At Home on ECM, Wolfgang Muthspiel Finds his Artistic Center

Wolfgang Muthspiel is one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, particularly for the contingent of players – and listeners — who inhabit the aesthetic zone between classical and jazz. His personal history has prepared him for such a role. Born in Austria to a music-loving household – “I was obsessed with the ECM label,” he recalled to JAZZIZ  – Muthspiel began his musical career as a classical violinist, switching to the guitar only in his mid-teens. It wasn’t until moving to the United States to attend Berklee that Muthspiel made the commitment to devote himself to jazz. The transition was swift. His classical training had equipped him with loads of natural talent, and before long he was performing throughout the region with some of New England’s best local jazz musicians, such as Mick Goodrick and Gary Burton.

After moving to New York in the ‘90s, Muthspiel became one of the most in-demand guitarists on the scene, forming indispensable partnerships with the likes of Dave Liebman, Peter Erskine, Paul Motian, Bob Berg, Gary Peacock, Don Alias, Larry Grenadier, John Patitucci and many more. He recorded his first albums on the PolyGram label — including some standout discs with his trombone-playing brother, Christian — but would eventually go on to form his own label, Material Records, under which he would record his own adventurous outings and produce albums by musicians he admired.

Mutshpiel continued to record on his own label after moving back to Austria in 2002, but it wasn’t until a dozen years later, in 2014, that his musical life came full circle. That’s when ECM legend Ralph Towner, a fellow classically minded guitarist, tapped Muthspiel to record the trio album Travel Guide on the venerable German label in 2009. “That was absolutely a dream come true,” said Muthspiel of the record, which also featured Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan.

Muthspiel has since become an ECM fixture, having released the albums Driftwood (2014) and Rising Grace (2016) to wide acclaim. The latter album featured a core ensemble of Brad Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Brian Blade on drums, and received rave reviews from the jazz press. It’s that same ensemble (with Eric Harland substituting for Blade on drums) that appears on Muthspiel’s latest CD, Where the River Goes, which was released by ECM on October 5.

JAZZIZ spoke to Muthspiel about the making of his new album and why ECM’s unique aesthetic was the perfect fit for his artistic expression. Below is an excerpted version of the conversation.

JAZZIZ: You maintained a lot of the personnel from Rising Grace on your new album, Where the River Goes. How long do you go back with the members of this group?

Wolfgang Muthspiel: Larry is a very longtime musical friend. I know him from back during our time with Gary Burton, which was in the late ’80s. And Brian Blade is somebody that I’ve had a long period of working with. But actually, Brad is a relatively new musical friend. I’ve kind of followed his path and I’ve gotten to know him a while ago, but I only played with him for the first time right before this Rising Grace album.

Brad Mehldau (left), Larry Grenadier, Ambrose Akinmusire, Brian Blade and Wolfgang Muthspiel.

You and Brad have incredible musical chemistry on the new album. What clicked between the two of you? What made you want to record with him?

Well, [drummer] Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier are two musicians that I play with a lot. So I got to know Brad through them. Every time I heard him, I was just completely into his expression and his aesthetic, and of course his incredible skill as an improviser. Aesthetically, I think there is something that we share in terms of some of the classical music that he loves. The same things that had an impact on me also had an impact on him. Brahms piano music, for example.

That’s right. Because you were trained first and foremost as a classical violinist.

Exactly, first I was a violinist and then I switched to guitar, but when I switched to guitar, even that was classical. And it was mostly classical music in my childhood.

Interesting, because I know you eventually wound up at Berklee, studying jazz.

Well, first I studied jazz in Graz, in Austria. I went to the States when I was 21, studying in Boston, and I was still actually studying classical as well as jazz guitar there. And I had to decide one or the other, because it’s such a different type of playing, technically and mentally. Ultimately, I decided jazz, which was a good move, I think (laughs).

Was there a specific professor or mentor that tilted you in the direction of jazz?

Well, when it came to jazz, I had the great fortune to be the student of Mick Goodrick at New England Conservatory before I went to Berklee. He was a real mentor and a deep, deep teacher. And he also became a duo partner for many years. We even did an album together.

Did popular music – like rock or blues – factor into your musical upbringing at all?

You know, I didn’t even really discover jazz until relatively late. I was probably around 14 or 15 when I discovered it, and then it came basically through the label ECM. And a lot of the musicians on ECM were my heroes: Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler. It took a while until I got curious about where this comes from. And then, of course, I went further back in the history of jazz, toward blues, that kind of thing. I had the feeling that I had to go to the States and make up for all that I missed.

Was there a musical figure that you particularly admired during that time?

I would say my main hero was Pat Metheny. And I still really admire him. On the classical side, there was a time early on when I was playing classical guitar quite well already but had an appetite for improvising. That’s when the guitarist Ralph Towner was very important for me, because he played a jazz-style music with classical technique and with a classical instrument, and he kind of opened up that window for me.

You eventually made it to New York, I understand.

Yes, that was a great period. I was basically doing my own projects in small clubs and playing with unbelievable musicians in front of 60 people on a regular basis. That was such a workshop in a way. And even just rehearsing in an apartment, you know? I don’t want to drop names but anyone you can imagine was there just to hang out. That’s something about New York that’s just so special.

Do you still feel New York is the place to go for musicians to cut their teeth?

I highly recommend it, absolutely. Just the fact that there’s such an amount of high-level craft there. Whether you like the aesthetic of everyone there is another issue, but just the way people there deal with the language of jazz. It wasn’t uncommon that you’re in a bar and a trio is playing in the corner, and you don’t know a single person in that band but they’re killing. Probably for $50 or something (laughs). That’s a really different store here in Vienna, of course.

