'It's Better To Be An Outsider': Wolfgang Muthspiel's Global Guitar Odyssey

Jan 14, 2017
Originally published on January 14, 2017 7:17 am

Mention Austria and music in the same phrase and some people will think Haydn and Mozart. Others will think of The Sound of Music, with its singing Von Trapp family. In recent years, another musician has been added to this list: Wolfgang Muthspiel, one of the most respected jazz guitarists playing today.

Muthspiel says it's reasonable for him to be listed alongside the Von Trapps. "I come from a family that would probably seem like a cliché of an Austrian family in the sense that we sang together a lot — and we did climb mountains, and sometimes we did both at the same time," he says.

Muthspiel's father was a choirmaster, and three of his siblings played instruments. He was on his way to becoming a classical violinist, but then he turned to guitar. "I think it was basically an act of rebellion against my parents," he says.

He didn't pick up an electric and start rocking out, though. Instead, he chose the classical guitar. He studied with a famous teacher and author, Karl Scheidt, and he won competitions and played recitals.

But Muthspiel says he was always interested in improvisation. "Pretty much after I could play anything on any instrument, I tried to, you know, make little pieces," he says. He jammed with his brother Christian, a trombonist and pianist, and they became interested in jazz.

Muthspiel decided to apply to the New England Conservatory because it offered programs in both classical and jazz guitar. He sent tapes to each program and was accepted to both. But once he got to Boston and began his studies there, he felt he had to make a choice — and though he says it was hard to leave the classical world, he ended up going for jazz. "Jazz offered me more freedom and more ways to define my own music," he says.

Redefinition has been a recurring theme throughout Muthspiel's career — after all, he began as a violinist who picked up guitar. His long-time collaborator, bassist Larry Grenadier, thinks Muthspiel's transition from classical to jazz has worked to the guitarist's advantage.

"Somebody who's come from classical music typically has put in a lot of hours practicing and really come to terms with being able to take control of their instrument and make it do what they'd like it to do," Grenadier says. "Once you have that stuff together, then you can make the music happen. And I think Wolfgang's a beautiful example of that."

Muthspiel is also a European tackling an American-born art form. "I really wanted to go to America to see how the music sounds in the place where it comes from," he says. "And when I came to the States, I was met with so much openness and encouragement."

One of Muthspiel's supporters and collaborators is fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, who has also dabbled in different genres and performance styles. Towner went from playing jazz piano to studying classical guitar in Vienna with the same man who taught Muthspiel, and he went on to play with the jazz and world music group Oregon and as a solo artist.

Towner says Muthspiel has managed to carve out a place of his own in the music world. "He's gotten to a place where he sounds like Wolfgang," Towner says. "My favorite players actually sound like they're speaking — [their playing is] more speech-like."

Muthspiel spent 15 years living and working in the United States. He returned to his native Austria after — but not solely because of — the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Muthspiel says he still feels connected to the jazz world. Jazz has become a global music, and technology easily connects Muthspiel with international colleagues. His bandmates on his latest album live all over, and he sent them the scores for his compositions over email before they convened to rehearse in France.

Muthspiel says there can be a certain advantage to outsider status. "It's better to be an outsider, because it challenges the expectation of how things are supposed to be," he says. "If you know too well how the music is supposed to be, then I don't think it's gonna be very good."

He's also happy he chose jazz. "Jazz stands for listening, and jazz stands for including — over any kind of borders or countries or considerations of your background," he says. "Jazz is sort of a symbol for working together, for being interested in each other's story. So in that way, I think it couldn't be of more importance now."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mention Austria and music and a lot of people will think Haydn and Mozart. For others it's "The Sound Of Music" and the Von Trapp family. Then there's Wolfgang Muthspiel.

WOLFGANG MUTHSPIEL: I come from a family that would probably seem like a cliche of an Austrian family in the sense that we sang together a lot and we did climb mountains and sometimes we did both at the same time.

SIMON: He still climbs mountains, but he has also gone on to become one of the most respected jazz guitarists playing today. His most recent album is called "Rising Grace." NPR's Tom Cole has this profile.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: His father was a choir master, three of his siblings played instruments and he was on his way to becoming a classical violinist. Then, Wolfgang Muthspiel turned to guitar.

MUTHSPIEL: I think it was basically an act of rebellion against my parents.

COLE: He didn't pick up an electric and start shredding. He chose the classical guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

COLE: He studied with famous teacher and author Karl Scheidt, won competitions and played recitals, but he was always interested in improvisation.

MUTHSPIEL: Pretty much after I could play anything on any instrument, I tried to, you know, make little pieces.

COLE: He jammed with his brother Christian, a trombonist and pianist, and they discovered jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Wolfgang decided to apply to the New England Conservatory because it offered programs in both classical and jazz guitar. He sent tapes to each and was so good he got into both. But once he got there, he felt he had to make a choice.

MUTHSPIEL: It was a hard decision to actually give up the classical path. But at that point, I had the feeling that I don't have enough time to really go deep in both worlds, so I had to choose and jazz offered me more freedom and more ways to define my own music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Defining himself and his music has been a recurring theme throughout his career - a violinist who picked up guitar, a classical musician who turned jazz. But Muthspiel's longtime collaborator, bassist Larry Grenadier, thinks the latter has worked to the guitarist's advantage.

LARRY GRENADIER: Somebody who's come from classical music typically has put in a lot of hours of practicing and really come to terms with being able to take control of their instrument and make it do what they'd like it to do. And that to me is the perfect entry into jazz because once you have that stuff together, then you can make the music happen. And I think Wolfgang's a beautiful example of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOLFGANG MUTHSPIEL AND LARRY GRENADIER AND BRIAN BLADE'S "UPTOWN")

COLE: Wolfgang Muthspiel is also a European tackling an American-born art form.

MUTHSPIEL: After all this classical education, I really wanted to go to America to see how the music sounds in the place where it comes from. And when I came to the states, I was met with so much openness and encouragement in the states, I must say, in general. So this recent election, you know, kind of breaks my heart because my experience in the states was a one of welcome. I was really welcomed.

COLE: One of his supporters and collaborators is the world-renowned guitarist Ralph Towner who says Muthspiel has managed to define himself.

RALPH TOWNER: In hearing Wolfgang, I mean, he sounds like Wolfgang. My favorite players actually sound like they're speaking. It's more speech-like. Miles Davis was - when you heard the music, that's what you're drawn into. You never hear people say, oh, what a good trumpet player. And Wolfgang has achieved that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOLFGANG MUTHSPIEL AND AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE AND BRAD MEHLDAU AND LARRY GRENADIER AND BRIAN BLADE'S "FATHER AND SUN")

COLE: Wolfgang Muthspiel spent 15 years living and working in the United States. He's returned to his native Austria, but jazz has become a global music, so he doesn't really feel like a jazz outsider living there.

MUTHSPIEL: As an artist, you are kind of always an outsider. You know, maybe you're an insider in your little scene but hopefully not. It's better to be an outsider because it challenges the expectation of how things are supposed to be. So I think that that kind of perspective of the outsider is one that has informed me, not only my being from Europe and going to the states and making jazz music. So I'm always an outsider. At this point, I embrace that. I'm happy about it.

COLE: He's also happy he chose jazz.

MUTHSPIEL: Jazz stands for listening and jazz stands for including over any kind of borders of countries. So jazz is sort of a symbol for being interested in each other's story. So in that way, I think it couldn't be of more importance now.

COLE: Amen. Tom Cole, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOLFGANG MUTHSPIEL'S "WOLFGANG'S WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.