Pat Metheny: Selected Recordings (:rarum 9)

Metheny

Pat Metheny
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

As the only artist granted two entries in ECM’s “Works” series of compilations, it was inevitable that guitarist Pat Metheny should also be invited to contribute to :rarum. Though confined to a single disc this time around, the results are no less cultivated in the heartlands. Neither is it any coincidence that it should begin with my own introduction to his work: Bright Size Life. His 1976 ECM leader debut with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses captured lightning in a bottle and made it audible as music. This joyous track is without equal and has not only stood the test of time but also set the standard for that test. Metheny and Pastorius were the ultimate conversers, and could take their dynamism from one level to the next in a single chord change.

Such dynamics were on fuller display in the activities of the Pat Metheny Group, whose classic ECM albums are ecumenically represented here. The quintessential “Phase Dance” from the PMG’s 1978 self-titled debut is so steeped in nostalgia that it feels like the first time, every time. Continuing chronologically through the laid-back “Airstream” (American Garage, 1979) and the invitational “Are You Going With Me?” (Travels, 1983), we touch down in the title track of 1984’s First Circle. Its locomotive charm, in combination with airy vocals from guitarist Pedro Aznar, make it the ultimate anthem of itineracy.

All of this breadth is due in no small part to the keyboard wizardry of Lyle Mays, with whom Metheny produced the inspired collaboration As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls in 1981. “It’s For You” finds the duo augmented by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos in a glorious groove. Metheny has always been a consummate solo artist as well, and the title track of 1979’s New Chautauqua is among his most emblematic for its connecting of synapses.

Rounding out this road trip are two relative outliers. Where “Every Day (I Thank You)” places his shimmering acoustic in the company of Mike Brecker on tenor, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette from a session—1980’s 80/81—that seems too often neglected in assessments of his work. “Lonely Woman” (Rejoicing, 1984), for its part, carries over Haden and swaps DeJohnette for Billy Higgins. The latter’s sundown loveliness ends this worthy introduction to one of the undisputed weavers on the six-string loom.

Pat Metheny: Works II

Metheny 2

Pat Metheny
Works II
Release date: September 19, 1988

One of the benefits of ECM’s “Works” collections is their fashioning of new narratives from preexisting material. This album is particularly successful in that regard. Like cut-and-paste poetry, it connects disparate events with uncanny coherence. It’s also unique for being the only sequel in the series, and for instigating a new and final set of five, redesigned covers and all. Here we are treated to highlights from some of Metheny’s most painterly work on record, and from sometimes-unexpected sources.

As for the expected, the compilation unearths two gems from 1976’s Bright Size Life. The trio of Metheny, bassist Jaco Pastorius, and drummer Bob Moses must be heard to be believed (as first-time listeners, I imagine, hardly believed what they heard when this leader debut was released). Where “Unquity Road” casts a spell from note one, constructing from found items a house no proverbial wolf could ever blow down, “Unity Village” is a congregation of electric guitars that allows the wind of our listening to pass through unobstructed. Such ventilation is key to Metheny’s art: furthering the gospel of melody by allowing creativity to flow directed. The detour of “Oasis” (Watercolors, 1977), in which bassist Eberhard Weber draws sustaining threads across Metheny’s sparkling arpeggios, segues back into that glorious trio with “Sirabhorn.” Another classic stopover plants us squarely in the Pat Metheny Group’s 1983 live album Travels. “Farmer’s Trust” is noteworthy for its birdlike environment and aching lyricism.

Two somewhat surprising trees sprout from 1980’s 80/81 and 1984’s Rejoicing. The first, “Open,” finds Metheny unraveling an especially tight knot in the company of Dewey Redman and Mike Brecker (tenor saxophones), Charlie Haden (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). The second, “Story From A Stranger,” joins Haden and drummer Billy Higgins at the hip alongside Metheny’s synth guitar. Every chord change is a new phase of life, a coming of age in the truest sense and a gentle reminder that nostalgia may yet be felt and conveyed for things we’ve never even experienced.

