A shiny, speeding arpeggio, running through the mist of Brian Blade’s cymbal rolls is the backdrop for “Gnadenwald’s” sparse melody. Played in sustained notes that decay into the background, the melody slowly speeds up, taking cues from the accompaniment. Suddenly, the pace changes, and lightly strung chords replace the earlier fluid movement. Wolfgang Muthspiel speaks—an earthy moan—and the style changes. Soon enough, the arpeggio returns. Friendly Travelers is an album of contrasts. The first contrast—a change in feeling, tempo, meter—is echoed not only in “Gnadenwald,” the first track of the CD, but in almost every offering. The next gap is heard in the musical approach of Austrian guitarist Muthspiel and drummer Brian Blade. Muthspiel is always smooth, never confrontational, and Blade plays the drums. Finally, “Gnadenwald” and “Between the Beats”—to name just two—create a contrast between acoustic and electric, both using looping effects to create an acoustic guitar vamp. This last difference is further established when Muthspiel, heard throughout the album on acoustic instruments, solos on electric guitar. These differences are present throughout the album, but are transformed into an asset, each part working off the other. Looped effects provide a base for solos, and the electric guitar adds a needed grit to the album’s overall pleasant aura. Blade’s kit work is laced so completely into the mix that drums become just as important as guitar. Muthspiel’s approach is a soft breeze, and Blade helps steer the music from smooth jazz and to a place full of aural stimulation.
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