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Wolfgang Muthspiel’s New Album, Dance of the Elders



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth interviews guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and discusses his latest project.

Above photo Nino Fernandez

Dance of the Elders, arriving digitally and on CD via ECM Records on Friday, September 29.

Wolfgang Muthspiel was born in Judenburg, Austria on March 2, 1965.  He started on violin at age six and by age fourteen his focus was classical guitar.  He came to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music and by his early twenties had already recorded three albums with his brother, trombonist, Christian Muthspiel. Today, as a leader he has over twenty-five albums to his name. Pianist Brad Mehldau, vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Ralph Towner, drummer Brian Blade, and bassist Larry Grenadier are just a few of the musicians Wolfgang has worked with.  Dance of the Elders is Muthspiel’s newest album on the ECM record label.

JB:  Before asking about your new album, I would like to ask about the impact of two Berklee College instructors.  Reflect upon working with Gary Burton and Mick Goodrick.

WM:  Both musicians had a huge impact on me. Mick was my teacher at the New England Conservatory before he started teaching at Berklee. He was my master and we had a very close relationship. He was also the one to recommend me to Gary Burton’s Band, which was amazing for me at the time. There I met Larry Grenadier and Donny McCaslin and we played many gigs together while I was studying at Berklee. Priceless experience, also because Gary was a musician with such a high level of craft and control and clarity. I am thankful for the 2 years with him, and of course, Mick Goodrick will always be in my heart.

JB: The new album Dances of the Elders was recorded in February 2022 in Oakland, California.  What brought you three musicians to the Bay Area?  Were you playing at Yoshi’s?

WM: We had just played a tour of the United States and the day before we were in Berkeley, at Freight & Salvage on Addison Street. Both Scott and Brian had recommended the studio and we enjoyed recording there.

JB:  The album begins with your song “Invocation” in which there are two main sections. The first six minutes are some wonderful interplay between you and primarily Scott Colley on the bass. Then it goes into this beautiful chord sequence that you solo over for about five minutes. Talk about how you composed this song.

WM:  The first layer is this endless loop of just two notes, a drone of sorts, over which this piece develops. The drone was the start of composing the tune. and when I came up with the first bars of melody over the drone, I could sense that this piece was going to be a sort of ritual. The endless loop is like a vast landscape in which our gestures take place. everything is rubato, musical sentence after sentence.

Then in part two, there is another Loop, this time in concrete time and with a short form of 4 chords. I solo over this loop with a sound that reminds me of Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report) and the energy builds slowly but surely. I play as little as possible and all I want is for the wave to build. It is like we wake up from the dream of part one.

Dance of the Elders, arriving digitally and on CD via ECM Records on Friday, September 29.

JB:  The Bach chorale you play on “Prelude to Bach” is “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” by Hans Leo Hassler that J.S. Bach harmonized and used in his St. Matthew Passion and other works, as well as other composers who have used it including Paul Simon. How has this tune impacted you?

WM:  I’ve known this piece since childhood because my father was a conductor of a choir and they sang that type of music. I know it also from listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which is one of my desert island recordings. What you hear on this recording the song came up spontaneously at the end of a free improvisation, I had never played it before in a concert.  

JB:  In the title song you have this rhythmic middle section that features clapping.  Talk about how you composed this song.

WM:  The title came after I had finished this song in 5/8 meter. It reminded me of a group of older people dancing. It’s a chamber music piece with a drum solo over a clapping loop. That loop seems easy but is actually tricky because there is one spot in the loop where the clave changes. Sometimes in concerts, brave members of the audience clapped along with us, not knowing that tricky shift, The music became more polyrhythmic than intended.

JB:  Talk about your choice of Kurt Weill’s “Liebeslied” for the album.

WM:  I have played this song for a long time with many different bands. It is from the Three Penny Opera and I love its harmonic flow. There are very clever and unusual turns in this piece.  Kurt Weill is so unique. One of the few composers who truly inhabits both worlds. Originally this song was introduced to me by Herb Pomeroy, who leads the Big Band at Berklee, that everybody wanted to be in.

JB:  Your work with Brian Blade goes back to 2000 with your Real Book Stories album. Does Brian bring something out of you that is different than the other fine drummers you have worked with?

WM:  I have had great luck with drummers in general and have had amazing experiences with Peter Erskine, Jeff Ballard, Mino Cinelu, Don Alias, Jorge Rossy, and Eric Harland, and of course with the great Paul Motian. All of them have their own unique sound and approach.  But the bond with Brian is very strong and goes back to the nineties. I cannot explain what Brian does, but I feel a huge awareness from him towards all the details and flow of the music. His sound is so organic and reminds me of nature. It is the opposite of a machine and there is always the feeling of celebration of the moment.

JB:  Talk about working with bassist Scott Colley who has done so many recordings with guitarist Jim Hall, as well as albums with Adam Rogers, Julian Luge, Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, and other fine guitarists.

WM:  Man, what can I say? I play mostly with two bass players: Scott and Larry Grenadier, and they are both so happening, yet completely different. Scott’s sound is less percussive and his sustain is longer. When playing with him I feel he is surrounding the soloist in a way. He is extremely supportive and when he solos he always tells a story rather than spelling out the chord changes. He is completely at home in many different ways of playing, always laying down a very strong yet free musical foundation as well.

JB:  I love your treatment of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.” It must have been special to record it with Brian Blade who has worked with Joni personally.  Talk about what drew you to this song.

WM: “Amelia” is one of Joni Mitchell’s masterpieces. When I discovered Joni (through her live album Shadows and Light) as a teenager, she instantly became one of my favorite artists and remains so today. On her own version of “Amelia,” she plays a great guitar comping part and the amazing Larry Carlton solos around it with the most liquid sound imaginable. Our version of the song stays very close to the original harmonies. I love the way we play that song while we celebrate Joni. So many aspects of her work are remarkable. The way she communicates the words, how she places them in time and in pitch, her harmonic flow, and her highly original melodies. It is meaningful to me that we play Amelia with Brian Blade on drums, who has enjoyed a close and inspiring collaboration with Joni.

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