Pat Metheny: Works

Metheny

Pat Metheny
Works
Release date: April 1, 1984

On the crowded cruise ship of unmatched talents that is ECM, Pat Metheny deserves a first-class suite. The prodigious guitarist cut teeth with Gary Burton, making his first label appearance on Dreams So Real, and recording that same month (December of 1975) what would become the splash heard around the musical world that was Bright Size Life. This compilation, however, jumps over that leader debut into his last two watershed moments of the 1970s. The first of these is “Sueño Con México” (New Chautauqua, 1979). Its combination of acoustic guitars and electric bass is about as close to the original cover photograph’s open road as one can imagine. Without a care (or a car) in sight, Metheny plays his way through patchwork fields, each with its own character and color, and which by their counterpoint suggest a collective song. The second, “(Cross The) Heartland,” represents the Pat Metheny Group’s sophomore album, 1979’s American Garage. This dream team of Lyle Mays (keyboards), Mark Egan (bass), and Dan Gottlieb (drums) renders every change of scenery with utmost clarity. Metheny plays with squint-eyed brilliance, riding an underlying current that never lets up until the end. Thus, the title feels less descriptive than prescriptive: a bidding to step outside everyday bounds and see some history for yourself.

Our ride takes us through later PMG intersections, including the title track of 1983’s Travels and “James” from 1982’s Offramp. Both find bassist Steve Rodby replacing Egan for an especially distant sound. From moonlight to sunlight, this overnight diptych spotlights Mays’s ability to spin progressive ropes from traditional filaments. On “It’s For You” (As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, 1981), he and Metheny join percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, who also lets his singing voice carry forth: a melodic backbone built to withstand any flexing of key change and forward motion. Rounding out this “Works” entry are two selections from 1980’s 80/81. Alongside Mike Brecker on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, the parenthetical wonder of “Every Day (I Thank You)” opens Metheny’s 12-string like a loom to narrative weaving. By contrast, “Goin’ Ahead” is a congregation of multitracked Methenys that distills the essence of his formative years. Brilliant, evocative, and timeless.

Metheny captures all of this and more as a camera takes in light, turning moments into lasting memories to be treasured time and time again.

An Hour With Pat Metheny: A Radio Special

ECM PRO-A-810 Side A

In March of 1979, Pat Metheny appeared on the “Oral Tradition” radio program (broadcast out of Venice, California) to talk about the Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled debut and his then freshly released solo follow-up, New Chautauqua. Produced by Martin Perlich, this hour-long special was released on a rare promo LP by ECM and features an in-depth conversation with the guitarist between selections from both of albums.

Metheny gets into the meat and potatoes of his upbringing. Growing up in small-town Missouri among a family of trumpet players, his brother Mike having taught the instrument at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1976 to 1983, Metheny needed only reach his hand out to grab hold of one. And that he did, joining the school band and doing fairly well for himself until his need for braces put an end to his future in brass. Immersed as he was in Top 40 culture, guitar was an easy choice for a substitute, and so he picked out his first axe and starting swinging. After doing the “garage band thing” for about a year, at age 14 he had a watershed moment when he saw Wes Montgomery and Gary Burton’s group perform a stone’s throw away in Kansas City. Hearing improvisation in earnest for the first time, and in such close quarters, converted him to jazz on the spot. It wasn’t long before he had every album by Burton, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane he could get his hands on. He recalls how naturally the concepts of jazz came to him, whereas in rock music the role of the guitar was ultimately unclear. Sitting in with blues musicians in Kansas City, where he humbly guesses he was being brought onstage as more of a novelty at first than anything else, was his first real classroom. After a year of teaching in Miami, he joined Burton’s band with Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Mick Goodrick, all of whom saw something in the young guitarist. Along with their already-heightened abilities came the patience needed to allow someone like Metheny to blossom.

