Austrian-born guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel has expanded the trio with which he cut his 2014 ECM debut as a leader, into a top-shelf quintet for Rising Grace, which has become one of my favorite jazz albums of 2016. To the rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and renowned drummer Brian Blade, Muthspiel has added nonpareil pianist Brad Mehldau (who has played with Blade and Grenadier for a couple of decades) and a rising star in trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Muthspiel moves from electric to classical acoustic guitar on Rising Grace, as the music dictates. Mehldau and Monk prize-winning Californian Akinmusire are equal partners with the guitarist in the music’s melodic, harmonic and improvisatory developments.
Rising Grace may be just as “atmospheric” as was the trio recording Driftwood, but it has moved on from that date’s ethereal and reflective nature to embrace warmth, light and indeed the grace of the title. Most of my favorites are those on which Muthspiel plays electric, which he does with beautiful tone and fluid lines. Notable on that count is “Wolfgang’s Waltz,” which features superb improvizations by Mehldau and Akinmusire as well as the guitarist – all three hand off the lead to each other seamlessly, in mid-phrase. I especially love “Triad Song,” which Akinmusire opens and closes with statements of a beautiful melody that features a repeated series of stately downward triads, in between which Mehldau and Muthspiel contribute light, airy improvisations; and “Den Wheeler, Den Kenny,” a shining, mostly upbeat encomium to the late flugelhornist. The jittery, modernist “Superonny” and funky “Boogaloo” provide changes of pace; on the latter, the trumpet,piano and guitar all alternately vamp and toss bis of the melody back and forth among themselves while Blade pretty much solos constantly.
Muthspiel opens and closes the album on acoustic. The opening title track is revelatory, setting the mood for the entire date with its graceful melody, Blade illuminating the piece’s rising emotional pitch with his focused percussion. Bassist Grenadier’s staggered bass line is mesmerizing, too. The album ends with the mysterious, minor-key “Oak,” and in between are a couple of lengthy acoustic excursions. “Intensive Care” is languid and peaceful, Muthspiel playing a lengthy Segovia-esque Spanish classical introduction. And “Father And Sun” has a warm California-like vibe to it – see if you don’t think of Jose Feliciano’s cover of “Light My Fire” when you hear Muthspiel’s intro. Grenadier really gets to shine on this one, introducing the melody and carrying it forward with a sterling improv section. Here’s an extended live performance of “Father and Sun.”
In a good year for jazz releases as 2016 has been, Rising Grace is pretty special. It’s inspiring music made by a quintet of musicians highly attuned to each other.