INTERVIEW: Wolfgang Muthspiel

Wolfgang Muthspiel. Photo Credit: Laura Pleifer

Sebastian interviewed Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel during a visit to London. He was here for promotional work on the ECM album 'Driftwood', in a trio with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade, and also for a Wigmore Hall appearance with Joshua Redman and Gwilym Simcock:

LondonJazz News: Driftwood is your first ECM album. And you have said you specifically wanted to make an ECM-type album.

Wolfgang Muthspiel: This whole ECM world is something I have listened to a lot and that I have in me, the whole vibe is constantly with me.. These wide melancholic spaces, that has always been part of my music. I found it joyful to make a first ECM album, I like that. Maybe it is even something of a tribute. Manfred Eicher and ECM, when you think about all they've done...

LJN: And you have dedicated a tune on it to Michael Brecker?

WM: He was an acquaintance rather than a real friend, but I have an affinity for the way he plays over changes. He was a master, one of the few improvisers that you can transcribe and it's like, perfect. Even if you analyze it, it is so logical and intelligent. When I was writing this tune I was trying to get into the zone of playing over changes, and imagining how he might have played over them. Then I thought: now I can say thank you to Michael Brecker, because I loved a lot of his contributions. The Metheny album 80/81, that was big for me. And also the albums as a leader that he did later.

LJN: And the opening track  'Joseph' is dedicated to Joe Zawinul?  It starts with a sort of slow pendulum harmony pattern. What's going on? 

WM: What we are doing basically is playing a tune of mine, in super slow motion.  If you play it in the tempo it was written it would take twenty seconds. What we do is we slow everything down, but we are still playing a tune , that is why there is a certain kind of coherence harmonically. The connection to Zawinul actually came later. When I listened to the playback there were things - in the way I play on the tune - which reminded me of him.

I had the pleasure to play with him, a duo concert in the opening festival for new Austrian Cultural Institute in New York . A tiny skyscraper, a remarkable building. I asked him, and he was up for it. I have just a bad recording, it's a document. But as an experience it was unforgettable, amazing, a free duo with Zawinul!

LJN:  I first came across you was on the album in 'Air Love and Vitamins', also with Brian Blade, and with Marc Johnson on bass from 2004. I loved that Vince Mendoza Panis Angelicus - that was a quiet album too. 

WM: Air Love and Vitamins, yes. The title of the album is from one of is a songs on the album It's a tune by my former guitar teacher whom I studied with in Graz, Harry Pepl (1945-2005). He played with Jack DeJohnette, with Dave Liebman, Michel Portal. He is an interesting musician to check out, especially in the rhythmical field.

LJN: You had a long stint in America, fifteeen years. Eight in Boston then seven in New York. What took you there?

WM: It was something I looked for, to get the information I hadn't been fed. I grew up with classical and the folk music, they were what I inhaled as a kid. But I had to learn all the these things. That is why I went to the States.

LJN: Gary Burton was the first guy who hired you?

WM: Yes. That was a band with Donny McAslin  Martin Richards and Larry Grenadier . Thinking back it was not his most exciting period, the choice of repertoire somehow was a little bit GRP- infected But his playing was really great. With Julian Lage, now, he is in a good phase. When I heard it I thought he has a really good band now. Lage is really great, and Scott Colley is playing wonderfully....

LJN: The last time I heard you play with Gwilym Simcock he has injured his right hand and was playing one-handed. (Reviewed Here)

WM: It was so amazingly good what he could do with just one hand. The challenges that were presented to him when he can't do what he always does. I was so impressed at how he coped with the situation. His left hand is incredible, it was a real test. But there were also so many original musical choices. When I closed my eyes, I didn't think there was anything missing.

I'm a fan, and I'm really not sure if people here know how good Gwilym Simcock is. He is international calibre, a real heavyweight. There is a harmonically refined world. Nothing is ever absract. Every chord, every voicing, every shade, every colouring is very personal. That comes from how well he hears everything. He knows all the colours, really well. That might sound like a cliche, but harmonies, sounds can be analyzed and you can then find out what they are. But if you already know them you don't have to think. You hear a sound and you know from what planet it is. (Planets maybe being the scales or something). You say this is this, this is that (clicks fingers). It's all completely clear, I recognize it like I recognize you.

Pianists like him use every sound consciously. He's like Brad Mehldau or Keith Jarrett. These are people who are in the top class. They hear everything and that's why they make totally informed personal choices. More than "let's try this, let's try that."

All the paramaters are developed. His time is fantastic . He composes really well, beyond this kind of small jazz tune thing . He can writes for big structures, orchestras and at the same time he can play a standard, he can be in this new music terrain. He and Django Bates should be national superstars.

LJN: Not too serious this, but if someone was including you in the running for the world's quietest guitar player, how would you react?

WM: There is, I admit, a part of my playing that is quiet, but no. Sometimes it gets loud. So this title would have to go to... Jim Hall. He told me once that he used the amplifier to play softer. He sometimes turned the volume on the guitar off, so all you get is the acoustic signal of the guitar. Yes, that title is definitely his.

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