Metheny elaborates on his jump from rock to jazz. Whereas in the former vein he saw a vital sensuality that was of organic appeal to younger listeners, he also yearned for a subtlety that rock just didn’t have. He even gave prog (Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, etc.) a chance in the hopes there might be something there. But he quickly realized how those guitarists were just “playing blues scales up and down like every rock player always did, [only] a lot longer and twice as boring.” It was in improvisation that he found the wider, more nuanced feeling he was searching for, and the first guitar icon to show him how it was done was Jimi Hendrix. Thinking back on it, he still wonders how Hendrix was as popular as he was. Still, Hendrix was in no way a conscious influence, but a talent to look upon with wonder. In Metheny’s estimation, the guitar was essentially neglected as a frontline instrument until Larry Coryell joined forces with Burton in 1967, paving the way for John McLaughlin and other pioneers. Before then, advances in guitar technology just weren’t developed enough to make it stand out against the harmonic landscape of a saxophone or piano. Coryell was groundbreaking for bringing a hard-edged sound to a jazz context, thereby widening the scope of what the instrument could do as a method of sound production. When Metheny himself came on the scene in 1974, the only viable gigs for jazz guitarists were with Jack DeJohnette, Chico Hamilton, or Burton. Burton was the natural fit.

From Pat Metheny Group we hear “Phase Dance” and “San Lorenzo.” In light these wonders, even Metheny is aware of their commercial appeal the non-jazz listeners (the album hit the Billboard charts, after all) but is adamant about changing nothing to achieve that success. “I just physically couldn’t play something that I didn’t really believe in,” he admits, thus capturing something essential to the steadfastness of his art.

Metheny transitions into reminiscing about touring in Oslo, where he spent three days writing, and two more recording, the music that would become New Chautauqua. Spurred on by fears of typecasting himself, and encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, transitioning from a quartet to a solo project was the logical next step in his recording journey (though he isn’t without his sense of humor, as when quipping about a “fantasy record” with Lyle Mays and singer Nicolette Larson). Metheny likens the sound of Chautauqua to the open spaces of his childhood—hence the country twang of the album’s title tune (heard here, along with “Sueño Con Mexico” and “Daybreak,” the latter a nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”). He also unpacks the title, which pays homage to the so-called Chautauqua who drove around playing one-nighters all up and down the Midwest (his great-grandfather, in fact, was a leader of one such group).

In addition to these anecdotal details, Metheny reveals a bit of his creative process. “Every time we hit the stage and we play the first notes, it enters a completely different realm for me,” he says of live performance, which is more than his wheelhouse but a way of life. He goes on to describe his style as one of playing “out” and never for himself, and shares an analogy for playing that was passed on to him by Burton: “There’s a whole grammar thing you go through when you’re becoming a musician and an improviser that’s very similar to…when you’re a child and you’re learning…how to speak…. It gets to the point where…you don’t think about verbs and pronouns and stuff…you just say whatever you have to say and it comes out. Sometimes there’s little goofs…but the message comes through if you’ve got something to say. It’s exactly the same when you’re improvising. You have this whole backlog of information, but when it comes time to play, as you become more advanced as a player, you think less and less about the technical things…and you just say what you have to say, and hopefully the audience will respond to what you’re saying if you make the picture clear enough for them.” And how does he respond whenever people come up to him and ask how he plays so well? “I haven’t practiced in four years.” The stage is where it all goes down.

“I don’t see myself as a guitar player that plays melodies in a setting,” he self-observes. “I see the act of playing the guitar and writing the tunes and having the band as a statement about what I want to be like as a guy, you know…. If I were ever not going to do that, I would go sell cars for my father.” Of course, we can be thankful he isn’t selling cars but rather music that was made to flow from their stereos as we drive along open roads to places we’ve yet to know.

ECM PRO-A-810 Side B

Pat Metheny Group: Live In Concert

PRO-030-front

Pat Metheny Group
Live In Concert

Pat Metheny guitars
Lyle Mays keyboards
Mark Egan bass
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded August 31, 1977
at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
Radio broadcast by KJAZ
Engineer: Bud Spangler
“San Lorenzo” recorded September 4, 1977
at Seattle Opera House
Radio broadcast by KZAM
Engineer: Rick Keefer
Prepared for release by Robert Hurwitz

