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 longtime 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.”