City Recital Hall, August 9
Brian Blade must spend a lot of time in airports. Eight weeks after the New Yorker was here with Wayne Shorter he was back, this time with the Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel (with whom he has been playing all this century), in a trio completed by the superb Larry Grenadier on bass. Where Shorter’s quartet has an expansive array of moods, dynamics and tempos, Muthspiel’s oeuvre is almost relentlessly soft, intimate and candle-lit – not that the prevailing gentleness put any sort of lid on Blade’s creativity.
Muthspiel has been here a couple of times before playing mainly electric guitar in a trio with the acoustic guitars of Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. Here he swapped between electric and classical, and managed to shy away from most of the clichés of the jazz-guitar idiom. When playing electric his work was demur: finely engraved and rather elegiac music that constantly beckoned the bass and drums to share the foreground. On Bossa For Michael Brecker he subtly used some looping and then a hint of distortion, drawing the first sense of urgency from Blade, who also shared a wordless vocal melody with Muthspiel, as he did later when the guitarist convincingly sang Angel Envy, a slow, swampy rock song.
The trio probably sounded even more distinctive, however, when Muthspiel was playing classical guitar, constantly swapping between using his sophisticated finger technique and using a pick, and thereby achieving a quite pianistic effect, with the consequent restrained changes of tonal colour. On Father and Sun (dedicated to his daughter) he achieved a truly glistening sound to cap his spacious, lyrical lines.
At first Grenadier was a little low in the mix, but thankfully this was righted, so we could revel in his truly sumptuous sound when playing pizzicato, and then subsequently his stunning, unaccompanied arco playing in the cello register on Mehldau. Throughout proceedings he and Blade kept the music brimming with rhythmic invention without imposing themselves on Muthspiel’s watercolour world. Blade allowed himself some moments of higher drama on Mehldau, and then created a truly sensational drum feature of improbable deftness, dynamic control and blazing musicality.
Muthspiel is an exceptionally fine guitarist who approaches music much as a miniaturist does painting. Grenadier and especially Blade, meanwhile, are among the very brightest stars in the current jazz firmament.