Serendipity is an amazing thing. We wouldn’t have this album but for a chance meeting between the Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and the American drummer Brian Blade at the 2006 Baltic Jazz Festival. The two had worked together before, but had these guys not met up again last year, this art wouldn’t exist, and we would be the poorer for it.
Friendly Travelers is a moody, dense piece of work. It often sounds as though two or three guitars are conversing with the drums, but that’s the trick. Muthspiel used two loop machines and also did a little overdubbing in the studio. He’s got a gorgeous touch—very patient with his constructions—and his guitar is miked so well you can almost hear individual threads of nylon vibrate. Blade is his usually dynamic, restless self, yet he never overwhelms his compatriot.
“Gnadenwald,” named for a village in Austria, builds like a movie soundtrack, with Muthspiel’s own guitar samples spurring his playing to a higher level. Blade’s soft attack on the cymbals and drums grows stormier as the minutes go by, and Muthspiel ultimately adds distortion to his palette. “Youssou,” an African-rhythmic tribute to the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, puts a short drum pattern on a loop, over which Blade adds a layer of live drumming. For the title track, Blade steps away from the kit and picks up his own guitar, and the two enjoy a calm conversation of the strings. “Heavy Song” perks us up after a couple of ballads. A looped guitar phrase creates a fine groove; the guitarist solos over three repeated chords, and the drummer places sharp accents in unexpected places.