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.

<< Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition: Tin Can Alley (ECM 1189)
>> John Abercrombie Quartet: M (ECM 1191)

Pat Metheny: 80/81 (ECM 1180/81)

Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny guitar
Charlie Haden bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Dewey Redman tenor saxophone
Michael Brecker tenor saxophone
Recorded May 26-29, 1980 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With 80/81, Pat Metheny took one step closer to his dream of working with The Prophet of Freedom (a dream he finally achieved with 1985’s Song X), and what better company than Coleman alumni Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman, both fresh off the boat of Keith Jarrett’s newly defunct American Quartet and both welcome additions to the extended Metheny family. Along with the technical mastery of reedman Mike Brecker and drummer Jack DeJohnette, plus a dash of post-bop spice, the result was this still-fresh sonic concoction. The atmospheres of the opening “Two Folk Songs” invite us with that expansive pastoralism so characteristic of Metheny. This makes Brecker’s highly trained yet raw stylings all the more marked, bringing as they do a sense of presence that explodes into a million pieces. Metheny’s benign sound catches at the threshold of perfection with every turn of phrase, allowing Brecker fiery bursts of abandon. DeJohnette throws on a log or two with his rocketing solo, while Haden wipes the slate clean with shadings of his own. Metheny shows off his unparalleled command of two-string harmonies, fading on a lightly skipping snare. This feeling of perpetual motion lingers throughout the title track. Content in sharing the revelry, Metheny relays to Redman who, though he may not fly as high, emits no less intensity in his groove. “The Bat” gives us a minor-keyed shadow of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” before diving headfirst into Coleman’s “Turnaround.” This trio setting boasts inventive melodies and a plunking solo from Haden. “Open” is, suitably enough, the freest track on the album, emboldened by trade-offs between Redman and Brecker, while “Pretty Scattered” dances more lithely with John Abercrombie-like exuberance. A ringing high from Metheny laser-etches this track into our memory. Balladry abounds in “Every Day (I Thank You),” one of his most gorgeous ever committed to disc. This is music that grins even as we grin, and shines through the darkest cloud of a Midwestern storm. Metheny ends alone with “Goin’ Ahead.” This breath-catching piece works its farewell into our hearts with every suspended note, effortlessly walking the beaten path of all those souls who have traveled before, so that those yet to be born might know where they come from, and to where they might return.

Like much of what Metheny produces, 80/81 is wide open in two ways. First in its far-reaching vision, and second it its willingness to embrace the listener. Like a dolly zoom, he enacts an illusion of simultaneous recession and approach, lit like a fuse that leads not to an explosion, but to more fuse.

<< Bengt Berger: Bitter Funeral Beer (ECM 1179)
>> Corea/Burton: In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979 (ECM 1182/83)

Pat Metheny: New Chautauqua (ECM 1131)

ECM 1131

Pat Metheny
New Chautauqua

Pat Metheny electric 6- and 12-string guitars, acoustic guitar, 15-string harp guitar, electric bass
Recorded August 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pat Metheny is one of those rare artists whose virtuosity is so fluid that it is no longer a necessary lens through which to view his music. Despite the 43 strings at his disposal for this fourth ECM outing, Metheny opts for pure expanse over density. While his first three projects found him fronting equally captivating support, here we see the Missouri native charting heretofore-unrecorded autobiographical depths that remain as resonant as they ever were.

New Chautauqua is bookended by two travel diaries. The title opener cracks like a morning egg onto a sizzling griddle. Here, as throughout, we find an entire desert compressed into a single grain of sand, needing only the microscope of Metheny’s meticulous syncopations to make our way through its staggering terrain. At the far end of the tunnel is new life lit by “Daybreak.” Additional guitars and bass ooze with optimism in this divided smile, holding fast to the idea of—but never the physical need for—a destination.

Along the way, we encounter a string of contemplative rest stops, each the trail marker of a limpid night. Every verse of “Country Poem” makes for a fitting prelude to the diptych of “Long-Ago Child/Fallen Star,” in which the 15-string harp guitar dialogues with an open slide in the lead. Such delicacy can only be drawn in negative space, using pigments of regret and joy in equal measure. A heavy pause inhales deeply before expelling its acoustic splendor, hovering over arpeggiated flowers like a silent and thoughtful bee whose days are numbered, but whose memory lives on through a psychological pollen of sorts that cross-fertilizes vaster, less visible pastures. “Hermitage” might as well be the album’s title, so thoughtful are its steps, each a point along a circle of plot and resolution. Yet the needle in the New Chautauqua haystack is “Sueño Con Mexico.” Threaded by an acoustic ostinato, around which Metheny gilds ornamental embraces, its unyielding grace never fails to unhinge. It has the entire world’s natural cycles in its purview, turning as might an eddy in an April stream.

Metheny’s is a highly refined world that is as loose as it is exacting, written in the kind of polished script that can only come from a musical path forged through love of communication. Among decades of varied output, this stands as one of his most vivid sonic postcards for the yet-to-be.

