Wolfgang Muthspiel is an Austrian guitarist, composer, and founder/owner of Material Records. His intuitive, probing style has made him a celebrated, in-demand sideman since the 1980s. He has worked with Gary Burton, Youssou N’Dour, Gary Peacock, Dave Liebman, Paul Motian, and dozens more, and has pursued everything from straight-ahead jazz to pop to electronic to world music. Muthspiel's sound, whether on electric guitar or nylon-string acoustic, is immediately recognizable for its soft touch and elegant use of chord voicings interspersed with fluid single-string playing. It's holistic in that each tradition he has studied and incorporated is embodied in every phrase, vamp, or riff. Whether on his unaccompanied album Solo (2004), which revealed Ornette Coleman's influence adapted for guitar; his trio dates From a Dream (2009) and Travel Guide (2013) with guitarists Slava Grigoryan and Ralph Towner; or larger group outings such as Rising Grace (2016), Muthspiel's signature is as melodic and accessible as it is indelible.
Muthspiel, the younger brother of trombonist /composer Christian Muthspiel, with whom he has collaborated often, began formal music studies with the violin at age six and switched to classical guitar at 14. After graduating secondary school, he attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship. His study of extended harmony with guitarist and composer Mick Goodrick proved influential. In 1985, he released the first of three duo albums with Christian, Duo Due Schneetanz. Duo Due Focus It (1987), and Duo Due Tre (1989).
Muthspiel began a two-year touring stint with Gary Burton in 1988 (Goodrick was also part of this group), where he established a stellar reputation among jazzmen as well as audiences. In 1989, he issued his Polygram debut, Timezones, and followed it in 1990 with The Promise; they both featured Bob Berg in the saxophonist's chair. In the mid-'90s, the guitarist relocated to New York City, where he lived until 2002. He spent the remainder of the decade issuing albums for Polygram that featured sidemen such as Tom Harrell, Don Alias, Larry Grenadier, and Kenny Wollesen, among others. He also played on recordings by Patricia Barber, Peacock, Marc Johnson, Gabriella Goodman, and Motian. In 1997 he was named Austrian Jazz Musician of the Year.
In 2000, he founded Material Records. His early projects for it were collaborations with Christian — including their acclaimed electronic project Echoes of Techno — and three albums with Norwegian jazz vocalist Rebekka Bakken (the standout is the gorgeous duet set Beloved). Muthspiel also recorded for Quintron during this period, issuing collaborative titles with the Vienna Concert Jazz Orchestra, and 2004's Air, Love & Vitamins, his first recorded association with drummer Brian Blade. Muthspiel also released Solo, an album of treated guitar pieces that would become another of his sonic trademarks in studios and on stages. Other notable collaborative albums on Material during the decade included Glow, with oudist Dhafer Youssef; From a Dream, the 2009 recorded debut from the trio MGT with Slava Grigoryan and Ralph Towner — they had been playing and touring together since 2005 — and Live at the Jazz Standard with Goodrick.
Though he had composed "Tonspiel (The Play of Tones)" back in 1986, the 21st century also saw Muthspiel accepting further commissions of the type. He wrote for contemporary ensembles such Klangforum Wien and the Hugo Wolf Quartet, New Music/Zürich, the Austrian Ministry of Arts, the Boston-based ensemble Marimolin, violinist Beni Schmid, and the Austrian Esterházy Foundation.
In 2011, Material released the self-titled Drumfree trio album, with the guitarist in the company of saxophonist Andy Scherrer and bassist Larry Grenadier. In June of the following year, the ever restless Muthspiel released Vienna, Naked, the first volume of an original song cycle showcasing only his guitar and voice. In 2013, ECM issued Travel Guide by MGT. Driftwood was his first leader date for the label, where he was aided by Blade and Grenadier. The following year saw the issue of Vienna, World, from Material. The second offering in his song cycle, this project was cut internationally with a variety of musicians in several configurations. It included duets with pianist Billy Childs and vocalist Becca Stevens, the guitarist playing with bands from Argentina and Switzerland (the latter including the Lindvall brothers from a-ha), and a string trio with cello and violin. Muthspiel's next leader date for ECM was 2016's Rising Grace. With Blade and Grenadier, it expanded the trio to a quintet that included trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Brad Mehldau. The essence of that group — with drummer Eric Harland added — carried the story forward two years later with the September 2018 release of Where the River Goes; recorded at Studios La Buissonne in February and produced by Manfred Eicher, it featured six compositions by Muthspiel and one by Mehldau, as well as freely improvised pieces from the band. ~ Thom Jurek