You’ve been back in Europe for how long now?

I moved back in 2002.

And your first recording for ECM was almost a dozen years later.

Yes, the first one was the trio with Ralph Towner, which served as kind of my introduction.

That must have been surreal for you, having grown up idolizing ECM. 

It was, it really was. Absolutely. The idea of recording with ECM was in my head for so long, you know. It’s amazing that so many things that have happened in my life were first kept in my head for a long time. To be on ECM was one of those things. With things like that, when you nurture something in your head for a long time, the chances of it coming true are high (laughs).

You were running your own label prior to that.

That’s right. In fact, it’s still running. I haven’t produced any new records for a while, but the operation is still going. That was important, because very early on I was on PolyGram, which later became Universal, and my first albums were recorded with them. But after I formed my own label I was able to do a lot of different projects, some that had very different, sometimes very obscure, aesthetical pockets. Things that would not probably be welcomed by a bigger audience. I did a lot of stuff with my brother Christian, who is a composer and a trombone player. And I did something with Gregorian chants and monks, and then I did chamber music stuff. Whatever I wanted I basically did. There was a duo I did with a singer who’s well known in Europe, Rebekka Bakken, and that was a big opportunity to try out a lot of different things without asking anybody’s permission!

Artistically, I’m sure running your own label is very liberating. But I’ve also heard that, from a business perspective, it’s one of the hardest things to do.

Definitely. I mean, to basically start your own label when the whole industry is going down? That takes a lot of idealism. I’ve invested a lot of money that I made with other things into this label. But it was great. I’m happy about this period, and I’m happy to have produced other people that I admired or wanted to support. So yeah, it was a great trip.

Did your experience running your own label help you appreciate what Manfred and ECM bring to the table? 

Well, there are two sides. The artistic side basically comes down to Manfred’s taste— who he invites to perform on an album, who he puts together in which studio, and how he produces everything. That’s a big part of the identity of ECM, this concentrated work of Manfred. He’s a deep listener, and that’s really helpful. It’s rare that somebody’s producing an album who’s almost like a band member.

The other thing that ECM does is just place their records out there in the world. It’s all put out with the most tasteful promotion that exists in jazz, I would say. And this treatment is given to all albums, regardless of commercial appeal. One has a feeling that they don’t pick their musicians with commercial success in mind. I really appreciate that. Sometimes you see releases of wonderful things that are definitely not going to appeal to the masses. It’s just a high artistic integrity that they still keep, and I have big major respect for that.

You maintained a lot of the same personnel from Rising Grace on your new album, Where the River Goes. To what extent were you trying to head in the same direction, and to what extent were you looking to branch out?

I would say I had the “sound” of the band in mind, even though there’s a different drummer, which makes a difference. But the way we play, for example on the song “One Day My Prince Was Gone,” we’re basically improvising together in a way that, it takes a while until you hear the actual melody. But we’re actually playing it. It branches out into a beautiful — not abstract — but dissonant territory. Which I love. There’s this kind of song element to it. The first three tunes are really “song” songs. But there’s this other area where we just kind of improvise. Everybody listens to each other so well, and we can all just get into this modern musical language through improv. I love that. And it’s not just playing something “out” or playing something “harsh.” It’s not about that. It’s about an extension of the harmony.

And you mentioned the change in drummers. Brian Blade was on the previous album. Eric Harland is on the new one. What does Eric bring to the table?

Well, Brian I’ve known forever. And on this particular record, we just couldn’t get everybody together on the same date. I had played with Eric before — it was while touring with Rising Grace, actually. Eric is a very different kind of drummer. The one thing he does that I really love is that he often makes a sort of energetic or aesthetic counterpoint to what you’re doing. So when I play something very introverted or melancholic, he doesn’t necessarily go there, because I’m already doing it. So he may be doing something else, something very dry. And so there are two kinds of fires, or two kinds of planets, that have interaction and create tension, which is great for the album. For example, for this duo that I duo with him, “Panorama,” he basically starts his own role and sticks with it. It interacts with me, of course, but he’s not trying to go where I am. It’s a different type of drumming, which is great. And of course when it goes to something like “Blueshead,” a song by Brad, then Eric also exudes this joy of swing and fun. He can bring that, too, that basic joy of being there and joy of contributing. My aesthetic can be a little dark, so it’s nice to have that.

It’s interesting that you mention the duo stuff you did with guitar and drums. I was a big fan of your duo work with Brian in the group Fellow Travelers.

That was interesting when I did that duo with Brian, because in the beginning, I had the feeling that I always had to express the bass. And at some point Brian said, “No, don’t. It’s already implied. It’s there anyway. You don’t always have to be thinking in terms of having another instrument, because we’re a duo.” That was a good lesson.

What lessons do you have for aspiring jazz musicians?

Just to stress the necessity of owning your craft. Apart from all the aesthetics and the finesse and the intellectual aspects of playing, you just have to really own your craft. Whether you play free or bebop or Mozart or whatever, you have to be able to perform at the highest caliber and be aware of the basic parameters that make up the language of music. The people that I play with on this album are all on that level, which is why it was so mind-blowing to play with them. They can just hear any sound that’s in the room and make a spontaneous contribution to the music, without quite even knowing yet what it’s going to be. That was luxurious for me.

For more information on Muthspiel’s album, visit the guitarist’s website.  For more on ECM Records, click here

Feature image courtesy Laura Pleifer


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