Masters of “Swing Guitar”

All That Jazz

On The Town | Jean-Pascal Vachon | September 2011

It took a few decades for the guitar to join the jazz family. The instrument seemed at first to blend naturally within the intimacy of the blues, while next to louder instruments like the trumpet or the saxophone, the delicate acoustic guitar simply had no chance. It took electric amplification to allow it the possibility to speak on an equal level with the others.

Only a few names come to mind before the mid-’50s – Charlie Christian (one of the first to adopt the amplified guitar) and the legendary manouche Django Reinhardt (whose song titles this article).

Things have changed since, and we can count as many great guitarists today as pianists or saxophonists, and in the coming weeks, several of them are converging at the jazz club Porgy & Bess in Vienna (Sept. 29, Oct. 1 & 2; see Jazz Events, p.24)

Styria-born Wolfgang Muthspiel has long been known for his subtlety, his technique and his openness to go beyond what we may understand as "jazz". As he said to the Austrian daily Die Presse in 2009, he wishes to make "music that expresses exactly who I am."

"I don’t care if we don’t call it jazz anymore," he insisted. "I want to be more radical, to scrutinize all my beliefs," he continues. Muthspiel’s latest project is called "drum free" and includes, in addition to his guitar, a saxophone and a bass. And, as its name implies, it dispenses with percussion.

Such a combination allows the music to breathe with a rhythmical impetus felt rather than heard. On first hearing (an album – beautiful! – came out earlier this year), Muthspiel manages to appeal to the jazz-purists, while still reaching way beyond orthodoxy: he digs into flamenco and elegant classical sketches along with original impressionistic compositions, in which every note counts and every silence is pregnant.

Here, the listener is encouraged to forget all preoccupations with genre or category, and to appreciate the purity of sound and ideas and clarity of expression. One may think here of other poets of the guitar like Jim Hall, especially in recordings with Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Byrd and Pat Metheny, in his quieter moments.

On Sept. 29, we’ll finally be able to witness the "drum free" project, which includes besides Wolfgang Muthspiel, tenor saxophonist Andy Scherrer and bassist Dieter Ilg (replacing Larry Grenadier, who appeared on the recording) in Vienna. Scherrer, a fixture of Swiss jazz, is also known here for his participation since 1991 in the now defunct Vienna Art Orchestra. As for Ilg, the list of the musicians he has played with is a testimony to his reliability and his versatility.

John Scofield needs no introduction. Not only one of the best known jazz guitarists of the last twenty years, he is also a regular guest in Vienna. Jumping between the musical languages of bebop, blues, jazz-funk, organ jazz, acoustic chamber jazz, electronically tinged groove music and orchestral ensembles, "Sco" has managed to create a personal sound, immediately recognizable, in which one hears his deep love for blues, funk and soul music.

One week after Wolfgang Muthspiel, Scofield will play with his R & B Quartet, we will hear some of the funkier material in the guitarist’s catalog: keyboardist and singer Nigel Hall, despite his youth, displays his influence from funk and soul, from James Brown to Donny Hathaway; bassist Andy Hess has played alongside Tina Turner, David Byrne and Shawn Colvin and, finally, New Orleans-born drummer Terence Higgins has become a specialist of his native city’s grooves, playing with such luminaries as Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

After the quiet fire of Muthspiel the poet, John Scofield will display the funkier possibilities of the instrument!

Pat Martino, another regular, should attract hordes of guitarists, all eager to watch him running through the fluid, endless chains of notes he’s famous for, or using his trademark-lick, building tension through the repetition of a single note or a simple phrase. It’s a virtuosity that seems effortless, all the more remarkable knowing that a brain aneurysm in 1980 left him with complete amnesia – having forgotten how famous he was and, more tragically, how to play the guitar. Slowly, over years, he relearned the instrument and finally came back for good in 1994.

On this current tour, Pat Martino performs once again with organist Tony Monaco and drummer Shawn Hill. The classical guitar-organ-drums combo brings us back to the  ’60s, with its churchy, bluesy and funky sounds then so popular and, for Martino, a link back to his first public appearance, more than 50 years ago, in a Philadelphia club with an organist.

And Tony Monaco’s sheer joy of playing offers a pleasing contrast with the austere Martino, deep in concentration, poised and almost shy. Shawn Hill returns to offer dynamic and strong support.


Recommended listening

Wolfgang Muthspiel

Drumfree (2011) – Material Records

Pat Martino

Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery

(2006) – on Blue Note Records

John Scofield

A Moment’s Peace (2011) – Emarcy Records

Musicologist Jean-Pascal Vachon teaches at Webster University Vienna where he is also an undergraduate academic advisor. He also writes and translates  for the Swedish classical label, BIS.

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    the vienna review September 2011