Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM 1190)

 

Pat Metheny
Lyle Mays
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls

Lyle Mays piano, synthesizer, organ, autoharp
Pat Metheny electric and acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars, bass
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion, drums, vocals
Recorded September 1980 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Listening to any Pat Metheny album for the first time is like finding a long-forgotten photograph, interleaved in a dusty book marked to the brim with the marginalia of a past life. And just when one thinks that feeling might dull over time, Metheny whittles from the vast block of wood that is his genius a masterpiece like As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, on and through which the Missouri-born guitarist begins to expand his reach to “global” proportions. His Instrument—with a capital “I”—and his playing of it define supernovas of emotional distance in the most compact lines. From these he unspools spectrums upon spectrums.

Where many of his albums might open with a shout of joy, a heavy acoustic rhythm, or a sweeping grandeur, the 20-minute title track’s genesis lies in the ambience of a field recording. We hear a crowd, a voice chanting taals, the rasp of shakers. Thus (dis)located, Metheny begins to map this human web through the drone of Lyle Mays. Only then, from thunderous rumblings, does his slack guitar take our hand and lead us through the crowds. With a drum machine at his side, Nana Vasconcelos clothes us in local colors. The electronic accents and attentive sense of evocation evoke Steve Tibbetts as the band coalesces into a shimmering, autoharp-laden catharsis. Riding a leviathan of strings, a voice recites numbers, as if in code. With the sounds of children at play still in our ears, the upbeat “Ozark” crests into the wave of extroverted Americana that is Metheny’s standby. Mays at the keys makes this stage, gliding effortlessly along a landscape tessellated by a rainbow of impressions. “September Fifteenth” is as intimate as the last is expansive, a prayer for Bill Evans, who left us on the selfsame date while the album was in session. The pianism of Mays (for whom Evans was a formative influence) could hardly be more fitting. To be sure, it glitters like the rest, only this time with the beads of falling tears. The title of “It’s For You” lends delight to the cover montage. If its colorful combination of sounds is meant to brighten our mood after the mournful turn that precedes it, then it certainly does the trick. Metheny’s signature electric traces in silhouette every footprint leading into the mystical shores of “Estupenda Graça,” where he sketches for us a more diffuse version of street on which we began.

Some have remarked on the “regrettable” cover art and the title that brands it, but I for one believe it to accurately illustrate Metheny’s process. Making or receiving a phone call is a form of travel in itself, for those precious moments of communication seem to collapse the two spaces that both speakers inhabit. And which of us has not, when experiencing something sonically profound, held up a phone so that the person on the other end could get some sense of the experience? “It’s For You” isn’t just a catchy phrase; it’s a thank you for the listener.

Pat Metheny: Watercolors (ECM 1097)

Pat Metheny
Watercolors

Pat Metheny guitars
Lyle Mays piano
Eberhard Weber bass
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded February 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

From the opening strains of Pat Metheny’s second album, we immediately know that we have a calming yet powerful journey ahead of us. The present company—among which keyboardist Lyle Mays, a Pet Metheny Group fixture, makes his first appearance—renders his characteristic combination of form and style into an instinctive wash of comfort. Mays’s pianism proves the perfect complement to the guitarist’s untainted sound. Just listen to the way he buoys the music in the opening title track, and his fluent solo in “River Quay,” and you will hardly be able to imagine the music without him. We get a lingering look at Metheny’s own abilities in “Icefire,” in which he solos on a cleverly tuned 12-string that lobs between solid chords and higher callings. Midway through, the music melts into its second titular half, flowering in a cluster of Ralph Towner-esque harmonics. “Oasis” introduces the harp guitar, a sympathetically strung instrument that shines in Metheny’s hands like the charango in Gustavo Santaolalla’s. A mournful electric sings at its center, ever shielded by an unrequited embrace of acoustics. Varied rhythms and bold chord changes animate its otherwise stagnant beauty. After these quiet submersions, we come up into air, and into light, with the beautiful “Lakes,” which positively glows with quiet ecstasies. Again, Mays broadens the edges to new waterlines, cresting like a wave that never crashes upon its thematic shores. A two-part suite proves a complex call and response with the self before the 10-minute “Sea Song” reprises the harp guitar for its swan song. The music here is beyond aquatic, and could easily have seeded a Ketil Bjørnstad project. Eberhard Weber’s smooth bass introduces the morning’s regular activities with the first rays of sunrise in countless awakening eyes, before rolling out once again, drawn back into the depths like the tide that gives them life.

Metheny’s precision dives and soars, a most selfless bird, his fingers running together like the colors of the album’s title. His supporting crew is in tune at every moment (and one mustn’t fail to praise Dan Gottlieb’s drumming in this regard), protecting every melody with passionate detail. This is perfect music for travel, for the music travels itself. It’s a plane ride above a shimmering landscape, a hang-glide over open valleys, a dive into crystal waters—and yet, our feet never leave the ground. One might call it otherworldly, were it not so firmly rooted in the earth in all its glory. Pure magic from start to finish.