Ralph Towner, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan


City Recital Hall, November 1

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Grigoryan, Muthspiel and Towner. Photo supplied.

When this three-guitar trio first formed some seven years ago a gap was evident between the competent improvising skills of Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan and Ralph Towner’s truly exceptional artistry. Towner, of course, had been a pioneer in expanding the language of jazz, both as a composer and as an improviser on classical and 12-string guitars. Muthspiel was a classical guitarist who evolved into jazz-based electric player, and Australia’s own Grigoryan was an exceptional classical performer who developed a penchant for improvising.

Now that gap as improvisers has narrowed, and Muthspiel and Grigoryan bring a precision of articulation that probably exceeds Towner’s. They also generated the concert’s greatest heat when duetting on the Austrian’s Nico und Mithra.

Yet it is no accident that Towner has been a force in creative music for 45 years, and he remains the most conceptually original and most interesting harmonically and rhythmically, as well as deploying the broadest range of dynamics and tonal colour.

He also contributed the two most memorable compositions in Travel Guide and Beneath an Evening Sky. The latter was the only time he played 12-string, which was a pity as it made for a mesmerising textural combination with the electric and classical.

Muthspiel – surely among the world’s softest electric guitarists! – employed a glistening tone, slippery runs, occasional use of looping and a natural sustain that left notes hanging in the air like a woman’s perfume after she has left the room.

The contrast between Grigoryan’s pretty, rounder nylon-string sound and Towner’s more trebly, almost flamenco-like bite was pronounced. Grigoryan’s swapping to baritone guitar for a couple of pieces further expanded the palette.

The shared background as classical guitarists accounts for a collective approach in which no one is ever left idly strumming, the parts always being more pianistic and sophisticated than that. That said perhaps the trio still operates within narrower parameters than it might.