To a baseball fan, the term ‘small ball’ refers to an offensive strategy that emphasizes scoring individual runs in a slow, methodical way using walks, sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, and sacrifice flies. It’s an old-fashioned style of play based on a relentless attack in which speed and athleticism are just as important as superior knowledge and the application of fundamental skills. Instead of counting on the three-run bomb in the bottom of the eighth, small ball requires finesse and protracted effort by all the players.
"Friendly Travelers" captures two master improvisers playing the musical equivalent of ‘small ball’. As a jazz duo, they are forced to use their fundamental skills - chops, intense listening, quick reactions, and a shared sense of musical drama - to make viable improvised music. Though they employ some pretty advanced technology to flesh out their sound, they also know that heavy dependence on electronics would rob their music of its essential freshness and spontaneity. Anything that makes the duo sound like a quartet of two musicians and their respective stacks of hardware has been carefully pared away. "Friendly Travelers" is as much triumph of good music as it is a triumph of technology reduced to near transparency.
Drummer Brian Blade is perhaps better known to music fans for his work with Daniel Lanois, Wayne Shorter, Bob Dylan, Brad Mehldau, and Joni Mitchell. Like Blade, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is a musical omnivore with a strong grounding in contemporary jazz. He’s recorded perhaps 2 dozen CDs as a leader (or co-leader with his trombone-playing brother Christian) beginning in the late 80s, and has played with the Vienna Art Orchestra, Gary Burton, Paul Motian, Dave Liebman, and John Patitucci. He’s one of those musicians who nearly always turns in an inspired performance, whether he’s playing acoustic or electric, fusion, straight-ahead, avant-garde, or something else entirely.
"Friendly Travelers" is a bracing listen from start to finish. Most of the pieces are layered with live playing over sampled acoustic and electric guitars. Several of the pieces (‘Vallekilde’, ‘Friendly Travelers’, ‘Between the Beats’) feature whistle-able melodies and an unassuming, bucolic sort of feel. There’s other stuff going on here as well. The last two tracks - ‘Cold Summer’ and ‘The Tuning of the Bells’ - are quite abstract and ECM chilly. My personal bias leans towards the more expressive pieces, such as ‘Gnadenwald’, ‘End on 4’, ‘Youssou’, and ‘Heavy Song’, where Blade and Muthspiel really cut loose. The whole CD is loaded with lovely singing melodies, subtle shifts in mood, and imaginative and unexpected twists. What I admire most is the casual, intimate air that pervades these proceedings - you get a sense that you somehow know these guys a little better by the time the last track fades out.