We first encountered Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel on this space just last year when he co-headlined an all-guitar record with Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. Travel Guide is so enjoyable that being a fret geek isn’t required to appreciate it but the democracy of the album made the whole greater than the sum of the parts. So, as good as it is, Travel Guide is perhaps not the best place to start for understanding what Muthspiel is all about.
That record, incidentally, was Muthspiel’s first appearance on an ECM record; Driftwood (June 24, 2014), is his first solo record for the distinguished label even though he debuted as a leader way back in 1990. A trio date that strives for a piano-led paradigm from six strings both acoustic and electric, Driftwood continues the partnerships Muthspiel forged separately with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Larry Grenadier in the 90s and each have recorded with him in recent years. This is the first time all three are together, however.
Taking two familiar faces into the studio with him, Muthspiel immediately adapts to the ECM aesthetic, making use of Manfred Eicher’s spacious production to perform his eight compositions unhurriedly. None of these feel overlong, though, and as a matter of fact, “Highline” ends abruptly just as the band was pivoting into jazz-rock jam mode. Most of the rest of the album is reticent, contemplative, and these attributes actually suit everyone well: as an exquisite colorist, Blade can fill in these sonic gaps suspended of timekeeping with ease. Grenadier’s lyricism comes in sharp relief, too.
With everyone inhabiting their own tonal zones, they manage to meet in a murky middle for “Joseph,” a very spatial piece that wouldn’t have been out of place on John Abercrombie’s November. On both that performance and the acoustic guitar-driven “Uptown,” Grenadier splits his time between comp and lead roles, effectively stretching the trio to almost a quartet. The bassist also brandishes his sawing skills during the first section of the aforementioned “Highline.”
Muthspiel himself isn’t as upfront with his guitar as he was in the meeting with Towner and Grigoryan, but that doesn’t mean he’s holding back on his own abilities, just directing them to create impressionistic music. That’s why the elegant classical guitar on “Madame Vonn” (as in Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn) pulls the curtain back on a beautifully forlorn Old World melody, and he carefully formulates the pace on his tribute to a fallen sax giant, “Bossa for Michael Brecker.” It builds from a somber beginning to rise up softly to an electric guitar solo that without fanfare digs into the hidden harmonic angles of the song much as Brecker used to do with his tenor.
The titular “Driftwood” is the briefest track, but it’s also the freest; Muthspiel introduces arpeggiated chords in small batches at a time, as Grenadier and Blade add muted accents to them, adeptly using silence as a fourth instrument.
Wolfgang Muthspiel has just begun with ECM but Driftwood has the style and sonority of an old vet with the label. This sounds like the beginning of a beautiful relationship.