Using custom guitars, loops, and carefully chosen effects, the Austrian 6-stringer blends jazz and classical mindsets to define the elegant, retro-nuevo sound of his new ECM album, Angular Blues.
In the early 1980s, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel moved to Boston with something of a split musical identity. He went to the New England Conservatory and divided his time between jazz studies with legendary guitar instructor Mick Goodrick and classical lessons with noted composer, player, and teacher David Leisner. With Goodrick, Muthspiel flatpicked electric guitar and focused on jazz theory and improvisation, while with Leisner he embraced traditional classical technique and repertoire.
But for Muthspiel, the Conservatory proved to be a crossroads: By 1986 he'd not only transferred to Berklee and committed completely to jazz, but also started gigging, taking the coveted spot in noted vibraphonist Gary Burton's touring band—a gig akin to a rock shredder being invited to hit the road with Ozzy Osbourne. Other notable guitarists to hold that chair include Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Julian Lage. And he began a decades-long musical collaboration playing in duos with Goodrick.
Although Muthspiel planted his flag firmly in the jazz camp, he never abandoned the nylon-string classical guitar. His live performances and recordings still feature him alternating between electric and acoustic, and he maintains a sense of purity to each approach. He plays acoustic guitar seated, sans amp or effects, his manicured nails hovering above the soundhole, while for electric-guitar pieces he stands, using either a flatpick or a hybrid picking technique, and runs his signal through a battery of pedals, loopers, and usually a Vox AC30.
But switching instruments is just one facet of what Muthspiel does. His discography includes more than 40 albums as a leader, and many other appearances as either a collaborator or sideman. He's also an accomplished composer and improviser, comfortable in multiple jazz idioms—from hard bop to free jazz. And although his core group is a trio, he's not afraid to experiment with other types of lineups.
Muthspiel's most recent trio release, Angular Blues, features bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, and is both forward-looking and traditional. The 55-year-old shows off his technical prowess on the angular, intricate, and harmonically challenging title track, and blows through choruses on “Ride," his first time recording bop-style "rhythm changes" tune for ECM. The album features two “Kanons"—one in 5/4 and one in 6/8— which incorporate his unique approach to delays in a classical-style contrapuntal round. The album's overall sound conforms to the ECM playbook as well: recorded live with minimal edits and pristine fidelity. And while Muthspiel didn't fly his hefty AC30 to the Tokyo studio where Angular was tracked, they had a vintage Fender Princeton on hand that did the trick.
We spoke with Muthspiel just as it was becoming clear that his spring tour of the U.S. was about to be canceled. We discussed his apprenticeship under Burton and Goodrick, the distinct phases of his recording career, his never-ending fascination with loopers and delays, the intricacies of right- and left-hand technique, his long-term relationships with luthiers Nico Moffa and Jim Redgate, and why he still keeps his approaches to the electric and acoustic guitar separate.
Did you start as a classical player?
I started playing violin when I was 6, and I started playing guitar when I was 12. My whole first years, until I was about 14 or 15, were spent with classical music. Then I discovered jazz, got into it, and started playing electric guitar. I listened to Ralph Towner and people like that who made a bridge to the improvised world, and I went that way. I kept both things up, classical and jazz, until I was 22. I went to the States and studied in Boston with Mick Goodrick, who was at the New England Conservatory and teaching jazz, and David Leisner, who was teaching classical guitar. I went to Berklee two years later, because I had decided to go for jazz all the way, and then I met Gary Burton and so on. But the jazz and classical thing was parallel for a while.
Your studies with David Leisner were straight classical?
Totally. I was playing concerts with classical guitar and doing competitions and all that stuff. It's a small repertoire of really great music. There is a lot of great music you can play on the guitar, but strictly classical written music, some of the top guys have not written for the instrument. You have that wonderful lute stuff that Bach wrote, and all the great Renaissance lute music that you can play on guitar, and then some really cool modern music, but it is not such a big pool of music as compared to violin or piano. That also contributed to my decision to go all the way into jazz.
How long were you with Gary Burton?
I was playing in his band for two years, and it was an amazing thing for me to be hired by him. We toured quite a bit. I was still studying at Berklee, but we toured a lot in the States. That was a nice band. I met bassist Larry Grenadier in that band for the first time—who I played with a lot up until now—and Don McCaslin was on saxophone. Gary is a very clear and strong leader, and very supportive. It was really a good experience for me.
Did you start recording around that time as well?
My first record under my own name was a trio album that I recorded in the States, but I already did some recordings before, with my brother. The first phase of my improvised music was together with my brother, Christian, who's two years older. He is a pianist, trombonist, and composer, and we played together at home with every instrument that we had—with all the tools and toys we could find. We didn't know anything about jazz then, but it was the start of this kind of improvised music. My first records I did with him. But I did a trio record on my own, and Gary Burton was really helpful. He produced another album for me, where I could pick and choose who I played with. That was a great thing. He was generally really supportive. Him and Mick Goodrick, who was also a huge guy for me.
TIDBIT: Muthspiel says ECM's approach to recording is “an aesthetic where the natural flow of the improvisation of the musicians is captured as well as possible. It is about the moment—to catch the moment of the jazz musicians' conversation."
Mick was a strict, tough, great teacher, and, at the same time, we had a duo going on. Eventually we made a record much later. He has many cool approaches to harmony, and to the fretboard. Mick has a mathematic brain, and also a philosophical brain. He's thought very deeply about the instrument his whole life, and he knows how to communicate that to students. He was such a legendary teacher. He taught a lot of great players, and he was a fantastic influence.
How has your approach to recording changed since you started?
I had three periods of recording. One was for a label called PolyGram, which later became Universal. That was a certain era of recording, and there was a lot of [sonic] separation. There was an aesthetic of a certain sound—everyone was so proud of the highs and the crispness—and everything was super thin and sharp. It was not favoring the most organic, acoustic vibe.
Later, I founded my own label, in 2001, which is called Material Records. On this label, I've done about 45 records. Some are mine, but also from other people. That was another era of recording for me, where I could do whatever I wanted. I didn't have to ask anybody what I should record, but, at the same time, I also ran into restrictions.
What sorts of restrictions?
In order to really place a record in the world, it needs more than a good recording. It needs a network and a plan behind it, and people who will distribute it and promote it. I didn't have that with my record label, so those were years where I made a lot of records but they were not that much noticed. Then I got to ECM, which was the label that influenced me most when I was young. When I was getting into jazz, my heroes were on ECM. This is the last period, so to speak, with ECM.
How would you describe your experience recording for ECM?
ECM has a very conscious approach to sound and recording. It's an aesthetic where the natural flow of the improvisation of the musicians is captured as well as possible. It is about the moment—to catch the moment of the jazz musicians' conversation. It is not about editing or creating layers of tracks. It's like a very well-recorded live concert. That's due to the character and taste of Manfred Eicher, who built the label.There is some editing possible, but not with single instruments. You can edit a whole section away of everybody, but you can't go in and change a note, because it is recorded without separation, and everything bleeds into each other. It isn't only the technical aspects of it, but it is another attitude as well. It's like in a concert. It counts from the first note to the last, and that is a nice vibe. Also, the people I have been playing with on the last five records, which are on ECM, this is what they do. This is their game—what they're good at. Sometimes one take doesn't work, so you do another one, maybe with a different approach, but you don't splice together an album. That is not a bad thing in itself, by the way. There are some heavily edited records that I love. But it is not the way ECM does it.