This rare promo-only LP documents two live radio broadcasts from the summer of 1977 by the Pat Metheny Group. Three of the four tracks are taken from a performance at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall as heard on KJAZ, while the outlier, “San Lorenzo,” was heard on KZAM from a performance at the Seattle Opera House. That latter tune is a thing of archival beauty. First, we get to hear Metheny introducing to the crowd what has since become a staple of the band’s repertoire as a “brand-new one.” Second, Metheny gives brief insight into its “odd tuning for the electric 12-string” and by extension into his process. This information only heightens our wonder at what transpires for its effortlessness of execution in a nascent stage, while also cluing us in on the historicity of its coalescence. Moreover, Metheny and company play it more slowly and enigmatically than on the seminal album they would record for ECM a year later, thus allowing keyboardist Lyle Mays a horizon’s worth of space in which to dance.

Mays, by any stretch of the imagination, is the highest mountain on that horizon (its peak now glowing more brightly than ever in the light of his recent passing). The greenery he paints in “Watercolors” drips as if after a rainstorm of hope and nostalgia. Amid drummer Dan Gottlieb’s glistening cymbals, he pays deference to an underlying ether. Gottlieb shines also in “Phase Dance,” which opens the album. In this setting, it immediately becomes apparent just how much ECM production brings out from certain configurations. Hearing the Pat Metheny Group in close quarters like this allows individual lines to rise lucidly, leaving us to imagine the depths extracted in a studio setting. Either way, it’s glorious to hear the band’s vibrant turns of phrase. Mark Egan’s electric bass is the backbone, flexing in harmony with every shift of weight. The excitement of the crowd is also palpable, and shows how well-traveled the music was on the road before it landed in the studio a year later. It’s worth noting that the title here is misspelled as “Phase Dancer” on the LP sleeve, as it may just be the most accurate description of Mays’s mode throughout the lesser-heard “Wrong is Right.” Its vivacity, to say little of Metheny’s golden solo, shows what can happen when musicians and listeners share the same oxygen. As KZAM-FM’s then-music director Jon Kertzer writes on the back cover: “Forget about jazz-rock fusion and who played with whom and where. Just sit back and listen to the music—some of the most refreshing and creative sounds that I have heard in a long time.”

Pat Metheny Group: First Circle (ECM 1278)

 

Pat Metheny Group
First Circle

Pat Metheny guitars, synclavier guitar, guitar synthesizer
Lyle Mays trumpet, synthesizers, piano, organ, bells
Steve Rodby acoustic bass, bass guitar, drum
Pedro Aznar voice, guitar, percussion
Paul Wertico drums, percussion
Recorded February 15-19, 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Pat Metheny

By the release of First Circle, expectations for the Pat Metheny Group surely ran high, but with the appearance of new drummer Paul Wertico (replacing Danny Gottlieb) and Argentine percussionist Pedro Aznar (who took the place of Nana Vasconcelos, and whose vocals elevated the group to new levels) the results coalesced into something timeless. Don’t let the hokey “Forward March” fool you, however. Everything that follows is as solid as it gets. Were you to map out a flow chart of listeners’ favorites here, the largest field would likely be taken up by the effervescent title cut. And while indeed this vocalese-laden train of stunning pianism from Lyle Mays and Metheny’s equally locomotive acoustic is a glorious masterstroke if there ever was one, one can hardly refuse the wide vistas of “Yolanda, You Learn” or the heartrending brushwork of “If I Could,” one of the most utterly beautiful statements Metheny has ever recorded. “Tell It All” and “End Of The Game” hark back to Offramp, the latter especially in its soaring synth guitar lead. Both are spurred along by a gentle guiding hand, born of a palpable synergy and given traction in Wertico’s fantastic timekeeping. Although Metheny’s presence is vivid throughout, for me it is Mays who gilds this project with its distinguishing colors. And hats off to Aznar, whose singing in “Más Allá” (this album’s “What Game Shall We Play Today?”) adds another highlight. It’s fantastic to hear lyrics being added sparingly to the Metheny universe, if only because his melodic lines already describe so much without them. Aznar shines again in “Praise,” thereby ending things with a revelry more than worthy of its title. Are you really still reading this?

