatial transparency from its inception, a standard that today still distinguishes its productions from those of other labels. 

The recognition that ECM has received in the recording field owes as much to the seminal albums it has released in the last forty-three years as it does to the great production and craftsmanship of Manfred Eicher, whose exacting musical sensitivity was constantly matched to the work of the musicians and composers whose music he has championed with passion and recorded with great care. 

One of the great figures of recorded music of the past fifty years, Eicher's work with ECM has insistently positioned the label's offerings as the most rigorous examples of artistic integrity and recording virtuosity. Working with a broad range of gifted artists and composers across geographic, cultural, and historical borders, Eicher's imprint on the sonic identity of ECM transformed the way in which the work of musicians and composers was recorded, bringing fresh insight into the creative and conceptual parameters of those signature recordings. 

As a consequence, ECM's distinctive aesthetic concepts shaped not only a new sound, but also set standards of recording rigor that still remain difficult to emulate or replicate.”
- Okwui Enwezor’s Foreword to ECM: A Cultural Archeology [Prestel 2013]; paragraphing modified.

There is so much to commend Wolfgang Muthspiel latest recording Angular Blues [ECM 2655 081 4506]: the beautiful textures created by its guitar, bass and drums sonority; the outstanding quality of the musicianship on display; the interesting original compositions which bring forth reflective and introspective improvisations; the unique musical personalities of Wolfgang, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, all of whom are respectful of the Jazz tradition while, at the same time, bringing forth their own unique, individual voices, and, last but not least, the immediate presence given to the music by ECM’s sterling audio engineering led by Shinya Matsushita.

It’s rare that a recording comes fully formed in terms of the excellence of its music, the musicians who perform it and the audio aura that captures it. Angular Blues is one of these singular occasions and Manfred Eicher should be rightfully pleased and proud of his production.

I hear three predominant influences in Wolfgang’s approach to Jazz guitar: Django Reinhart, Jim Hall and Biréli Lagrène and what these musical predispositions result in on the nine tracks that make up Angular Blues are space to allow the beautiful sound of the guitar room to resonate, speed to perform the quick phrasing the instrument accords to those who become accomplished on it and above all, storytelling in the soloing and in the interaction between the musicians.

When I listen to a Jazz musician and/or musical group for the first time either on record or in performance, I’m always grateful if they include their interpretation of a classic from the Great American Songbook or a Jazz Standard as these familiar melodies give me the opportunity to “set” my ears in terms of listening to how they go about their business in creating the music.

Thankfully, Wolfgang does just that on Angular Blues with Cole Porter’s Everything I Love and Gene De Paul, Don Ray and Patricia Johnson’s I’ll Remember April, the now Jazz-anthem which closes the album.

Crispness of melodic statement, articulated harmonies and rhythmic displacement are key ingredients that go into making Wolfgang’s music so brilliant- one hears the “sound of surprise” in his Jazz and also feels it. It’s what also brings a freshness to this guitar, bass and Jazz format which has deep roots in the history of the music.

“Accomplished,” both in terms of skill and experience is the word that comes to mind when you listen to the music on Angular Blues. Wolgang, Scott and Brian create a concert listening experience with the way they've arranged and paced the tracks and each brings intriguing and interesting improvisation to each tune.

The process of making of a record at ECM is best described in this excerpt from Okwui Enwezor’s Foreword to ECM: A Cultural Archeology [Prestel 2013]

“ECM's distinctive sound was the result of a recording approach that enabled the intricacies of the music to be heard in a way that gave the impression of both unyielding intimacy and openness. The recordings not only reveal Eicher's passion to put forward some of the most advanced principles of production standards, but the recordings themselves also enabled the musicians and their work to be heard as they had never been heard before. That many of these recordings have become classics, not in the sense of being historical artifacts, but as references for contemporary listeners, is a testament to Eicher's musical and artistic vision. The musical innovations in jazz in the 1960s shaped ECM's early recordings. The work of the label developed in the way it perceived the reformulation of composition priorities and was influenced by the development of free jazz, as new forms of improvised and composed music took shape.”

Since its establishment in 1969 during an epic period of global cultural change, ECM has always been about mavericks and rebels, experimenters and seekers; those who do things differently and the music of Wolfgang Muthspiel is an extension of this zeitgeist.

Like Django, Jim Hall and Biréli [and John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green], Wolfgang is a distinct stylist. He plays the same instrument as these great Jazz guitarists, but he plays it differently.

Muthspiel music is marked by played notes and phrases that sound like the musical equivalent of a stone skipping over a placid pond. The sound is induced from the guitar and becomes a continuous flow - always lyrical and light. Even the “angular” in Angular Blues is less sharp edges and more linear, rounded and curved. 

Wolfgang also manages to find different tones and timbres in the guitar by playing it in such a way so that the resonating chamber of the instrument is brought more fully into play, a quality enhanced by the excellent use of mic-ing and mixing.

If you are looking for a new and different approach to the sonic brilliance and beauty that is unique to the Jazz guitar, MuthspielMusik is for you. The company of Scott Colley and Brain Blade on Angular Blues makes it an even more enjoyable listening experience.”

The official release date for Angular Blues is March 20, 2020. You can visit Wolfgang via his website by going here.

