Four fifths of the band on this record are American and it shows. The ECM label may be increasingly saturnine but this is one of its most robustly swinging releases in a while. The leader, the Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, may not be familiar to many. After a strong start in the US in the Nineties, he returned to Vienna to record on his own imprint. Yet with his warm tone fleet finger work and quicksilver response, he is too good for local obscurity- This beguiling return to the limelight is sure to draw new listeners.
The all-star rhythm section will surely help. The pianist Brad Mehldau is one the world’s finest, his scholastic style having lately gained a welcome infusion of sou. He brings with him his trio’s bassist, Larry Grenadier. Brian Blade is the intricatee drummer in Wayne Shorter’s quartet. The rising trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire adds some Milesean vinegar to the mix. Most of the tunes are Muthspiel’s own, slow-burners that follow the ECM aesthetic yet easily yield to the more robust stylings of modern jazz.
Triad Song is a good example. After a melancholic guitar-and-trumpet-led opening, Mehldau’s increasingly knotty solo coaxes tougher Latin-tinged rhythms from Grenadier and Blade. Encouraged, Muthspiel responds with blue notes and bop-like flourishes. Boogaloo is a cranky deconstruction of the Sixties backbeat fad. Its scattered call-and-response interplay flirts with free jazz and even the simultaneous soloing of Dixieland- Muthspiel’s fuzzily fluid electric guitar solo recalls Pat Metheny.
Mehltau contributes on original track, Wolfgang’s Waltz, on which he tosses ECM introspection out of its artfully rain-spattered window and gives us an old-fashioned straight-ahead piano solo. Muthspiel offers a jubilantly singing continuation. This isn’t a perfect release: the wandering ballad Oak doesn’t quite gel and Intensive Care is a dreary march with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Mehltau fans may enjoy it, though, and quite possibly become Muthspiel fans into the bargain.