Austrian jazz guitar star Wolfgang Muthspiel jazzed about pending San Diego debut concert
With the exception of Weather Report co-founder Joe Zawinul, who died in 2007, no other Austrian-born jazz artist has achieved as much prominence beyond their homeland as Wolfgang Muthspiel.
The guitarist, who is now on tour with bassist Scott Colley and drum great Brian Blade, counts Youssou N’Dour, Betty Buckley, Gary Burton and Patricia Barber among his many collaborators. He will open the La Jolla Athenaeum's winter guitar series with a sold-out Tuesday concert that will mark his long-overdue San Diego debut.
Muthspiel recently engaged in several email interviews with the Union-Tribune, which published some of his responses in a Jan. 9 Sunday Arts feature previewing the Athenaeum series. Here is more of that interview.
Q: If you could sit down right now and chat with Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Francisco Tarrega or Jimi Hendrix, who would you choose and what would you most want to ask them?
A: I would love to be around all of them for a day and see how they work and live. First, maybe a day in the studio with Jimi. I would love to witness his process, which would answer my questions.
Q: You started playing violin when you were 8, then switched to guitar at 12. Directly or indirectly, how might your violin background have influenced your approach to guitar?
A: Violin gives you a certain sense of intonation, like singing. it might have also influenced how I try to shape a sound on the guitar, and make it less plucky and more (vocal-like), to give life to the note after it has been produced.
Q: Austria has produced such gifted jazz musicians as David Helbock, Thomas Lang and Wolfgang Puschnig. But you and the late Joe Zawinul are the two Austrian musicians who have had an international impact. Growing up, were there any Austrian jazz artists who inspired you to think you could have a career beyond your homeland?
A: Zawinul was, and is, huge for me. But there was also an important guitar player by the name of Harry Pepl, who was my teacher. He had a unique sound and was a heavy player, with a great sense of time. I think he was an international figure and definitely had his own voice.
Q: Joe Zawinul told me in an interview that his jazz epiphany as a boy was hearing Fats Waller play “Honeysuckle Rose” on Voice of America radio. What was your jazz epiphany?
A: An early one was Weather Report's (1977) album, "Heavy Weather." That magical synergy of Joe, (saxophonist) Wayne (Shorter) and (bassist) Jaco (Pastorius) was a mystery to me. I still adore the songwriting, the groove, the way of soloing. I grew up with classical music so this was about as different as possible — and endlessly attractive.
Q: What was your first musical epiphany, whether with the guitar specifically or music in general?
A: Definitely the polyphonic singing in our family, to hear how it feels to sing your own voice in harmony with others. This started very early, around the age of 4. I have three siblings.
Q: What kind of songs, specifically, did you and your family sing together when you were a child? Does the sound of the human voice inspire your touch on guitar?
A: We sang many folk songs from our area, including yodeling songs, some of which are blues-like and slow, and also things like Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" or some Renaissance music by John Dowland. My father was a conductor of a choir, and we heard that stuff all the time. When our family gets together for birthdays, Christmas, etc., we still sing for many hours, now with the great voices of my nieces and nephews.
Q: Was there a cause and effect? That is, did your epiphany inspire you to begin playing music or writing, or were you already doing both?
A: It led to a burning interest in music, which never stopped. it laid the foundation to learning an instrument and to composing. It made me feel how voices move and what that does.
Q: What was your most recent musical epiphany?
A: I recently heard the piece "Interlude" by the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski for the first time. It's absolutely amazing.
Q: With so many gigs canceled or postponed during the pandemic, did the unexpected openings in your schedule enable you to pursue any projects that were not possible when you were touring regularly? If so, what?
A: My musical life has continued through the pandemic, even though many tours were canceled. I was lucky to still play a few gigs and continue my teaching at Jazz Campus in Basel, Switzerland. But I did spend much more time with my family, which was a blessing.
Q: Brian Blade is such a wonderfully creative and sensitive drummer. Are there certain things he enables you to do as a player that other drummers might not?
A: I feel very lucky to have this long relationship with Brian. It is a luxurious situation to play with him, because he orchestrates the music in such a deep and often unexpected way. He is definitely interested in that conversation and his timing is so endlessly inviting. He quickly hears a kind of essence of a recording and builds the album around this essence. Quite a few songs did not make it onto my albums, because they were so different from that essence.
Q: I interviewed Bela Fleck recently and he told me that, during the pandemic, he actually lost his callouses from not playing live and from focusing on things other than practicing his banjo. How often do you practice, what do you practice, and did you practice more or less when all of your gigs were on hold in 2020 and part of this year?
A: I need to practice every day just to stay in shape. Since I play classical guitar and electric guitar, I need to practice both. I love practicing. I also like to play without intention or expectation in the mornings. I would keep practicing even if I would never play a gig or do a recording again, because it keeps me in a good space.
Q: Do you start on acoustic, then move to electric? Are you learning or writing new repertoire during your practice sessions?
A: The first thing is this kind of stream-of-consciousness playing on acoustic, whatever comes — without any judgment or ambition — a blank page to draw on. This gets me in touch with music, and with the instrument, and is often a fertile ground for compositional ideas. Then there are some classical etudes and scales, which I do on acoustic, just to keep my sound sharp.
On the electric guitar, I play a lot with a metronome or some rhythmic loops. I also still play jazz standards at home and often use my looping machine to create spontaneous (accompaniment). This is helpful because, since I hear the loop again and again, I can get into the details of its timing and phrasing, and realize how it feels to play over it. Is it supportive, flexible, stiff, inviting?
To any students out there, I would like to give this advice: Follow what turns you on and don’t be too scholastic in your practicing — unless that is what turns you on.
Wolfgang Muthspiel Trio, featuring Scott Colley and Brian Blade
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Joan & Irwin Jacobs Music Room, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla
Tickets: Sold out (a waiting list will be made at the door the night of the concert in case of cancellations)
Phone: (858) 454-5872
Health protocols: All attendees must be masked and provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken no more than 48 hours prior to each concert.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .