American Garage

In 1979 the Pat Metheny Group crossed over without selling out

by Marshall Bowden

Lyle Mays instantly introduces a certain midwestern big sky feel that Metheny uses as a tailwind to fly higher into a groove that mixes Copland, gospel & blues plus some real prog rock flourishes.

You’re out on the interstate crushing merrily, sun singing bright on the American autobahn. Some clouds arrive, maybe a bit of darkening ahead. Bassist Mark Egan bubbles to the top, agile like Jaco, but more legato, warmer, like an old friend comforting you.

The clouds never last long, and the sun reemerges with Mays and Metheny cruising along on the afterburners of Danny Gotlieb’s fierce drumming.

That’s “(Cross the) Heartland”, the opening track on Pat Metheny Group’s American Garage, released by ECM in 1979.

More than any album by Cheap Trick or Boston, American Garage reminds me of what it felt like to grow up in midwestern America in the late 1970s. The textures and themes are reminiscent of humid, sunny summer days spent exploring still undeveloped fields nearby, Saturday errand rounds in the car with dad, where I was allowed to DJ between the four acceptable radio stations. The scent of fast food fries on the early autumn wind, and a band practicing somewhere in a garage nearby.

American Garage evokes all of that and so much more for me. There were other fusion records that I loved, but nothing else was really like the Pat Metheny group at that time.

American Garage was recorded at Longview Farm Studio in North Brookfield, MA. It was being produced by Metheny, who was chafing a bit at the sonic purity of Manfred Eicher’s production. He enlisted producer/arranger Richard Niles to help with the recording. The two had met several years earlier at Berklee College of Music, where Pat was teaching guitar for a time.

Niles suggested that the group use some of the modern recording techniques that were regularly in use in the studio in the production of rock and pop records. That idea is what gives American Garage such a sophisticated, modern edge without kicking it over into the path of technique-heavy jazz-rock fusion that so many other bands were taking. The very idea of using overdubs or drop ins to correct minor errors on an otherwise fantastic track was still suspect in the land of serious jazz despite Miles’ studio manipulation of his work for a decade.

“Another overdubbing idea was used on “The Search”. Pat played the melody on an electric 12-string and I suggested it might sound good in 3-part harmony. I discussed it with Pat for a few minutes and then offered to write out the harmony parts. Lyle (who had been sitting quietly playing chess against himself) said, “I’ve already done it. Try this,” and handed Pat the parts. It’s a sound I’ve never heard on any other record since.”

The effect Niles refers to can be heard on “The Search” at Pat’s entrance at 2:47. The track is the fulcrum at the center of the record, a babbling brook of a moment that we follow into the afternoon, featuring Lyle Mays’ Irish pipe synth that reminds me a little of Bob James on his run of CTI albums earlier in the decade. We first get the opener “(Cross the) Heartland” followed by the more introspective “Airstream,” a track that mellows but still hums along on its own energy source. It’s maybe a favorite track on the radio while cruising the interstate or stuck in midtown traffic on the way home from the office. The soundtrack to things getting done: new homes being built, crops being planted, restaurants bubbling to life.

Following “The Search” we get the title track leading in with Danny Gotlieb’s count-off intro  that leads into Metheny & Mays’ gospel-influenced intro recreating the feel that a lot of pop music had at the time. One reason for this is that a lot of jazz trained studio musicians were playing on pop tracks on a regular basis. Another is that Metheney and Mays were part of a generation of musicians who grew up with The Beatles, Bacharach, and other sophisticated popular music alongside the jazz musicians that influenced them, and their playing and composition couldn’t help but reflect that.

“American Garage” was the first track the group played in the studio after trying to get the album’s closer “The Epic” on tape unsuccessfully. Niles suggested that they play the rockish tune they had closed the show with the previous night in Boston, just to loosen up. Not only did it do the trick, but it was taped as well.

“The tune had no name and we were reading a review of the New York gig. It said something like, “The Pat Metheny Group play like an extremely talented garage band..” I said, “How about calling the tune ‘Talent Garage’?”

I think it was Lyle who said, “How about ‘American Garage’?” and that was it. It became the name of the album.”

The front of the album ironically shows trailer homes, while the back cover features the group posing in an old fashioned attached garage, a colorized shot taken by Rob van Petten. The concept provided a neat package that helped the album break through to some local independent FM stations like Chicago’s WXRT, which played the album quite a bit.

Some of Metheny’s playing and writing here reminds me of Keith Jarrett of the same period. There’s an evocation of the heartland, largely due to both Jarrett and Mays using open voicings, and there is the blues/gospel element inserted into what becomes an essentially American hymn. So interesting that two of ECM’s biggest stars at the time were Americans who evoked their homeland so deeply in their music.

We can’t leave American Garage without considering its final, ponderous track, “The Epic.” Though Metheny later commented that the tracks was ‘all over the place,’  it is a multi-faceted composition that hints at the direction Metheny and the group will take on future recording projects. It also allows the band to stretch out a bit, with a straight ahead jazz piano solo from Mays that points to the depth of his talents. “The Epic” is the only track on American Garage that approaches a sound one might expect from a modern guitar jazz quartet. Listening to it, one realizes that Metheny, Mays, Gottlieb, and Egan are inspired and excited by modern pop music, but they crave the harmonic and compositional complexity of jazz and improvised music.

American Garage was recorded in June, 1979. Metheny and Mays were in rehearsals for Joni Mitchell’s American tour on July 19-21 and July 23-29. They toured with Mitchell and her band (Metheny, Mays, Pastorious, Alias, and Brecker) from August 3 through September 16, playing a total of 26 dates.

Having gotten American Garage out of his system, Metheny and the band began to explore different directions and compositional techniques, leaving the album as a unique document of a specific time and place in America.

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