After a pair of quintet offerings with Brad Mehldau and Ambrose Akinmusire, Austrian guitarist and composer Wolfgang Muthspiel returns to the trio format he established on ECM with 2014's Driftwood. Whereas the previous outings all featured bassist Larry Grenadier, it is Scott Colley who claims the bass chair here. All three members have worked with one another sufficiently to make Angular Blues sound relaxed, natural, and locked in. Blade and Muthspiel have been working together on-stage and in the studio for quite a while; in addition to Muthspiel's bands, the pair work together in the duo Friendly Travelers. The guitarist and Colley played together often in the '90s, and the bassist and drummer have worked together in the Steel House trio with pianist Edward Simon. The group cut this date in a Tokyo studio after a three-night, six-set run at the city's Cotton Club.
The program consists of eight Muthspiel originals and, for the first time on any of his recordings, a pair of jazz standards: "I'll Remember April" and "Everything I Love." In addition, the recording marks another first for the guitarist on ECM, in that he employs an acoustic guitar on the three opening pieces. "Wondering" is introduced by Colley's warm, fluid, wide-toned bass. He both trades and punctuates lines by Muthspiel as Blade dances in five around and through them both. Muthspiel's solo effortlessly moves between shaped, rhythmic chords and single-string playing. Utilizing Latin and post-bop rhythms, the title track is an involved, complex exchange of vamps and chords with syncopated rhythms and a popping bassline with fine solos from Blade and Colley. "Hüttengriffe" is a quietly majestic, emotionally resonant Americana ballad that sounds at home next to Bill Frisell's similarly minted material. With "Camino," Muthspiel's electric guitar makes its entry and remains present on the rest of the date. The guitarist plays solo slowly and impressionistically over the first 80 seconds before Blade's whispering cymbals and gentle tom-tom and snare join him. Colley initially walks the backdrop but asserts single notes and minimal rhythmic runs in support. Muthspiel's solo is elegant, unhurried, and full of harmonic surprises. "Ride" marks the first time the guitarist has ever included bebop rhythm changes on a record and it's a doozy: Fleet, knotty, engaged and almost funky with double-timed breaks by Blade, a tight solo by Colley, and Muthspiel's channeling of Barney Kessel and Billy Bauer. "Kanon in 6/8" is delivered as a tight, punchy exchange of interrogatory statements from the rhythm section as the guitarist cascades 16th and eighth notes in a syncopated solo. "Solo Kanon in 5/4" follows, played by Muthspiel with a delay box to recall the spirit of Bach and Scarlatti. Despite its relaxed feel, Angular Blues offers intense musical sensitivity, keen, active interplay and improvisatory flair. With crystalline production and canny collaboration by three jazz masters, Angular Blues adds not only depth and breadth to Muthspiel's ECM catalog, it's weighty enough to own a chapter in the history book of jazz guitar trios.