<< Azimuth: The Touchstone (ECM 1130)
>> Walcott/Cherry/Vasconcelos: CODONA (ECM 1132)

Pat Metheny Group: s/t (ECM 1114)

ECM 1114

Pat Metheny Group

Pat Metheny 6- and 12-string guitars
Lyle Mays piano, oberheim synthesizer, autoharp
Mark Egan bass
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded January 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There’s no mistaking a Pat Metheny album, and along with running mates Lyle Mays, Mark Egan, and Dan Gottlieb, the experience is unforgettable. From its inaugural moments, the group’s self-titled debut overflows with radiance. Ironically, this was one of the last PMG albums to cross my ears. During my first listen, the seamless combination of guitar and keyboard on “San Lorenzo” in its original guise was enough to show what I’d been missing, for clearly it had already kicked up the ECM ethos up a notch or two. This quiet revelation is further enhanced by the synth lead, gently skating its way across a surface that glitters with an artfully placed autoharp (which presages the sound of Metheny’s Pikasso guitar). Egan’s weighty but smooth bass works magic through the unmistakable lyricism of Mays’s pianism as both are swept favorably along by Gottlieb’s foamy breakers. And there is Metheny himself, whose own waves scorch the shorelines of our expectations with fragrant sunset. There is much to be found here in the way of timeless material, such as “Phase Dance,” another formative cell of the PMG canon. Buoyed by a seesawing bass, effortless soloing from Metheny and Mays scintillates over tight drumming. The wide open spaces of “Jaco,” named for the bassist and early collaborator Jaco Pastorius, veer our attention to a savvy and vigorous funk from which Metheny spins his web with both the grace of a ballerina and the raw emotive power of a blues guitarist. The following tune, “Aprilwind,” is as elegiac as the previous is jubilant. This solo guitar lozenge, wrapped in bittersweet introspection, proves a brief medicinal corrective to the positively acrobatic “April Joy.” A dream within a dream, it awakens our senses to a life renewed. But perhaps none is more uplifting than “Lone Jack,” in which an upbeat narrative flair and superb ground line make for a perfect sling with which to hurtle Metheny’s flames for one arousing final lap around the firmament.

Metheny’s sound has a bright and fluid posture that never fails to work its way into our hearts. No matter what mood we are in before pressing PLAY, we can always be sure of finishing with a smile. This is life-affirming music that stays true to itself no matter what the weather. One sometimes speaks of “desert island discs”—i.e., albums that are indispensable in our listening lives. This is beyond that, for once we hear it we have it with us always.

<< Tom van der Geld and Children At Play: Patience (ECM 1113)
>> Keith Jarrett: My Song (ECM 1115)

The Gary Burton Quartet with Eberhard Weber: Passengers (ECM 1092)

ECM 1092

The Gary Burton Quartet with Eberhard Weber

Gary Burton vibraharp
Pat Metheny guitar
Steve Swallow bass guitar
Dan Gottlieb drums
Eberhard Weber bass
Recorded November 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Gary Burton’s Passengers has it all: its frontman’s incomparable mallets, Dan Gottlieb keeping the beat, the unmistakable bass of Eberhard Weber paired with the equally unique stylings of Steve Swallow, the fluid fingers of guitarist Pat Metheny (who would soon go on to front his own super group with Weber and Gottlieb), and the all-important bow of ECM’s attentive production. Not enough to whet your appetite? All the more reason to buy it.

Chick Corea’s “Sea Journey” opens with the floating exuberance that Burton carries off like no other. Weber pulls out all the stops here, proving to be perfect complement to Burton’s sound. A stunning piece of work with a heightened groove-oriented trajectory. This is followed by three Metheny compositions. In the subtle ballad “Nacada,” vibes rest on a gentle surface tension of flowing bass, guitar, and brushed drums. “The Whopper” locks into more upbeat strides. Weber’s bass is as bright and attractive as it gets, while Metheny’s solo dances on a pinhead. Listeners will recognize “B & G (Midwestern Nights Dream)” from his seminal Bright Size Life, its fractured rhythms maintained beautifully here. The quiet background supports a glowing solo from Weber, not to mention another from Metheny himself. “Yellow Fields” (Weber) is another exuberant number, and features the album’s most incredible vibe work. The bittersweet farewell of Swallow’s “Claude And Betty” contorts its hands in shadow puppets, backlit as if by a sad and lonesome dream.

Mindfully recorded and expertly executed, the melodies of Passengers come alive with unpretentious joy. The synthesis of players forms a palette in the truest sense, its colors already artfully arranged before they are ever mixed and applied to canvas. An essential addition to any Burton library, and a must-have for any Weber fan looking to complement his brooding, handsome meditations with something more uplifting.

<< Keith Jarrett: Staircase (ECM 1090/91)
>> Jan Garbarek: Dis (ECM 1093)

Pat Metheny: Watercolors (ECM 1097)

1097 X

Pat Metheny

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.

<< Collin Walcott: Grazing Dreams (ECM 1096)
>> Julian Priester and Marine Intrusion: Polarization (ECM 1098)

Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life (ECM 1073)

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.