Antje Hübner at hubtone PR sent along the following media release which provides more background about Wolfgang, Scott and Brian, as well as, details about the new recording and the itinerary of a forthcoming tour.

“Wolfgang Muthspiel, whom The New Yorker has called "a shining light" among today's jazz guitarists, returns to the trio format with Angular Blues, his fourth ECM album as a leader, following two acclaimed quintet releases and his trio debut. Like Driftwood - the 2014 trio disc that JazzTimes dubbed "cinematic" and "haunting" - Angular Blues finds the Austrian guitarist paired with long-time collaborator Brian Blade on drums; but instead of Larry Grenadier on bass, this time it's Scott Colley, whose especially earthy sound helps imbue this trio with its own dynamic. 

Muthspiel plays acoustic guitar on three of the album's tracks and electric on six more. Along with his characteristically melodic originals - including such highlights as the bucolic "Hüttengriffe" and pensive "Camino" - he essays the first standards of his ECM tenure ("Everything I Love" and "I'll Remember April"), as well as his first-ever bebop rhythm-changes tune on record ("Ride"). Angular Blues also features a single guitar-only track, "Solo Kanon in 5/4," with Muthspiel's electronic delay imbuing the baroque-like rounds with a hypnotic glow.

Muthspiel, Colley and Blade recorded Angular Blues in Tokyo's Studio Dede after a three-night run at the city's Cotton Club. The album was mixed with Manfred Eicher in the South of France at Studios La Buissonne, where Muthspiel had recorded his two previous ECM albums, Rising Grace and Where the River Goes (both of which featured pianist Brad Mehldau and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire). Each of the groups that Muthspiel has put together for his ECM recordings has had a special rapport. About his new trio, the guitarist says: "Scott and Brian share my love of song, while at the same time there is constant musical conversation about these songs."
The Louisiana-born Blade has been a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet since 2000, along with recording with artists from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois and Norah Jones to Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joshua Redman. Since the mid-'90s, Blade has also co-led the gospel-infused Fellowship Band. Regarding the subtly virtuoso drummer, Muthspiel says: "Brian is famous for his sound and touch, that floating way of playing, how he creates intensity with relatively low volume. It's also a great pleasure for me to witness how sensitively Brian reacts in his playing to whether I play acoustic or electric guitar. I've done a lot of concerts and productions with him over the years, including in our guitar-drums duo, Friendly Travelers, as well as on Driftwood and Rising Grace. He always offers complete interaction and initiative, as well as his individual sound. To play uptempo swing on something like 'Ride' with Brian was really luxurious, a gift."

After being mentored by Charlie Haden, Colley was the bassist of choice for such jazz legends as Jim Hall, Andrew Hill. Michael Brecker. Carmen McRae and Bobby Hutcherson, along with appearing on albums by Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Chris Potter and Julian Lage. Colley, a native of Los Angeles, has released eight albums as a leader. "Scott and Brian have also played a lot together over the past few years, so they know each other well," Muthspiel notes. "I performed with Scott in New York in the '90s, and I've always felt that he was an extremely giving musician, who - with his warm tone and his flexible, dancing rhythm - simultaneously animated and supported the music. I wrote the bass melody of the new album's first tune, 'Wondering,' especially for him. His sound develops a flow and harmonic movement that is inviting to play on."

After "Wondering" - which includes extended soloing by Colley that embroiders on Muthspiel's melody beautifully - comes the album's title song, the highly trio-interactive "Angular Blues," so titled for its "rhythmic modulations and strange breaks," the guitarist explains. "Somehow Chick Corea's album Three Quartets was an association, but so was Thelonious Monk." Those first two tracks, as well as the album's third, "Hüttengriffe," feature Muthspiel on acoustic guitar, his sound on the instrument both warm and extraordinarily fluent. After that - on "Camino," "Ride," "Everything I Love," "Kanon in 6/8," "Solo Kanon in 5/4" and "I'll Remember April" - he plays electric. Muthspiel's ever-liquid electric phrasing buoys both an emotionally rich original such as "Camino" and the two different turns on his kaleidoscopic "Kanon," the trio version in 6/8 and the solo, mostly improvised rendition in 5/4.

About his first-time inclusion of jazz standards on one of his ECM albums, Muthspiel says: "I was inspired to record standards with this trio because everything about the way the group plays feels so free, open and far from preconceived ideas, but at the crucial moment a jazz language is spoken, what we do does justice to these tunes. I learned 'Everything I Love,' the Cole Porter song, from an early Keith Jarrett album, and I first came to know 'I'll Remember April' from a Frank Sinatra recording. In that latter song, I hardly play solo. It's more about the head and the vamp-like atmosphere that prevails from the start and is savored again in the end. As in many moments with this trio, it's about playing with space: leaving it, creating it, filling it."

Wolfgang Muthspiel, Scott Colley and Brian Blade on tour:

April 14-15   New York, NY       Jazz Standard
April 16         Cambridge, MA   Regattabar
April 17-18    Los Angeles, CA    Blue Whale
April 19         Berkeley, CA       Freight and Salvage
April 20         Santa Cruz, CA     Kuumbwa Jazz

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