CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Wolfgang Muthspiel Keeps Redefining His Approach

The Austrian guitarist gets an Overdue Ovation

Wolfgang Muthspiel
Wolfgang Muthspiel (photo: Mischa Nawrata)

During the early 1990s, Wolfgang Muthspiel emerged as a jazz guitar hero, with a warm, lyrical sound and refined technique. And though, in the years since, he may not have gotten quite as much attention as players like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Julian Lage, he has maintained a consistently satisfying output of about one album per year, while continuing to develop his own intelligent and atmospheric voice in the six-string realm of modern jazz. 

Muthspiel recorded Angular Blues, his most recent album as leader and his fourth for ECM, in Tokyo following a three-night run at the Cotton Club with longtime collaborators Brian Blade on drums and Scott Colley on bass. The album features earthy originals and a pair of standards—“Everything I Love” and “I’ll Remember April”—a first for Muthspiel in his ECM output. “It just seemed right after we played those gigs at Cotton Club, where we included a standard in each set,” he says. “For me it is also a luxurious situation to play standards with Scott and Brian, since that world of music flows so naturally out of them.”

It’s no hyperbole to say that Muthspiel, 55, was destined to become a musician. Growing up in Austria, he was the youngest of four children in a home where the father was a choirmaster and everyone played an instrument, and he began studying violin at age six after striking a deal with his parents. “The deal was: Practice one hour a day and you can get lessons. I was really into it and eventually had the opportunity to play with other kids, in an orchestra and in a string quartet, and to play as soloist with orchestra,” he remembers.

When he was 12, eager to pursue his own musical path, Muthspiel set aside the violin to focus on the guitar. At first, he casually taught himself some basic chords and learned from older friends, but after a year of playing the instrument he became serious about reaching the highest level. “I dedicated myself to it totally,” he says. “I got to study classical guitar with a great teacher [Karl Scheidt] at the University for Music in Graz. At this point I was hooked and needed no outside motivation.”

Muthspiel took up the electric guitar in the middle of his teenage years, about the same time he first got into jazz. He and his brother Christian, a trombonist, naturally discovered the language together, having made music together since they were small children. “We improvised on any instrument or gadget that was around the house, long before we knew anything about jazz,” he recalls. “I remember improvising on the piano for long stretches of time, without really being able to play the instrument. That kind of childlike exploration is at the very core of our music, and we have to be careful not to lose it later, once we know all the theory around it.”

After mastering both jazz and classical guitar—no small accomplishment—in Graz, Muthspiel decided to get closer to jazz’s source. When he learned that Mick Goodrick, a guru to many, was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he applied to that school and was accepted based on his dual proficiencies. Though he also studied with the classical guitarist David Leisner, he ultimately chose to focus on jazz. “With Mick I found a deep teacher and mentor, who had so much knowledge and philosophy to offer,” Muthspiel remembers. “I loved my lessons with him, and we soon started playing duo gigs. From the beginning, our duo had a specific web-like dynamic, where the roles of soloing and comping were blurred or even left behind.” You can hear that for yourself on their 2009 duo album Live at the Jazz Standard.

Muthspiel also studied at the nearby Berklee College of Music, which is where he met vibraphonist and bandleader Gary Burton. While still a student at Berklee, Muthspiel supplemented his education by touring the United States with Burton’s quintet. “This was a dream scenario for me,” he says. “Gary is a very clear leader who knows what he wants, and it was a great school in many ways. I learned in that band to get to the point quickly in my solos, since they were supposed to be short.”

In the mid-’90s, Muthspiel moved to New York and established himself as a first-rate guitarist, playing as a sideman for Peter Erskine, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, and many other jazz heavyweights. He also ventured into the world of pop (with vocalist Rebekka Bakken) and electronica (through Muthspiel/Muthspiel, a duo with his brother). At the same time he maintained a connection to his classical roots, and has since composed for contemporary chamber ensembles like Klangform Vienna.

Muthspiel, now based in Vienna, says, “To me all these worlds are connected. My influences come from many different corners of music. I just always followed my desire and never thought of which genre of music I was in. Eventually, the jazz side of things got more and more prominent, but the first 10 years or so [of my musical life] were strictly classical. I feel that everything one listens to with complete love and openness will influence you. So, certain passages of Brahms or Messiaen or Bill Evans or the Beatles or Prince or Keith Jarrett or Edgard Varèse, etc., slip into one’s DNA and form a pool from which, consciously or not, one draws.”

Scott Colley, Brian Blade, and Wolfgang Muthspiel
L to R: Scott Colley, Brian Blade, and Muthspiel (Courtesy of ECM Records)

The trio Muthspiel leads on Angular Blues is based in longstanding relationships; the guitarist has spent countless hours on stage and in the studio with Blade in various configurations, and he first played with Colley in New York in the early ’90s. Both musicians appear on Muthspiel’s 2000 album Daily Mirror, featuring Rebekka Bakken. “The way Brian plays the drums, the way he embraces my compositions, and the way he interacts in improvisation has taught me a lot and made me grow. We have developed an enormous trust in each other,” Muthspiel says. “[In the Daily Mirror sessions] I loved Scott’s earthy and grounded sound, his supportive interactivity, and I sensed that he and Brian really jell on many levels. So, many years later I wanted to revisit this inviting feeling.”

In preparation for the album, Muthspiel composed certain pieces (“Wondering,” “Angular Blues,” and “Hüttengriffe”) on his Jim Redgate WAVE double-top nylon-string and others on his Domenico Moffa Mithra, an electric archtop. “I have a strong relationship to both luthiers, and I feel that the instruments they made for me influence my playing,” he says. “The guitars are very different from each other, and they each demand a different technique and approach.”

While Muthspiel tends to use a fairly conventional flatpicking technique on the electric guitar, he opts for a traditional classical approach on the nylon-string, plucking the strings with the thumb, middle, ring, and pinky fingers for textural and timbral variety. “I play with that kind of technique,” he explains, “so this makes it different from regular jazz lines, which are usually played with a pick. It also gives more possibilities how to form chords. But the main thing is how I produce the sound with my fingers, something classical guitarists usually work on forever.”

Whatever the technique or the instrument, Muthspiel’s deep love for and expert command of jazz shines through on both the originals and standards on Angular Blues, as does his chemistry with Blade and Colley. The guitarist says, “I would love next to make a whole record of standards with the two of them!” 

Recommended Listening

Timezones (1989, Amadeo)

Muthspiel Peacock Muthspiel Motian (1993, Amadeo)

Daily Mirror (2000, Material)

With Mick Goodrick: Live at the Jazz Standard (2009, Material)

Driftwood (2014, ECM)

Rising Grace (2016, ECM)

Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter is the editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine, as well as a freelance music transcriber and engraver. He has a master’s degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory of Music.