Pat Metheny is one of a group of incredibly versatile guitarists who has expanded and exploded the traditional definitions of jazz, rock, folk, Americana, and popular music. He’s worked with musicians as diverse as Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Milton Nascimento, Joni Mitchell, and Jim Hall. He can play straight ahead jazz on acoustic guitar, rock-oriented electric, or a more folk-oriented sound on the 42-string Pikassoguitar, which he helped develop.
Over the years the Pat Metheny Group has amassed an incredible body of work, recording in a variety of styles. One way that Metheny keeps things fresh is by taking significant time between group projects, allowing band members to work on individual projects so that everyone returns to the group refreshed and full of ideas. The group has gone through a number of different lineups over the years, yet maintains much of the same spirit of adventure and excitement. Equally long-lasting has been Metheny’s collaboration with keyboardist Lyle Mays. Mays’ compositional strength and wide-screen orchestration has been part of Metheny’s music since he began the Pat Metheny group. In addition, the heartland American background the two share (Metheny is from Kansas City, Mays from Wausaukee, Wisconsin) was integral to much of their work together.
Though Metheny switched from ECM to Warner records, some of his best-known and most admired work has definitely been that associated with the German label. So it makes sense that they release a volume in their :rarum series devoted to his work. While the guitarist could easily have filled two discs (a la Keith Jarrett), the Pat Metheny :rarum release is the best collection of his work on the label available and an excellent resource for those just discovering his work or for those who are longtime fans.
We begin with the title track from Metheny’s debut album Bright Size Life, featuring him in a trio setting, which has always been a particularly fruitful setting for his guitar work. Here he plays with bassist Jaco Pastorious and drummer Bob Moses. It’s amazing to remember that when this was recorded, in 1975, Metheny and Pastorious were of youngsters barely into their twenties. They had been playing together a bit already in trio settings and continued to have a great musical relationship, touring together with Joni Mitchell in 1980. Bright Size Life captured a new spirit among young jazz players, one that wasn’t content to just churn out yet another version of standard material, however musical and however much technical prowess they may possess. Metheny wrote most of the album’s material, and his dialogue with Pastorious and Moses is the stuff of classic jazz groups.
The Pat Metheny Group made its debut in 1977, and it’s first recording, 1978’s Pat Metheny Group, featured keyboard player Mays, bassist Mark Egan, and drummer Dan Gottlieb. “Phase Dance” is somewhat typical of the group’s early output, with Mays providing orchestral synthesizer effects, gospel-tinged acoustic piano work, and Metheny offering a lush canopy of acoustic and electric guitar. The group had spent the previous couple of years traveling from one end of America to the other, playing as many as 300 one-nighters in a year, and constantly honing their sound and style. The Americana that became so apparent on later recordings by the group as well as elements of progressive rock are all brought to bear on this track.
In 1978 Metheny recorded New Chautauqua, a solo album on which he overdubbed and layered acoustic and electric guitars as well as overdubbing bass parts himself. Here he really expanded on the use of open, country-style chords, resulting in a version of the same style that Bill Frisell has explored of late. In addition, many other elements were apparent, such as an ambient texture and a relaxing, open vibe that probably influenced later practitioners of less interesting musical genres such as smooth jazz and New Age. But that’s not Metheny’s fault, and the key element in his work is his attention to musical detail, which always renders the music interesting upon frequent listening, not just a catchy one-time thing. “New Chautauqua” is one of my favorite Metheny tracks of all time, and its inclusion here was definitely a necessity.
The next track, “Airstream” comes from the American Garage album, which was the group’s first to be recorded in the U.S. and was done in the midst of a massive tour that spanned more than a year. It has all the familiar elements of the group’s sound at this time, including attempts to bring more mainstream musical elements into the band’s work. Metheny has generally said that Garage is one of his least favorite of his albums, but in the liner notes here he says that “This piece was one that I was particularly fond of at the time it was written and we still occasionally play it.”
Many who love some elements of Metheny’s playing are less than thrilled with the Group recordings overall, and 80/81 seemed designed to address that issue. Here Metheny plays with a fantastic jazz group that includes saxophonist Mike Brecker, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The track featured here, “Everyday (I Thank You)” is gorgeous and demonstrates that Metheny could fit well into a more jazz-oriented environment while still maintaining his unique style and sound.
The rest of the tracks presented here, except for the final one, are all by various versions of the Pat Metheny Group, and emphasize the expanding role of Lyle Mays in the group’s sound, whether it’s his signature synthesizer work on “It’s For You” from As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls or his sweeping synth orchestrations and meditative acoustic piano work on “The First Circle” from the album of the same title. Some listeners lament the fact that Metheny’s guitar is not always as prominent as it was on some of the group’s earlier work, but many listeners find the contributions of Mays as well as new group members like Steve Rodby and Paul Wertico to be natural progressions of the band’s sound.
The final selection is a stunningly beautiful rendition of the Horace Silver composition “Lonely Woman” recorded in 1983 with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. Here we come full circle back to the trio format, and Metheny’s acoustic guitar work here is nothing short of breathtaking. For those detractors who feel that Pat has not been a ‘real’ jazz player or lacks the ability to play in a more traditional style, this track as well as the album from which it comes, Rejoicing, should put an end to that viewpoint.
As with all the :rarum series recordings, this one is nicely packaged and contains liner notes by the artist himself explaining his reasons for picking each tune and some of the history behind it.