By Bradley Bambarger <2005>
One might not think that something as seemingly abstract as an hour-plus instrumental jazz composition would be the stuff of a manifesto. But guitarist Pat Metheny’s ambitious new work is rooted in a political, or at least philosophical, statement.
The Pat Metheny Group’s album The Way Up consists of a through-composed, many-hued suite, composed by Metheny with longtime keyboard partner Lyle Mays and performed with a fresh incarnation of his electric, multicultural six-piece group. Metheny says the suite’s expansive character stems “from a rejection of all the scaling back in our culture, where so much is reduced to sound bites and nuance goes out the window. We strove to offer an alternative in size and detail, in the spirit of challenge.”
The challenge goes beyond scale, though. “There has always been a political component to jazz — just look at the ramifications of free jazz behind the Iron Curtain,” Metheny says. “We’re living in a politically and culturally polarized time in our country, even in terms of jazz; and we declare a proud allegiance to a liberal, inclusive, contemporary aesthetic. In a blue/red, left/right world, we are as blue and as left as you could be.”
The Pat Metheny Group is performing The Way Up in its entirety on tour, but after performing the new suite, “we keep going, if there’s demand,” Metheny says, adding that the set list can draw from across his band’s 27-year songbook. “I’ve always been proud that the group is fully backward compatible. Version 1.0 remains fair game.”
A native of Lee’s Summit, Mo., but a longtime New Yorker, the 50-year-old Metheny presents a famously genial front, one that belies a fierce determination to go his own way. In recent years, he has foregone Midwestern propriety to articulate views in opposition not only to the crass commercialization of jazz (such as Kenny G crafting an electronic duet with Louis Armstrong) but against what he sees as its false ossification as “America’s classical music.”
While Metheny concedes potential institutional/educational benefits to Jazz at Lincoln Center and its repertory focus, he stands “in opposition to the concept that jazz is re-creative music — it isn’t classical,” he says. “It can be interesting and fun to play in the style of someone else — and it’s hard enough just to play well, so I celebrate that on every level — but for me, it’s essential to hear people create their own music. After all, improvised music has always been about the particular people who play it.
“What we value about Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is that they speak so vitally about their time, what those players were dealing with in life and the music in that moment,” Metheny adds. “The same goes for Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, which is the most individual, liberally minded band working today. The idea of authenticity and authorship is a key component of jazz, but what’s beautiful about that is that it demands you be who you are and tell your own story.”
The story that Metheny and company tell with The Way Up is kaleidoscopic and fresh. The piece’s framework owes much to the pulse-driven minimalism of such contemporary composers as Steve Reich, yet the content ebbs in intimate pools and flows with bright, bursting lyricism. Along with Metheny’s array of electric/acoustic/exotic guitars and Mays’ piano and electric keyboards, the mix includes longtime bassist Steve Rodby, vital new drummer Antonio Sanchez and trumpeter Cuong Vu. Guest harmonica soloist Gregoire Maret adds another new tint.
Metheny’s head was turned by Reich’s pioneering work in the early ’70s, and he played multiple parts on the seminal 1987 recording of the composer’s Electric Counterpoint. (The guitarist will reprise his role in 2006 for Reich’s 70th birthday events at Carnegie Hall.) For recurring fabric in The Way Up, the Metheny band sampled itself playing Reich-like rhythmic pulses on toy instruments in a Manhattan subway station. One of the first people Metheny played the new album for was Reich.
“We hadn’t seen each other in years,” Reich says. “He said, ‘Within a few seconds of hearing this, you’ll know why I’m here.’ A wonderful thing is that you can’t tell where the composition ends and the improvisation begins. It sounded totally like Pat to me, though. Along with all the imagination, accuracy and melodic facility, there’s this flexibility, a lilt and swing; you know it as soon as you hear it, like you know Lester Young’s saxophone.”
Although Metheny has always had an identifiable soundprint, the context in which he puts it to use has varied wildly. In addition to the electric and often Latin-accented sounds of the Metheny Group, there have been his searching jazz trio recordings, folk-toned acoustic projects, lush film scores and noise-friendly avant-garde solo experiments. He toured in Joni Mitchell’s band in the ’70s and co-wrote a song with David Bowie in the ’80s. He has recorded duets with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Charlie Haden, as well as collaborated with free-jazz pioneers Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey.
Metheny has heard it before, but many hardcore jazz fans, critics and players will cry that The Way Up “isn’t really jazz.” He says, “It’s always been a mission of the group to ask questions about sound and form, to push borders. Along the way, I’ve realized that if someone somewhere doesn’t say that what you’re doing ‘isn’t jazz,’ then you’re not doing your job.”
Veteran jazz bassist/composer Dave Holland agrees. He was immediately impressed by Metheny’s debut solo album — 1976’s classic Bright Size Life, with bassist Jaco Pastorious and drummer Bob Moses — when they were fellow travelers with the German art-house label ECM. In the ’90s, Holland toured with Metheny in the electric Parallel Realities group with Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette, as well as recorded with Metheny and Roy Haynes for the guitarist’s trio set Question and Answer.
“Pat knows and honors the tradition of jazz as much as anyone,” Holland says. “But he loves music other than jazz, and that works its way into his music. Definitions of jazz can be so narrow — people said that what Miles did in the late ’60s and ’70s when I was in his band wasn’t jazz, and people said it about Ornette and Herbie. But even with all his success, Pat has never been afraid to test himself and his audience, too. He has a vision and works hard to realize it, like all great musicians.”
One of the premier homes for eclectic ambitions in music these days is Nonesuch Records, which released The Way Up as part of its new deal with Metheny. His label mates now are composers Reich, John Adams and Philip Glass but also singer/songwriter Randy Newman, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and avant-Americana combo Wilco. Nonesuch plans to release not only new Metheny group and solo recordings (including a live trio album with Sanchez and bassist Christian McBride); the label will gradually reissue his late-’80s/early-’90s Geffen catalog. An expanded, 20th-anniversary edition of his album with Ornette Coleman, Song X, is due in the fall.
Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz is a confidante of Metheny’s from his early ECM days. To Hurwitz, the young Midwestern virtuoso of the wild hair and broad grin isn’t so different from the successful, sophisticated artist and Upper West Side family man of 2005 — and not only because he still has the same hair and grin.
“Pat is pretty much the same guy he was when we first met — simultaneously serious, in terms of the intensity of his music-making, and completely open and easy-going, in terms of his character,” Hurwitz says. “I think you can hear these two characteristics, being intense and being completely open, in most of his music. And isn’t that what we all look for in musicians — people whose human characteristics are reflected in their music?”
(Originally published in the March 27, 2005 issue of The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)