Pat Metheny: Rejoicing (ECM 1271)

 

Pat Metheny
Rejoicing

Pat Metheny guitars
Charlie Haden bass
Billy Higgins drums
Recorded November 29 and 30, 1983 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those of you who, like me, hold Bright Size Life in high esteem as one of Pat Metheny’s best can take comfort in this, his second trio album for ECM, even if the presence of Ornette Coleman’s onetime rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins creates an entirely different result. As on the scratched cover, the names are distinct to a careful eye, but eventually comingle into a unified sound that bubbles with color and shades of intensity.

The session saunters into our hearts with an arresting version of Horace Silver’s “Lonely Woman.” Metheny’s acoustic leads a supremely attuned Haden, who plunks the ether like a giant rubber band as Higgins rustles an autumn’s worth of leaves with his brushes. It is through this play of light and shadow that we find solace in “Tears Inside,” a strangely upbeat affair for which Metheny breaks out the subtle sere of his electric. “Humpty Dumpty” is an even more visceral jaunt through storybook phrasings and fluid guitar licks. The short but sweet title track completes the Coleman half of the album and features some dexterous runs, matched step for step by Higgins’s cymbal work and Haden’s own nimble jaunts. Higgins has one of the most precise snares in the business, as evidenced in his solo. Haden stretches an unassuming flair in “Blues For Pat,” which also boasts Metheny’s most present solo on the album and more percolating beats from Higgins. “Story From A Stranger” reprises Metheny’s shimmering acoustic, which glistens with a backcountry charm, seeping like morning light into a log cabin of secrets. Against this perfect backdrop, Metheny’s soloing reaches some of its most revelatory ever recorded. Another Metheny original, “Waiting For An Answer,” makes for an enigmatic, arco-laden closer.

The album’s only misstep is “The Calling,” the synth guitar of which doesn’t quite jive with me (though flashes of brilliance do appear, as in the ascent at 7:20). And while I do appreciate the improvisatory spirit behind this track, I only wish it had been more properly amped, for at nearly 10 minutes it throws off the delicate balance of its surroundings. But don’t let this one personal caveat deter you from basking in the beauties of those surroundings.

Incidentally, one of engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug’s finer accomplishments.

Pat Metheny Group: Travels (ECM 1252/53)

 

Pat Metheny Group
Travels

Pat Metheny guitars
Lyle Mays piano, synthesizers, organ, autoharp, synclavier
Steve Rodby basses
Dan Gottlieb drums
Nana Vasconcelos percussion, voice, berimbau
Recorded July, October, and November 1982
Engineer: Randy Ezratty
Produced by Pat Metheny and Manfred Eicher

If you’ve ever desired a Pat Metheny Group greatest hits album, then Travels is for you. Compiled from the group’s touring activities in 1982, this double set is a must-have. From the glittering lotus of melody that is “San Lorenzo” to the even more effusive “Phase Dance,” the requisite classics are all here. We also get a curtailed, though no less epic, version of “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls,” which here draws out like a long cinematic fade and throws the windows open wide to the band’s boggling sonic purview. And one can hardly help but swoon from the dizzying heights reached by this live version of “Are You Going With Me?” Here the studio version seems but a memory on the path to glory, and finds exuberant life in what is perhaps Metheny’s best solo on record. An absolute affirmation.

Yet the album’s true value comes in the handful of songs exclusive to it. Through these we encounter softer sides of the PMG, each burnished like a different shade of leather. “The Fields, The Sky” is an outstanding place to start. Vasconcelos’s unmistakable berimbau threads a supremely melodious backdrop, while Metheny is at once distant and nearby, winding a slow and organic retrograde around the fiery center within. Vasconcelos is also the voice of “Goodbye,” a forlorn piece of sonic stationery across which Metheny inscribes a most heartbreaking letter toward a ripple of an ending. This pairs nicely with the title track, a laid-back photograph of Americana that is like a rocking chair on the back porch: lulling, and affording an unobstructed vista. Similar strains await us in “Farmer’s Trust,” a slow plunge into an ocean of undriven roads gilded by the whispering of baby birds and the rustling of the leaves that hide them, and in the smoothly paved blacktops of the synth-driven “Extradition” and “Song for Bilbao.” Each of these creeps along like wispy clouds over badlands, spun by keyboardist Lyle Mays into sunset. But it isn’t all drawl, as drummer Dan Gottlieb proves in the invigorating “Straight On Red,” throughout which he provides the perfect springboard for the masterful dialogues of Metheny and Mays.

