The release of a new Pat Metheny album would once have been enough to have me scurrying down to my local record shop to snag a copy and it’s a testimony to my views on his recent output that I’ve had a download of his 2011 release, ‘What’s it all about’ sitting unaired on my hard drive for several weeks now.
Now that I have got round to listening to it, I have to say that it’s pretty much as advertised – a 10-track collection of cover versions played solo on a variety of acoustic guitars; beautifully recorded, played with restraint, affection and great technique. It’s also bland, anodyne and devoid of any of the wit and invention that characterises his best work. OK – to be fair, this can probably be seen as a ‘hommage’ to a collection of tunes that have great personal meaning for Metheny, but it does extend a worrying streak of indifferent recordings that stretches back to the 1990’s.
There are probably at least 3 different Pat Methenys; all of them reflecting a distinct aspect of his character. Metheny the Jazzer has made everything from industrial noise/free jazz (‘Song X’ – 1986, ‘ Zero Tolerance for Silence’ -1994) with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins to post-bop guitar trio jazz (‘ Day Trip’ – 2005, ‘Question & Answer’ – 1989) with musicians such as Roy Haynes, Bill Stewart, Dave Holland and Larry Grenadier. Dependent on your taste, some of these albums are top-notch whilst others are just noise. Rather like The Black Crowes wanting to work with Jimmy Page, Metheny’s free jazz/Ornette moments reflect his desire for a balls-out harmolodic thrash with an early hero, but in truth, it’s not really him. What Ornette actually thought about what was essentially a Metheny ‘vanity project’ is open to speculation. In recent years, Metheny has also produced two albums alongside pianist Brad Mehldau that are impressive on numerous levels but don’t exactly push the envelope for this type of jazz.
Metheny the Fusion Fan has – since about 1977 – largely operated via his ‘Pat Metheny Group’ aggregation alongside long-term collaborator Lyle Mays and a rotating crew of top players. Routinely derided by hair-shirted jazz purists as ‘fusion-lite’, the PMG gave Metheny an outlet for his rock god aspirations and for about 10 or 12 years from the mid-80’s acted as a focus for his most dynamic and inventive playing and composing. They were also terrific on stage. The PMG probably reached their zenith in the late 80’s, but continued to deliver the goods at a high level until 1997’s ‘Imaginary Day’. That album incorporated a wealth of different strands of jazz, rock. funk, techno and world music. to the extent that there was probably nowhere left for them to turn afterwards. Subsequent albums – only 2 in 14 years – have suggested that this is a seam of ideas that Metheny has now worked out.
The third Pat Metheny is something of a sentimentalist and this version has tended to sneak out via his acoustic ballad recordings over the years. He has made albums with Charlie Haden, Jim Hall, Gary Burton and on his own that reflect a cardigan and slippers performer sliding into middle-aged spread. ‘What’s it all about’ comes under this heading and is one of the more explicitly mainstream of Metheny’s projects. Of course, not all of this stuff is worthless fluff; 1997’s ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ with Charlie Haden is a terrific album, but – let’s face it – was bought by an awful lot of people who would generally not be considered jazz aficionados. Like ‘What’s it all about’, it’s the kind of CD you can slip on between the crudités and the tapenade at any well-mannered dinner party and will happily snuggle up to both ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Aja’ with equal fondness.
Pat Metheny is a couple of years younger than me, but in common with many people in their mid-fifties, he’s perhaps tending to opt more frequently for the comfortable option rather than the challenge of the new. His problem is that whilst he has produced a body of work within the jazz mainstream, he’s also a child of The Beatles generation and additionally grew up with the twang of midwest country guitars in his ears. This means that he’s subject to a raft of different influences and sometimes struggles to choose between them. ‘What’s it all about’ is clearly an attempt to create an album with a specific ‘late-night’ mood that draws on his many influences, but unfortunately lacks the dynamism and clarity that characterises his best work. Let’s hope he opts for something a little more challenging in future.