On a percentage basis, the ECM catalog does not contain that many guitar players. Yet the ringing of a guitar, resonant in free air, has long been a signature element of the ECM sound. Pat Metheny. John Abercrombie. Bill Frisell. Terje Rypdal. Egberto Gismonti. And, since 1972, Ralph Towner.
Two names new to the ECM roster are Wolfgang Muthspiel of Austria and Slava Grigoryan of Kazakhstan by way of Australia. Travel Guide is a three-piece guitar choir. Driftwood is a unique iteration of the guitar/bass/drums trio. Because Towner’s gifts as a poet and conjurer are well known, and because Grigoryan’s role on Travel Guide is third among equals, the news here is 49-year-old Muthspiel. He has been under the radar on the transatlantic jazz scene for two decades. With these two breakout albums, he enters the first echelon of current jazz guitarists.
Muthspiel’s electric instrument is at the center of Travel Guide. He is surrounded by the classical, 12-string and baritone guitars of Towner and Grigoryan. All three came to jazz through classical music. (Grigoryan has performed with many important symphony orchestras.) The classical mindset is apparent in the formality, orderliness and technical sophistication of this music. But the elegant structural frameworks support individual and collective improvisation. On Muthspiel’s “The Henrysons,” Grigoryan’s repeated figure is like a lattice grid upon which Muthspiel and Towner etch spontaneous melody. The two exchange lyric gestures, starting fresh with each pass, and then, one at a time, they float away. Towner leads out on his own simple, mysterious “Father Time.” Muthspiel and Grigoryan pursue independent complementary pathways. The aggregate design becomes vast.
The diversity of alluring sonorities is extraordinary. It is hard to think of a recent jazz recording prettier than Travel Guide. Pretty is not the same as soft. Muthspiel’s “Windsong” starts like a canon but proceeds with a groove. The title of Towner’s final track could stand for the whole album: It is all a “Museum of Light.”
On Driftwood Muthspiel plays acoustic guitar on half of the eight tracks. The acoustic instrument imparts its own sonic aura. Notes have rounded edges and their implications linger longer in the air. Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade brilliantly serve Muthspiel’s purposes. On “Cambiata” Grenadier takes up the mood introduced by Muthspiel and patiently deepens it. On “Joseph,” a heartfelt tribute to Muthspiel’s countryman Joe Zawinul, Grenadier’s dark markings carry the story. On “Lichtzelle,” which Muthspiel describes as “under the spell of Messiaen,” Blade answers every suggestive guitar foray with cryptic whispers and distant rumblings, and opens new vistas.
Muthspiel has said that, while writing the material for his ECM debut as a leader, he was thinking of Manfred Eicher’s sound aesthetic. This album is one arc, one musical environment. Rapt atmospheres descend, then evolve. Muthspiel is a romantic, but he is also technically astute and concise. He plays very few nonessential notes. The essence of the Eicher aesthetic is cinematic. Driftwood is a setting for a storyline left to the listener’s imagination, a haunting soundtrack to a movie not yet made.