Since they first made festival appearances together in 2005 and recorded From a Dream in 2009, the guitar trio of American Ralph Towner, Austrian Wolfgang Muthspiel, and Kazhak Slava Grigoryan, has shown a remarkable sense of discipline, subtlety, and balance. Travel Guide is the occasional group's debut for ECM. Its ten tunes were written by either Muthspiel or Towner. The tonal qualities on all of these tracks are beautifully nuanced: Muthspiel plays electric guitar, Towner classical and 12-string, and Grigoryan classical and baritone guitars. These compositions weren't written for these players to showcase their solo chops, but rather as songs with limited but impeccable improvisation. Muthspiel uses wordless vocals to expand the group's tonal reach on "Amarone Trio." His "The Henrysons" begins with a repetitive vamp by Towner; it's underscored by Grigoryan even as it lengthens and is finally illustrated in full flower by Muthspiel. Its melody is seemingly fragmentary, but it gradually becomes labyrinthine with a gorgeous set of harmonies put on display. On the title track, the playing gets intricate; Muthspiel and Towner twin the head, articulating its changes quickly and seamlessly as Grigoryan adds color and layers of texture. There is a lot going on, but it never feels overly busy. On "Windsong," Towner elegantly employs his 12-string as Muthspiel comps and Grigoryan offers a contrapuntal voice before he solos. Both flamenco and jazz illustrate "Nico and Mithra," where complex counterpoint in the head gives way to Towner's solo. Closer "Museum of Light" is the most speculative piece here, but it never forsakes lyric harmony even when it travels further afield into more speculative terrain. Travel Guide is an understated, uncluttered gem of virtuosity and composition. The unselfish sense of deference between these players reveals not only their comfort with one another, but the collective confidence of a uniquely voiced, developing group. ~ Thom Jurek
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