Photo Sun Chung / ECM

Wolfgang Muthspiel was preparing to go into a friend’s studio with his guitar later in the day, helping return a favour, as he broke off to speak about his latest album Driftwood. He won’t be in his homeland of Austria much next week, though, as the day following the album’s release the 49-year-old guitarist who makes his debut for ECM as a leader with this album joins his Driftwood trio, US bassist Larry Grenadier (Brad Mehldau trio, Fly trio) and drummer Brian Blade (Wayne Shorter Quartet, Fellowship) joining Muthspiel for a gig at the Basel jazz festival in Switzerland, the first of seven back-to-back dates.

Driftwood was recorded in Oslo at the famed Rainbow studio in May last year, and Muthspiel, speaking in a clear and forthright manner in lightly accented English says: “We had played seven concerts before going into the studio and this was the end of the tour of six or seven concerts. So we had gotten into the music quite a bit on tour and played most of the pieces. Everyone was familiar with the music in the live situation. Music tends to take on a different form live, but when we went to the studio we were quite prepared.”
“The tunes were written the month before the tour, I had blocked out the time to write, and the tour was extremely enjoyable. It was a joy to write the pieces and think of a repertoire with Larry and Brian. And when we came to play the tunes it was astounding how quick they got it. A dream. There was quite some material that didn’t make it on to the record, songs with lyrics, real songs, but now on the album the music explores one space.”
ECM producer Manfred Eicher travelled to Oslo for the session engineered by the Rudy Van Gelder of European jazz, Jan Erik Kongshaug, and Muthspiel says Eicher wanted to find the space where the music can really flow. The title track is actually a free improv piece, quite textural and loose while the other seven compositions are Muthspiel’s own. The album mixes the use of classical acoustic guitar and electric guitar. He explains that the classical guitar he uses on the album was made by a luthier called Jim Redgate and Muthspiel likes to keep it simple with just a single microphone in front when using this guitar. Whereas with the electric guitar it is a different process, feeding in effects, using loops and delays in real time. The release of Driftwood comes not long after the acclaimed three guitar affairTravel Guide on which Muthspiel joined 12-string specialist Ralph Towner and the Melbourne-raised Kazakh Slava Grigoryan recording in Lugano a year before Driftwood.
Muthspiel begins to talk in detail about ‘Lichtzelle’ first of all written under the ostensible influence of the composer Olivier Messiaen and picks up more on the theme later in the conversation. “It was a song I wrote a while ago and Brian played it for the first time in the studio. Brian then improvised on it. I listened a lot to Quartet for the End of Time and got to hear some performances in Vienna when Messaien was still alive, over a month during the Festival Wien Modern. I heard a lot of his music. He is an unmistakable voice and I love his harmonic language. There is a high intelligence in his music and lots of systems in his music, scales on the one hand, but on the other this spiritual quality that he expresses with each piece.”
Muthspiel has a substantial discography going back to his debut as a leader in the company of his older brother trombonist Christian in the 1980s. On Real Book Stories recorded more than a dozen years ago but showing how far Muthspiel goes back with Brian Blade but on that occasion the trio completed by ex-Bill Evans and Bass Desires bassist Marc Johnson the process was involved with exploring a different part of the guitarist’s playing personality. When the album came out Muthspiel wrote in the sleeve notes: “I grew up with Mozart, not with Ellington. I was already playing music a long time before I discovered jazz. I like to be a foreigner, speak another language than my mother tongue. I like accents.”
Asked if he still feels the same he says: “Most of this is still true. I did grow up with other music and every jazz musician that I like has his own accent. At this point in time I’m not thinking of myself in any scene, more about following my own intuitions and longings in music. I just want to express myself. It’s also a different story, that standards discipline and why I went to the States when I was 22 to learn about that world. I still love it, but mostly don’t play them now. When I made a standards album I had already written a lot of music. I see them as an aesthetic companion, like a visual artist doing his studies of drawing and then going on to make a completely different work, still honing his craft. When I teach at a university in Switzerland, even though students are interested in different styles, even from a modal or rock player background I know if they have visited standards and know about the subtleties of the changes. They’re something that benefits any jazz player.”

photo Sun Chung / ECM

Muthspiel says both Marc Johnson and Larry Grenadier, who he goes back playing with in bands to rehearsal days in Gary Burton’s group in the States performing with the vibes legend later on tours, have distinctive ways of playing the bass. He says: “I like to imagine the players when I compose. Both players are excellent with arco playing something not too many jazz players use so well. The two are quite different beings, but it’s always joyfully different music. It might sound corny but it’s a real luxury to play anything with Brian. I just have to come up with strong tunes and he’s gonna definitely play them great. I have to leave as much room as possible for him and it’s all about the emotional content.”
Muthspiel’s awareness of jazz history extends in a different way on Driftwood by his paying tribute to fellow Austrian Joe Zawinul on the track ‘Joseph’, and to Michael Brecker on the final number, ‘Bossa For Michael Brecker’. “With ‘Joseph’ on the album it’s an extremely slow version of a fast waltz and unfolds like 10 times as slow and then took on another atmosphere and we then improvised on that. The sound in the studio was inviting for this choice when you have this precious wide sound.” 
It was Muthspiel’s idea to call the record Driftwood and the guitarist says on the naming: “I thought this improvised song had this image of driftwood and I was also thinking of the sound of the bass and acoustic guitar with their woody quality and also the constant flow, the guitar and the arpeggios swelling reminding me of waves.” Muthspiel says there are different places this music can go when talking about his style in the broader family of jazz styles. “On a recording it’s not something you can premeditate, as an improviser one doesn’t push the music, as it loses that natural flow. This is something maybe that leads to this wider space, moments burning and hot, but you are not the one who produces this energy, it has to come by itself and you just follow the sound.”
Updated 16 May with some clarifications