CD REVIEW: Christian Muthspiel and Steve Swallow - Simple Songs

Christian Muthspiel and Steve Swallow - Simple Songs
(IN+OUT IOR CD77120-2. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Christian Muthspiel (b. 1962) whose main instrument is trombone, is the elder of the Austrian Muthspiel brothers. His younger sibling guitarist Wolfgang (b. 1965) is better-known, having developed his career more with US musicians. From the evidence of their albums, the musicality of the Muthspiel family is a seemingly bottomless well. Just like his brother, Christian is a completely natural musician. Christian took up trombone at the age of eleven, having started on piano.

He made a Dowland themed album last year Seven Teares (2013, ACT music) - It involved a group including Steve Swallow in a prominent role -  (Rob Edgar interviewed him about it))

For this new album, he has stripped down the Seven Teares group to a duo with the American bassist. The concept behind this album, is described in the liner note by one of the most distinguished Austrian novelists of our time, Christoph Ransmayr (whose own search for simplicity led him to spend around a decade and a half in the west of Ireland). Ransmayr sums up the album's aesthetic as "seek[ing] to understand simplicity for what it is, the cornerstone of our world and our reality, and to bring it to our ears." The first sentence of Ransmayr's text, incidentally, which launches him off to explore that theme (of simplicity) contains over a hundered and fifty words (!), but perhaps one has to make allowances for the norms of literary discourse in German.

The album itself has Muthspiel using a whole range of instruments in addition to the trombone: piano, electric piano, toy piano and sopranino recorder. His talent goes further:  he has also created the images used on the album sleeve, paintings made by applying both wood ash and acrylic paint to a glass surface.

Virtuosity is to the fore, then. Whether the motivation is to go for contrast, and avoid sameness, or simply a catalogue of skills is not clear. But to my mind it produces some tracks which are completely involving and real gems, and others - the toy piano and the sopranino recorder tracks in particular - where I found myself unenegaged, wanting to press the skip button.

The one true gem which shows Muthspiel at his best is kept bringing me back, the track is Lullaby for Moli, where Muthspiel harmonizes with himself singing and playing simultaneously throughout. To achieve such expressive grace through this route is something which deserves to be heard. It's a true miracle of lyricism.

The presence of Schubert's Mein from Die schöne Müllerin is also very successful. It takes the listener on a real journey. Swallow's articulation of the melody is something completely memorable, and the two develop the song with increasing harmonic adventure, freewheeling, removing the stabilizers, trusting each other, letting go. I would guess it was recorded in one take, it certainly has spontaneity about it. And Muthspiel's piano rendition of Schubert's babbling brook feels instinctive. The fact that Schubert with his song, Ransmayr with his sleeve note and Muthspiel at the piano are all Austrians, all with fast running-streams of Upper Austria and Styria deep in their psyche gives a depth and a timelessness to their personal experience.

The four-piece version of the band, including Steve Swallow, will be touring the Dowland project around Germany Austria and Switzerland from September to October. Dates here.

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