Guitar jazz, or perhaps neo-jazz, made a strong showing in 2022. A review article showcasing all the recordings would be weighty, indeed (including releases by John Scofield and Bobby Broom), so I chose albums that I thought fit a niche, instrumentals that would appeal to people who like eclectic string music in the mode of, say, the ubiquitous Bill Frisell, who had another contribution released last year.
In Chicago, one of my favorites in recent years has been Paul Mutzabaugh, a versatile musician who has led what he calls chamber jazz/instrumental folk ensembles such as The Unknown New, which features two stellar electric guitarists, Mike Pinto and Chris Siebold, with added acoustic playing from Jim Tashjian.
In 2022, Mutzabaugh produced his first trio recording, featuring Pinto, Mutzabaugh on electric bass, and the versatile Jon Deitmeyer (also of The Unknown New) on drums. The result is a generally pleasant selection of mostly new compositions that plays seamlessly without being stodgy. The collection, well-recorded with appropriate echo applied to Pinto by Vijay Tellis-Nayak of Transient Sound, strips Mutzabaugh’s typical set up so that we can appreciate more of his bass playing in tandem with the intricate, lyrical expression from Pinto.
And when I mention the echo, I am basically alluding to the influence of Frisell on a range of guitar recordings these days. There’s always been a ‘twang’ in Frisell’s style, and the production here applies some of that into Pinto’s sound. I am not technical-savvy enough to explain it, but I hear it nonetheless, especially in the bluesy swing of the opening cut, Pinto’s “Salty Southern.”
Mutzabaugh’s own lyricism is evident on Deitmeyer’s “Whisper Flight.” With his bass upfront setting the tone, the music shifts from faintly insistent to something more pensive, with a classical bent, from Pinto, before the bassist takes off on a thoughtful stroll of his own. Deitmeyer’s backing throughout is quietly driving, darting in and out. This piece seemed, to me, to capture the spirit of fellow twanger Pat Metheny’s first album, especially with the influence of Jaco Pastorius. On the next one, Mutzabaugh’s “Mimi and Vough,” it’s Pinto who reminds me of Metheny’s playing as the chamber jazz genre kicks in. But the guitarist takes the vibe further with a few crescendos along the way that point back to some of his more rock-oriented work with The Unknown New.
The rest of the album mirrors what is heard on the first songs, with interesting counterparts revealed in the midst of each selection. The two non-original compositions offer different approaches. David Gates’ “If” is a fairly straight-forward interpretation; the trio’s rendition of the TV series’ “Borgen (main titles)” is more interesting. Mutzabaugh’s arrangement breaks down the dramatic theme into basic parts and then asks the players to riff on it; Mutzabaugh’s bass here provides the drama that strings did for the original.
The treat experienced here consists of three veteran musicians who have spent plenty of time together making music, comfortable within the framework of their leader and bringing out the best in each. I eagerly await Volume 2.
Personnel: Paul Mutzabaugh - bass Mike Pinto - guitar Jon Deitemyer - drums
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association.