Austrian guitarist and songwriter Wolfgang Muthspiel follows 2018’s celebrated Where the River Goes by scaling back to a trio, enlisting bassist Scott Colley along with longtime collaborator/drumming legend Brian Blade, and releasing Angular Blues, his fourth album as a bandleader for venerable jazz label ECM. Unencumbered by the need for arranging the music to fit trumpet and piano this time around, Muthspiel, Colley, and Blade find the freedom here to stretch out and find new territories, tones, and shapes within the loose structure these pieces allow.
Over his over 30-year career, Muthspiel is no stranger to exploring all the possibilities of what a trio can accomplish. On Angular Blues his explorations include peaceful meditations such as the soulful, contemplative “Huttengriffe” on acoustic and the hushed, subtle, electric chord voicings of the sprawling “Camino”. The trio lands in bebop territory on the fleet-fingered and energetic “Ride”, a welcome change from most of the album’s languid pace, and Muthspiel’s impressive first foray into the style makes you wish he would venture into this side of the pool more often.
Another departure is the relentless “Kanon in 6/8”, where around the mid-way point, fierce interplay morphs into a sort of classic Allman Brothers Band-style jazz-rock exploration as Blade’s drumming drives Muthspiel’s guitar into all-too-brief but glorious overdrive. That’s followed by the album’s only solo piece, the appropriately-titled “Solo Kanon in 5/4”, which makes creative use of electronic delay, somewhat recalling prime solo Stanley Jordan.
Angular Blues also contains Muthspiel’s treatment of two jazz standards: a faithful yet adventurous take on the Cole Porter classic, “Everything I Love”, while the arrangement of “I’ll Remember April” was most likely inspired by the song’s definitive take by Sonny Rollins on his legendary Night at the Village Vanguard album. Both tracks reveal Muthspiel’s roots while illustrating the trio’s impressive interpretive and improvisational skills.
Throughout Angular Blues, Scott Colley reaches back to his many years of experience holding down the bass chair with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny to give just the right amount of virtuosic talent without overwhelming the necessary space to allow these arrangements to captivate fully. Blade displays his usual awe-inspiring fills and unparalleled creativity behind the kit. On top, Muthspiel displays equal parts attack and restraint as he offers example after example of impressive inventiveness on both electric and acoustic guitar.
Sometimes Angular Blues is filled with so much empty space it threatens to disappear into the background, and its arrangements can, at times, come across as directionless. Of course, much of it depends on what you want to get out of guitar-bass-drums-arranged jazz. It works well for background music, but it does, as the saying goes, mostly reward active listening. The most beautiful moments here stay with you long after the album ends, and you’ll find yourself returning to them many times, each time finding something new to explore.
If you’re a fan of Muthspiel’s previous trio experiments, you’ll find plenty to feast upon and delve into on Angular Blues.