Album reviews

Wolfgang Muthspiel – ‘Dance of the Elders’

Wolfgang Muthspiel – ‘Dance of the Elders’
(ECM 2772. Album review by Julian Maynard-Smith)

Album cover is grainy grey background with three white triangles at a diagonal angle

Dance of the Elders is the third ECM trio album led by Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel. It follows on from Angular Blues (2020), which had the same line-up of Scott Colley on double bass and Brian Blade on drums; and Driftwood (2014), on which the bassist was Larry Grenadier.

Of the first of these albums Muthspiel said, ‘I wanted to feature the liquidity and wide horizon of the guitar while also approaching the contrapuntal possibilities of a piano trio.’ Driftwood fully met this brief, Muthspiel’s classical and electric guitar – ably supported by two highly sensitive and responsive conversationalists – weaving an exquisite sonic filigree. And on the album Angular Blues, Muthspiel widened the horizon with techniques such as using delay to create intricate counterpoints.

But on Dance of the Elders the horizon feels even wider, especially on the first and longest piece, the hypnotic and aptly named Invocation. Electric guitar swells and tinkling bells are followed by a lullaby-like tune that drifts in and out of a hypnagogic soundscape of sparse bass solo, soft mallet rumblings and splashing cymbals, before concluding with a looped riff over which Muthspiel lays a sleepy, blues-tinged solo of heavily treated guitar.

So, broad in sonic palette – but also mood, as the second piece attests. Prelude to Bach is played on classical guitar with a Ralph Towner-ish feel, supported by subtle splashes and scattered dabs from Brian Blade, and sawing arco bass from Scott Colley. It becomes vaguely baroque towards the end when bass and drums melt away to leave only solo guitar, but the track’s title is more evocative than descriptive. Muthspiel also plays classical guitar on the titular track Dance of the Elders, a graceful pas de deux between guitar and bass that kicks into an equally lovely pas de trois when the drums join in – but perhaps flamenco is a better analogy than ballet, judging by the stop-time interlude of clapping and drums. Folksong has the sort of catchy melody Keith Jarrett might have penned; and Cantus Bradus (classical guitar again) is full of spirited arpeggiating.

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Completing the track list are two covers. Liebeslied (Kurt Weill / Bertolt Brecht), from The Threepenny Opera, is a surprising choice but successfully subsumed into the ECM aesthetic of the rest of the album. And to conclude, a heartfelt Amelia that captures the languid feel of Joni Mitchell’s much-covered original.

In summary, three simpatico players at the top of their game, broadening the horizons of the guitar trio.

LINK: Dance of the Elders on ECM

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