Travels are what the PMG are all about, and the selfsame album shows us the collective at its finest hour. Those hearing the PMG for the first time will want to start with the studio sessions—and especially Offramp—from which Travels was in part drawn. That way, one can appreciate the enthusiasm of the crowds, and get at least a taste of what it must have felt like to be there among them. With a depth and cleanliness of sound that no band can match, the PMG were a force to be reckoned with, but also one so welcoming that reckoning need never have applied. Theirs is a space where nature and nurture shared the same pair of lungs.

Should posterity ever look back on our age as one of overconsumption, warmongering, and greed, one listen to Travels will prove to them that in our hearts we continued to cherish all that is good and true.

Pat Metheny Group: Offramp (ECM 1216)

Pat Metheny Group
Offramp

Pat Metheny guitar, guitar synthesizer
Lyle Mays keyboards
Steve Rodby basses
Nana Vasconcelos percussion, berimbau, voice
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded October 1981 at Power Station, New York
Engineers: Jan Erik Kongshaug and Gragg Lunsford
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When I was a freshman in high school, our science teacher brought us outside one day to observe a partial solar eclipse. Though he had set up a telescope, provided us with special glasses, and prepared a lecture, my eyes were glued to the ground. As anyone who has experienced a solar eclipse knows, the sun’s light pocks the shadows like Swiss cheese, splashing the earth with countless little crescents of a half-eaten sun.


Eclipse shadows (photo source: Ketchum family blog)

Every note of Pat Metheny’s heavenly soloing on Offramp is its own crescent. His is a talent spun from sunlight, and one that might damage the eyes were its full force to be unleashed at once. Thankfully, we need no special equipment but our own ears to appreciate the intensities he brings to this immortal PMG date, which after the global reach of As Falls Wichita… expanded the compositional and technical prowess of Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays to deeper, more serpentine caverns of experimentation.

The Synclavier-enhanced calls of “Barcarole” are the album’s birth cries, each a punctilious footstep into the greater semantic complexities of “Are You Going With Me?” This smooth ride through sun-kissed plains drips with the tears of an unrecoverable past, Metheny’s guitar bellowing like a human trumpet keening at the speed of travel. “Eighteen” inoculates the proceedings with the livewire exuberance in which these musicians so deeply excel. Metheny is light on his feet and infinitely careful about his twists and turns, infusing each with that unmistakable audible grin. Dan Gottlieb kicks up a dust storm in the title song, which also features Metheny in one of his wildest excursions yet. Fractured pianism, an explosive glockenspiel, and Steve Rodby’s fantastic ground lines paint just the right ambiance to allow Metheny to uncork a bottle of some unrepeatable tincture that he seems to have been saving for this very occasion. After this flip and a half, “James” comes across as an acrobatics of its own kind, gracing our cochlea with heartwarming electricity, leaving the wispy skies of “The Bat Part 2” as our only postcard.

Yet all of the above combined barely tickles the underbelly of “Au Lait,” which still stands as Metheny’s most perfect statement. Though something of a carnivalesque on the surface, complete with rolling snare and haunting vocals courtesy of Vasconcelos, one also feels sung to of something far more serious. Whatever that might be, we experience it in real time, every wordless call a way station to where it all began. Metheny is as transcendent as he will ever be, each swing more harmonic than the last over the Joe Hisaishi-like touches from Mays. Oracular and airborne, this is a space we never wish to leave. And on the inside, it never does.

Metheny is a skillful writer who, with heart in place of pen, takes a kernel of an idea and draws every imaginable root before starting in on the leaves. Like a solar eclipse, such music comes all too rarely in any given generation. The beauty of Offramp is that it always feels like the first time. Is your turn signal on yet?

<< Steve Reich: Tehillim (ECM 1215 NS)
>> Ulrich Lask: Lask (ECM 1217)