Parts 2 and 3 here
APPRECIATING PAT METHENY
It's been a wildly successful 25-year career - three gold records and an eye-popping 15 Grammy awards. Some fans like Metheny's early work. Others like his experimental trio and quartet offerings which various observers have called 'straight-ahead', 'bebop' or 'avant-garde' jazz. This articles focuses on the 'sweet spot' - the accessible, melodious pop-jazz fusion that made Pat Metheny famous.
Born in Kansas City in 1954, Metheny could be found on stage playing guitar with the city's best jazz musicians at the age of 15. He taught at the University of Miami at 18 and the Berklee College of Music in Boston at 19. Barely 20, he was already performing internationally with the great vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Metheny's recording career began in 1976 with the album Bright Size Life. "My first temptation was to make a record of all standards - it was the music that I had been playing the longest, that I knew the best," Metheny said in 1999. But he decided to blaze his own trail instead.
Metheny: "When I think of all my favorite musicians, the thing that they all seem to have in common ... is that they are all true individuals - there’s only one of them, they’re all originals. When we think of Miles Davis, ...Bill Evans, ...Stevie Wonder, and so many others, within an instant of the mention of their names, we can 'hear' their sound in our heads."
When he couldn't find the right platform to develop his own style, he decided to form his own band. "In some ways, this was scary - there was no road map for this at all," Metheny said in 1999.
Sidemen from the early days are still with the Pat Metheny Group - keyboardist and co-writer Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby. But there has been a steady stream of new collaborators and a constant intake of new influences, ranging from Brazilian samba on Still Life (Talking) to the 'free' music of Ornette Coleman. The Pat Metheny Group's most recent disc, Speaking of Now (2002), is said to draw inspiration from world music and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. PMG's line-up on Speaking of Now includes Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez, percussion meister Richard Bona from Cameroon and Vietnamese trumpeter Cuong Vu.
Metheny has paid his dues. His success is due in no small part to the fact that he went on the road and did "billions of gigs", as he told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. "For 15 years, I did have an apartment, but it was just a shelter for my answering machine."
He has two small children and lives in Manhattan now but continues to tour a great deal. "I'm still convinced that traveling is the only real way to sustain a career in this business, " he said. Metheny's music has never received much airplay.
Metheny the man appears to be as accessible as his music. Many reviewers have commented on his easy-going manner. Fans appreciate his willingness to sign autographs and chat a bit.
Speaking of the Music
Metheny's music is instrumental but with a vocal quality. It flows from jazz ingredients like Bill Evans' voicings which are de rigueur in the idiom today. In keeping with its jazz roots, much of the music is improvised rather than composed but always pleasing and lyrical with a quietude and a gentleness throughout.
For Metheny, finding his own voice has everything to do with improvisation. "I intuitively knew from a very early age (about 12) that improvisation was going to be the most important of musical languages for me, and that the study of it would be all consuming," Metheny has said.
The vocal quality stems from two sources - treating the instrument as voice and voice as instrument. Several reviewers have commented on Metheny's 'voice-like guitar sound'. The soaring guitar-synth sound, in use as early as the 1982 Offramp album, is perhaps the single-most important defining attribute of the 'Metheny sound'.
Everything old is new again. Many western instruments were originally intended to imitate the voice. During the Renaissance, many pieces were written indifferently 'for voices or viols'.
The vocal quality to Metheny's music also comes from wordless vocals, long vowel sounds essentially used as another instrument in the ensemble. Vocalizations appeared as early as 1981 on the Wichita Falls album (supplied by Nana Vasconcelos) and the practice continues to the present day (by Richard Bona and Cuong Vu on 2002's Speaking of Now).
Metheny's music is also distinguished by its instrumentation. Metheny uses an array of acoustic, electric and synth guitars, some of them custom-built like his soprano acoustic guitar, the Ibanez PM-100 jazz guitar, and the 42-string Pikasso guitar featured on 1997's Imaginary Day.
Various reviewers have pointed out other characteristic ingredients in Metheny's music including long structures that repeat with strengthening forces, meter changes, tempo shifts, repeated ascending arpeggios, and altered scales.
This reviewer divides Metheny's pop-jazz fusion into three periods. The early work is developmental - essentially Metheny searching for his voice. Hints of it come through on the Wichita Falls album (1981) and Offramp (1982), but it's not until Still Life (Talking) in 1987 that the Metheny sound is fully formed and the voice is in full bloom. Still Life is so good you don't want it to end. It's liquid in a way the earlier work is not. The album contains the Brazilian-inspired '(It's Just) Talk' and 'Last Train Home', perhaps Metheny's 'greatest hit', which this reviewer first heard as bumper music on public television.
The second period, which appeals to this reviewer the most, can be called the creative phase with adventurous albums like Letter From Home and Secret Story. The inventiveness on these albums has not been surpassed, in this reviewer's estimation.
The third period is something of a return to jazz roots. One observer has commented that Metheny's guitar improv now reflects his early enthusiasm for jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery. Whatever the inspiration, the improvisations on the two most recent PMG discs (Imaginary Day and Speaking of Now) do seem to lean to the jazz side of the equation. They are qualitatively different from those on Letter From Home and Secret Story.
Worthy of Appreciation (Still)
The riffs are melodic, the instrumentation is gorgeous but, best of all, this is music that takes you on a journey, worlds away from 'smooth jazz' with its obligatory, hidebound saxophone solos. Metheny's music takes you to places you've never been before, unlike music on the radio which takes you to the next commercial.
You won't find Pat Metheny on the hit parade. But he's easily one of the most talented and visionary musicians of the last quarter-century.
Offramp (1982) (Grammy)
Still Life (Talking) (1987) (Grammy)
Ÿ designated 'Essential' by a large record store chain
Letter from Home (1989) (Grammy)
Secret Story (1992) (Grammy)
Imaginary Day (1997) (Grammy)
Ÿ designated 'Essential' by a large record store chain
A Map of the World (1999) (movie soundtrack)
Ÿ a lot of nice acoustic guitar - don't miss this one!
Speaking of Now (2002) (Grammy)
Visit the official Pat Metheny Group Website:
Fairly rich in content, including tour dates and lots of Q&A's answered by Metheny himself on a variety of musical subjects.
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