<< Gary Burton Quintet: Dreams So Real (ECM 1072)
>> Jack DeJohnette’s Directions: Untitled (ECM 1074)

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

1051 X

Gary Burton Quintet
with Eberhard Weber

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.

<< Keith Jarrett: Belonging (ECM 1050)
>> Steve Kuhn: Trance (ECM 1052)

Pat Metheny: American Garage (ECM 1155)

ECM 1155

Pat Metheny Group
American Garage

Pat Metheny guitars
Lyle Mays piano, oberheim, autoharp, organ
Mark Egan bass
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded June 1979 at Longview Farm, North Brookfield, Massachusetts
Engineer: Kent Nebergall
Produced by Pat Metheny

With American Garage, the Pat Metheny Group solidified its signature sound. This album, the group’s second, took the Number 1 spot on the 1980 Billboard Jazz chart and spawned a legion of followers. Its virtuosic blend of jazz and roots rock evokes the heartland like no other and has withstood its own commercial success relatively unscathed.

The album opens with a wide view of the open road, and we are in the passenger seat. Metheny’s glistening guitar licks take the wheel, relishing the roar of Lyle Mays’s lively keyboard support under the hood. With Dan Gottlieb’s proclamatory drums and Mark Egan’s sinuous bass in the back seat, we’re good to go. Together, this quartet of talented musicians creates the ultimate musical road trip. There is a beautiful interplay between guitar and bass in the first track, swelling into a verdant wash of backwater splendor. The tone here is almost painfully nostalgic (all the more so for the album’s historicity), as if yearning for something that is only as real as its remembrance. As the car speeds along its journey, we see our collective past just beyond the windshield, somehow within reach. But we also know that as soon as we pull over and step out of the car, there will be nothing to grasp, to hold close, to stow in the trunk or in the glove compartment of our desires. There is only the empty air, the cloudless sky, and the sun beating down upon our backs, as if to say: “You’ve still got miles to go.” But neither do we care, because there is an unbridled joy to the process of travel.

“Airstream” feels undoubtedly like summer, a time of year when obligations melt in the heat along with our inhibitions. The only thing that seems real is the lack of definitive answers, the endless possibility that such freedom entails and which brings us closer to self-realization. It is our most formative season; one in which we observe, live, and learn at our own pace. Metheny captures this free spirit so clearly in his playing. Chord progressions roll off his fingers like change into eager hands at a lemonade stand, and we are reminded of those little moments of independence and security in which, from the merest clinking of coins, we came to assert our agency in a growing awareness of economy. We think also of young love that, while unrequited, also gave us a brief taste of a life lived without obligation. As the track fades out, it leaves behind a trace of itself, a memento of years never forgotten.

“The Search” is the soundtrack for a movie of the mind, a flashback that looks only forward. Alluring piano work lifts the spirits, ruffling the edges of our attention like linen flapping on a clothesline. We bask in the humid air, even as squalls threaten to break upon the horizon. Lusciously harmonized guitar lines blossom in the morning sun with the promise of a new journey.

The title track sounds like a theme song for a show that can never materialize, for its images are supplied by memories. We begin to recognize the value of those times when the self had yet to be formed but during which the future seemed so bright. And no matter how jaded we have become in our lowest points of adulthood, Metheny is here to remind us that it is precisely in these artifacts of sound that we can preserve our tired hopes.

The last track of this all-too-short album is called “The Epic,” and like its title it has an extensive tale to tell. Metheny and Mays both deliver with the most inspired improvisations on the album, drifting across the plains like steel-stringed tumbleweeds. We are driven through an entire day and night of travel. We find ourselves in vast stretches of daylight, but also experience nocturnal visions, wrapped in a sleeping bag under a canopy of stars in the dying embers of a campfire exhaling hot orange into the darkness. Their crackling fills our ears with a cacophony of sound, easing us into the lull of dreams. And in those dreams we relive the entire journey that got us to where we are now. We are drifters, alone and free of earthly bonds, loving every second of life’s uncertainty.

In spite of the album’s title, we always seem to be far from home. Metheny’s compositional talents are given ample breathing room as he crafts rustic yet elegant evocations of a lost America. There’s a small-town feel to the proceedings, a backwater purity that beckons throughout. It is the innocence of a bygone era, which remains here and there in small pockets. And it is through these musical lineages that we string those pockets together with shimmering synchronicity. Like a conceptual jukebox, each leg of the journey that is American Garage spindles a new record into our attentions. The precision of Metheny and his group is extraordinarily clean, shaken dry and stripped of all excess.

Some people say that in every journey half the fun is in getting there. American Garage says all the fun is in knowing that there is no “there” to get to.

Listen to this album on vinyl if you can (ECM has announced a new 180g pressing for 2010). For the technologically unable, the CD will have to suffice. And while the CD may not replicate the experience in quite the same way, at the very least one can get a slightly clouded view through this classic side-door window.

<< Old And New Dreams: s/t (ECM 1154)
>> Kenny Wheeler: around 6 (ECM 1156)