Pat Metheny Continues To Mystify.
By Dave McElfresh
JAZZ GUITARIST Pat Metheny is an infuriatingly slippery guy. Just when you think you've got him pegged he'll prove that you don't. Example: He just simultaneously released another Pat Metheny Group album, Quartet, and a duo project with bassist Charlie Haden, but the Haden disc sounds more like a Metheny group album and the group album more like one of his frequent ventures with other players like Haden. Go figure.
The guitarist has ricocheted all over the jazz scene for two decades now. After turning out two fine but dry albums of hardcore European jazz on the German ECM label, his increasing melodicism struck a chord with the pop jazz crowd. It was a rare marriage between uncompromised jazz and a large audience that only a few previous jazzplayers like Dave Brubeck had been lucky enough to have. Pat Metheny Group--or his "white album," as fans call the plain-covered jazz chart-topper--contained a couple of tunes, "San Lorenzo" and "Phase Dance," that became two of the most recognizeable tunes in contemporary jazz. The group's American Garage did just as well, and a short stint as Joni Mitchell's backup band secured his position with the aging Adult Contemporary Music crowd.
80/81, though, was something else altogether, and the first of many times that Metheny would piss off most of his followers. The double album was a set of hardblowing, hardly pretty songs incorporating saxmen Michael Brecker and the very intense Dewey Redman. On bass was Charlie Haden, who may have looked like an accountant but probably had the best track record of anyone on the session, having backed some of the most hardcore players in avant garde jazz.
Metheny then returned to recording more accessible jazz. But just when his fans forgave him for the sandpaper jazz experiment, he and Haden recorded Rejoicing with drummer Billy Higgins. It was even further out than 80/81, and covered two tunes by the ultimate jazz outsider, Ornette Coleman--a figure of importance to Metheny and Haden. A full 30 years after Coleman's initial appearance in jazz, there are still plenty of jazz musicians and fans who continue to dismiss him as directionless noise. Metheny certainly didn't, having been a major fan since buying a Coleman album out of a Missouri drugstore cutout bin as a kid. Nor did Haden, who spent many years as the saxophonist's bassman.
Six months later, the Metheny Group ping-ponged back to more attractive jazz by releasing First Circle, a true masterpiece of intense, intricate jazz that manages to sound far more simple than it is. The album bounced between classical and Brazilian influences, and contained the heart-wrenching "If I Could," which, if it didn't, certainly could have gotten the handsome guitarist laid more often than bricks. Such unadulterated, beautful songwriting kept the pop jazz crowd, his core audience, from giving up on the Sybil-like musician.
But Metheny's greatest sins were still to come. The guitarist split with ECM in 1984, and was courted by a number of major labels wanting in on Metheny's career. Though jazz sales typically account for only about 4 percent of all music sold (children's records account for around 5 percent), Metheny's music--the more accessible fare, anyway--sold exceptionally well for a jazz artist. Label head David Geffen was hungry to get Metheny's name on a contract. The guitarist marched into Geffen's office with a tape of a recently recorded album called Song X that would be his first release on whatever label he settled on.
If his earlier experimental albums were met with disdain by his core audience, this one appalled them. Song X was much more outlandish than Rejoicing, basically being a Metheny/Ornette Coleman joint venture, again with Charlie Haden on bass. Coleman has always insisted that his band's musicians play the song in any key they want, regardless of what he is playing: If Coleman was soloing in Bb, no problem if his bassplayer is improvising in B and his guitarist is playing in C. Coleman's writing also centers on a sing-songy simplicity that sounds like a nursery rhyme from hell to those who can't figure him out. Metheny's ability to meld with the bizarre saxman's style was astounding. Geffin gave Metheny the go-ahead without blinking an eye.
The album won critical acclaim from those who respected Coleman's approach, and made Metheny something of a hero for having successfully pulled the elusive Coleman back into the studio in spite of the latter's previous, unrealistic refusal to return for less than a million dollars upfront. But for most music listeners, Song X topped the list of The Most Irritating Music Ever Recorded.
Sandwiched between the follow-up pretty-jazz albums like Still Life (Talking) and Letter From Home were other oddball projects: appearances on the soundtrack to the Robin Williams movie Toys, a recording by Japanese singer Akiko Yano, New York's rap/jazz saxophonist Gary Thomas's Till We Have Faces, two Bruce Hornsby albums, a Jimi Hendrix tribute, and a load of Brazilian musicians' projects. Metheny played on serial composer Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, where he layered repetitive loops of his guitar playing, resulting in a 15-minute piece that was Chinese water torture for some listeners.
Even more outlandish than Song X was 1994's Zero Tolerance For Silence, where the unaccompanied guitarist beat and whacked the bejeezus out of his amplified instrument. If the Coleman session was irritating, this was a different color of ugly altogether, and one that appealed far more to the young post-industrial/thrashmongers than the jazz crowd: The CD's cover even contained a praising blurb by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. It was the final straw for those requiring some degree of musical consistency from the guy.
And this month, the pop jazz crowd will buy the Pat Metheny Group's Quartet and the outside jazz fans will opt for the Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny project, Beyond The Missouri Sky. An hour later both may wish they had bought the other instead. Quartet seldom offers up any of the gorgeous melodies found on his previous group albums. The guitarist preferred this time to enter the studio with nearly no direction in mind and recorded what happened when they let the tapes roll. The approach falls exactly between the free-for-all approach of Zero Tolerance and the ultra-tight writing of First Circle, and will probably turn off both extremes of his audience in the process. Still, Quartet fills the gap in Metheny's incredible pendelum swing across all modern jazz styles.
Beyond The Missouri Sky has Metheny and Haden (both grew up in Missouri) leaning heavily on folk and country music. Elegant Latin themes also abound, inspired in part by Haden's lifelong interest in Central American folk music. Some unlikely selections work perfectly in these guys' care: "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" was penned by Jimmy Webb, the guy who wrote "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," and "Precious Jewel" was first recorded by the 1930s country band the Delmore Brothers.
But pop jazzers will slobber the most over "Spiritual," written by Haden's son and leader of the group Spain, Josh Haden. It's a simple hymn-like cut reminiscent of that yuppie favorite, "Pachelbel's Canon in D," and probably as simple a piece as Metheny's ever recorded. Hard to imagine a cut any further removed from his sandpaper jazz outings. Even harder to imagine what sort of new direction in jazz he's working on as you're reading this.
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