Jazz: Playing along

Jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel will perform in the Israel Festival.

Wolfgang Muthspiel (photo credit: MISCHA NAURATA)
Wolfgang Muthspiel
(photo credit: MISCHA NAURATA)
If you happen to be familiar with the more jazz-oriented work of Wolfgang Muthspiel, you might be in for something of a surprise when the 50-year-old Austrian guitarist takes the stage of the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem on June 5 as part of this year’s Israel Festival. The fact that Muthspiel will share the limelight with Swedish cellist and bass player Svante Henryson may give you some indication of what you might be likely to hear at the gig.
Both Muthspiel and 51-year-old Henryson belong to the wide-ranging breed of musician. Both are classically trained, they have a keen sense of improvisation and play a fair bit of jazz, or jazz-seasoned, material; but they also glean from numerous other genre sources and often mix rock sensibilities in their offerings.
Muthspiel, whose visit here is supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum of the Austrian Embassy, is one of those artists who exude a sense of quiet confidence but also tend to keep you on your toes. You never really know what you’re going to get from him.
He can be in the middle of a lush melodic riff, and then suddenly take off in some more oblique direction in terms of texture and tempo. But somehow it all seems to mesh into a logical and enticing sonic continuum.
The Austrian also tends to spread things around in terms of the artists he does business with. On his latest album Vienna World, for example, in addition to Henryson he has an eclectic roster of sidemen with him, including delightful vocalist Becca Stevens, who also dips into numerous genres and styles; high-flying classical violinist Benjamin Schmid; and Brazilian pianist-keyboardist Fagner Wesley.
Muthspiel says he and Henryson share expansive common creative ground.
“One thing that connects us is that we were both at some time deeply into classical music. I grew up playing violin, and my start on guitar was also in classical music. Svante was basically a classical bass player and played in a symphony orchestra at a very young age, and then he sort of turned to rock bass. He did that for a while with heavy metal bands. He then started on cello and got into jazz improvisation, and he combines these varying worlds,” he says.
All of the above works for the guitarist.
“After my classical beginnings, my interest in jazz grew, and then I started to do both, and I got deeper into jazz. Both of our biographies have many different musics and many different sources,” Muthspiel notes.
“One other source that connects us is the song. We love songs, and there will be some songs in the program we’ll do together [in Jerusalem]. I will sing, and we’ll comp [accompany] the singing,” he says.
The Yellow Submarine repertoire will incorporate tracks off Vienna World, which proffers Muthspiel in a singer-songwriter mode.
Interestingly, the education section of Muthspiel’s bio features stints at two very different illustrious Boston institutions of higher musical education – New England Conservatory (NEC) and Berklee College of Music.
“I went to NEC because I wanted to study both classical and jazz music. For classical guitar I knew of a guy called David Leisner who taught there, and I knew [jazz guitarist] Mick Goodrick, and I had the pleasure of studying with both of them,” says Muthspiel.
After two years in the heady surroundings of NEC, which was founded in 1867, Muthspiel decided it was time for a new departure.
“I had an offer of a full scholarship from Berklee, and I had to decide whether to pursue the jazz thing or the classical thing because I couldn’t really cover both well.
That’s when I decided to go for the jazz world. I went to Berklee and met a lot of musicians there,” he recounts.
The social-artistic interaction added-value helped to stretch Muthspiel’s musical hinterland.
“The great thing about Berklee is that you can meet a whole generation of players there. That helps you to get into all kinds of things,” he says.
Muthspiel has certainly been spreading his exploratory net far and wide for many years. There was a popular TV show called To Tell the Truth in which a panel of celebrities was presented with three people who all pretended to be some relatively well-known figure. After grilling the guests for a few minutes, the panel members had to guess who the genuine article was, which was followed by the host intoning: “Will the real --- please stand up” After following the Austrian guitarist’s output over the last couple of decades or so, and especially after listening to his latest singer-songwriter oriented album and his surprisingly alluring voice, one is tempted to ask the real Wolfgang Muthspiel “to stand up.”
“It’s quite a different world, this singing stuff,” Muthspiel confesses, adding that it basically a matter of following his muse, come what may. “I am aware that, careerwise, this is not a very smart move. But even as a child, I was always following what I had most fun with because there is where I learned the most. I just keep this going, and sometimes a project grows and I don’t even know when or how will do it. I just want to take this luxury of following whatever I want to do at a particular moment.”
Muthspiel has basically been going with his flow all his life. Between 1995 and 2002 he lived in New York, where he collaborated on a very wide variety of musical projects with the likes of Norwegian jazz singer Rebekka Bakken, Indian world music percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Tunisian oud player and singer Dhafer Youssef and veteran avant-garde jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman.
Of course, if you want to do just want as you see fit without some marketing executive advising you to take a more commercial line, it can help to run your own show. Muthspiel established his own record label, Material Records, in 2000 so there was no one around who was going to tell him that he’d been ill advised to put out a singer-songwriter CD.
Considering Muthspiel’s vocal qualities, not to mention his deft guitar work, we are all the beneficiaries of his decision to do his own thing.
For tickets and more information: http://israel-festival.org/