Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life (ECM 1073)

Pat Metheny
Bright Size Life

Pat Metheny guitars
Jaco Pastorius bass
Bob Moses drums
Recorded December 1975, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The tunes on Bright Size Life, Pat Metheny’s first studio album as frontman, tell a story that begins at the outskirts of Jim Hall, traverses the vast plains of the American Midwest, and ends smack dab in the middle of Ornette Coleman. From the moment fingers hit strings, we are launched into the luscious warmth that would come to characterize an ECM era. Flanked by the late Jaco Pastorius on bass and a cymbal-happy Bob Moses on drums, Metheny carries the brunt of the record’s melodic thrust. Positively overflowing with gorgeous circuitousness, organic inversions, and unwavering execution, Metheny and his sidemen make it sound as if it were harder not to produce such flawless synergy. With the obvious exception of his solo efforts, this is Metheny at his barest. And while his larger group projects tend to stray into more fusion-oriented territory, here we get a trio of musicians whose sensibilities, no less intertwined, arrange themselves into a more consistent rural flavor. There is something unmistakably outdoorsy about Bright Size Life. One can’t help but want to pop this music in the stereo during a long drive or cross-country trip, and maybe even have it in one’s ears during a hike (assuming that such digital trappings aren’t antithetical to the activity). An utter delicacy of phrasing and controlled abandon is what makes Metheny such a joy to listen to as he weaves his monochromatic web. Even during those moments in “Missouri Uncompromised” and “Omaha Celebration,” which swell into ecstatic fervor, Metheny exercises stylish restraint, as if pushing too far might break an already fine thread of articulation. Slower numbers like “Midwestern Night Dream” put Metheny in a more supportive mood, spinning a web of chords in equity with his fellow musicians. The bass adopts a more chorused presence, hopping over Metheny like a frog on lily pads. “Unquity Road,” along with the title track, foregrounds a composed doorway into an improvisatory wonderland, looking back regularly to its origins, as a child would its mother. Metheny closes out the set with “Round Trip/Broadway Blues,” an Ornette Coleman medley that seems to write its script as it goes along, until the vanishing point swallows and spits us out whole.

Bright Size Life is suitably recorded, with drums given the widest berth beneath the evenly spaced leads. Pastorius has plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff on center stage, and it is astounding to hear how he manages to thread every needle that Metheny fashions from the ether. At times, guitar and bass walk hand-in-hand, while at others one trails the other. Listening to this album is like tracing a map in sound. As followers, we may not know the next phase of our journey and can only trust that our guides will come through in the end. Metheny and company deliver above and beyond in this respect, with plenty of unexplored terrain left over to do it all over again.

Many consider the 1970s to be jazz’s deadest era. With records like this, ECM sufficiently laid that myth to rest. Listen and find out why.

The Gary Burton Quintet with Eberhard Weber: Ring (ECM 1051)

Gary Burton Quintet
with Eberhard Weber
Ring

Gary Burton vibraharp
Mick Goodrick guitar
Pat Metheny guitars
Steve Swallow bass guitar
Bob Moses percussion
Eberhard Weber bass
Recorded July 23 and 24, 1974 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Before I get into this review, I’d like to take a moment to share my process:

As a busy grad student, listening to music for pleasure has become an increasingly difficult luxury to sustain with any regularity. In addition to my undying adoration for ECM, one major part of my motivation for starting this blog was a desire to reinvigorate my listening life. To that end, I have taken to giving one album per night my undivided attention as I go to sleep. I keep a digital voice recorder by my bed and speak whatever impressions come to mind. I then transcribe these comments the following morning and pare them down to something coherent. Any of my regular readers will notice that my review production has slowed down as of late. This is due to the fact that I have been preparing for my M.A. thesis defense and am heavily sleep-deprived as a result. Even so, I have attempted to listen when I can and continue with my audio review logs. Due to the aforementioned sleep deprivation, however, fatigue has begun to take its toll on my cognizance. This became especially apparent as I was recording my review for Ring. It began benignly enough with my usual laudatory ramblings, but as I sat down the following morning to transcribe, I realized that I had almost no recollection of the second half of what I had said, having uttered it in a stupor of half-sleep. I have since removed the odder bits, but would like to share a few verbatim examples for your (and my) amusement:

One almost feels or gets the sense of joy, for in that concept of joy there are also children…. There are clouds and unwashed apples and trees floating in the sky…. Next year it will be different, somehow pleased by the authorities while people such as I will be behind bars…

Whether or not these comments impart any deep insight into the music at hand might very well be arbitrary. Still, I cannot imagine having said such things without some sort of provocation. This experience makes me question what kind of background noise I must be filtering out before coming up with anything at all intelligible. Thank you for indulging this tangent and, for what it’s worth, here’s my highly filtered version:

Gary Burton is in a class all his own. On the vibraharp he is pliant yet unbreakable with a certain flair for the understatedly powerful. Among the present company, he is perfectly at ease. No one tries to overpower him, and despite his melodic dominance he never looms for too long, receding into as many shadows as he casts. There’s not a single pretentious note to be heard; the flow between and within tracks barters its way across smooth waters. This is a nocturnal album all the way.

In the opening “Mevlevia,” flanged guitar provides a yielding current of sound upon which Burton and Weber are able to lie back and drift. “Unfinished Sympathy” is more than just a clever play on words, but is also a gorgeous vehicle for Goodrick’s rolling solos. Its structure is built around a recurring guitar motif, which indeed feels unfinished as it circles around a flower it can never pollinate. It is a short and sweet diversion into a vaguely grasped thought. “Tunnel Of Love” is a languid journey toward something that is apprently fated but which is actually uncertain. A warm bass solo arises from the murky surface that surrounds us, threading our path with its own braided thread. A lilting guitar in the background plucks steady notes from the air, balancing them atop slowly rolling spheres. “Intrude” begins with a drum solo that flitters like a dragonfly skirting the edge of its known domain. A certain jouissance works its way from the outside in before petering out into the last few drops of cymbal, at which point the ensemble kicks in with a six-stringed groove tugged along by bass and the now recumbent drums. The delicacy from before is implicitly maintained, even as the static builds in charge, at last defused by a premature spark. “Silent Spring” feels like the most composed piece in this set, and in that sense it refuses to take its own simple pleasures for granted. The bass flickers its way into recognition like a blown-out candle in reverse, telling what it knows to be untrue, a musical fabrication in disguise. “The Colors of Chloë” produces another superb bass solo in the midst of a first-rate groove, which seems to climb up and down stairs before settling on the black and the white of its own private chessboard.

In short: listen to this album and love it.