Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel continues his run of top-notch dates for ECM with Angular Blues. He leads a trio that’s new in the sense that this particular threesome of Muthspiel, Scott Colley on double bass and Brian Blade on drums hasn’t recorded together before. But all three are intimately familiar with each other, and it shows. Blade and Muthspiel have recorded fairly extensively together including in their guitar-drums duo Friendly Travelers, as well as on previous ECM albums Driftwood and Rising Grace, which featured Larry Grenadier on bass. Colley and Muthspiel gigged together in New York in the ’90s, and Colley and Blade have played together in the Steel House trio with pianist Edward Simon and elsewhere.
My first experience of Muthspiel was with the sublime *Rising Grace and his warm, liquid phrasing and gorgeous tone made me an immediate fan. Count me a fan also of Colley for many of his leader and side projects with the likes of Julian Lage and Gary Burton, and of Blade for his work with dozens of artists from Dylan to Joshua Redman, as well as his gospel-infused Fellowship Band. So I had high hopes for this release, and wasn’t disappointed.
As a bonus there’s something not that common, three acoustic tracks from Muthspiel, his first for ECM. These three lead off the album: The masterful “Wondering” whose beauty sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s long enough at 7:20 for the musicians to stretch out, and they do – Colley first with the melody, and the connections among the trio are palpable. Muthspiel’s hints of Brazilian motifs make me long for an album of samba, bossa and choro from him. Second comes the title track, titled, Muthspiel says, for its “rhythmic modulations and strange breaks.” It’s a beguiling meld of Corea and Monk, transposed to guitar, with this uber-sympathetic rhythm section. Colley in his solo eschews the piece’s angularity and instead goes for sly melodic and harmonic excursions, and Blade has a ruly propulsive solo just before the coda. Which opens up into the final acoustic piece, the hymnlike “Hüttengriffe.”
The rest of the program is on electric guitar, with two Muthspiel compositions, the West Coast-like “Camino” and the swinging bop of “Ride,” plus a trio and solo version of Muthspiel’s “Kanon,” the trio take in 6/8 and the solo in 5/4. Rounding it out are two standards, Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” and the sometimes romantic, sometimes swinging “I’ll Remember April.”
“Camino” is another long one as Muthspiel finally rolls out his lovely classic tone and exquisite control, tossing in some brief, delightful dissonance on the solo intro section; it’s also got nice solos for all three in the main section, and some sharp trio moments in the final chorus. The rhythm section is unobtrusively propulsive on “Ride,” the guitar upbeat and swinging. Everybody swings on “Everything I Love,” a perfect vehicle for this trio and beautifully recorded. And everybody gets in lots of vamping on “April,” with a bit of interactional improv between bass and drums and lots of Muthspiel’s trademark phrasing.
Rather surprisingly, my favorite turns out to be the trio version of “Kanon in 6/8.” It’s a circular tune in both versions, the solo version baroque and charming, and both involve some use of looping and tape delay on the guitar. The trio version though is a real rhythmic workout, and really shows off each player’s strong suits and the strength of the trio as a unit.
None of these three players are what you’d call flashy, but together this trio makes powerful and moving music. Impressively, the whole thing was laid down live in a studio in Tokyo in just a few hours, two takes per song, after they spent a couple of nights woodshedding the tunes at the Cotton Club in that city. Everything they do is in service to the music and takes place in close relationship with each other as players. “Scott and Brian share my love of song,” Muthspiel says, “while at the same time there is constant musical conversation about these songs.” That sums it up pretty well.
This trio is touring extensively this year in the U.S. and Europe.