The Austrian jazz guitarist plays beautifully in his third outing for ECM with a remarkable band featuring Larry Grenadier, Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau, and Ambrose Akinmusire.
There may be a thousand brilliant players you don’t really know well, jazz musicians who spin captivating solos and compose crystalline melodies. I know more than most, and yet Wolfgang Muthspiel creeps up behind me with Rising Grace, a beautiful record on which he holds his own with four heavyweights. He does it with a slippery grace, playing acoustic and electric guitar, always elegant, always lovely.
Muthspiel is from Austria, and he came the US in 1986 to study at the New England Conservatory with Mick Goodrick, the virtuoso guitarist from the first electric Return to Forever album. Later, at Berklee, he met Gary Burton, whose band he played in. Since then he has recorded often, with an early run of albums on American labels (such as The Promise, featuring Bob Berg on saxophone, and a sharp rhythm section), music on his own Material Records, and two recent releases on ECM: one with guitarists Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan and another, Driftwood, with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade. Good company.
Rising Grace adds to that trio with pianist Brad Mehldau and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, making for a fearsome band of musicians equally adept at daring and subtle colors. This being a Manfred Eicher production, the mood here is more often contemplative than aggressive, but this does not mean that the band plays it too safe. On “Father and Sun”, for example, the gentle groove set up by nylon string guitar and piano (over which Grenadier and Akinmusire play the melody) ultimately hosts a string of improvisations that probe and provoke, climaxing in a trumpet solo that darts and deviates in daring ways. The performance is both beautiful and truly interesting.
Not everything on Rising Grace has smoothly sanded edges. “Boogaloo” is set up by a jagged, odd-metered Latin bass line with a hint of “Song for My Father” in it, and it develops into a series of off-kilter episodes in which the theme is interspersed with improvised lines, and then the improvisations are chopped up by Blade’s interesting commentary. Muthspiel uses a glaze of distortion here, and Mehldau delivers a solo with a good dose of gnarl.
As usual, Brad Mehldau can’t help but shine with regularity. He plays both a lovely introduction and a solo that has a sensational sense of relaxed melody -- syncopated and bluesy but with a touch of the edge that Thelonious Monk always brought to his sideman work. “Den Wheeler, Den Kenny” is of course a nod to the late Canadian trumpeter whose ECM albums may have been inspirations for Rising Grace. This performance is ruminative and climaxes with an unaccompanied, luminous solo by Mehldau that manages to blow you away without any speed or virtuosity, just a wicked architecture that leads us back to Muthspiel’s guitar.
There are some moments here that are gorgeous in a manner that is a shade too polite and shimmering for my sensibility. Both the title track and “Oak” are just tumbling with the kind of chiming ECM lyricism that was breathtaking in 1977 when Wheeler’s Gnu High and the Corea/Burton duets of Crystal Silence (where a classic tune by Steve Swallow, “Falling Grace”, suggests the origin of this album’s name) were making your turntable a place of zen improvisation. These tunes are nevertheless accomplished, passionate, and showpieces of the way guitar, piano, and soft-toned trumpet can make one sound. And Brian Blade’s drums, with crackling snare and cymbals that create atmosphere, makes these tracks that much better. The quality of the production and recording is, of course, pure ECM: with just the right amount of natural reverb making the piano and guitar sound like they are filling a small cathedral.
Muthspiel himself proves to be a versatile guitarist. At moments he smacks of Pat Metheny with melodic playing on a slightly chorused sound, at others he has the rippling acoustic prowess of John McLaughlin, and his work with Ralph Towner seems like it made an impact. Do I have a sense of who he is as an artist? That may be less clear. Surrounded by four strong personalities on Rising Grace, Muthspiel does well to provide nice compositions and hold it all together. He’s up to the task.