Listening to Pat Metheny

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.

 Aptly titled……

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.

Pat Metheny – a bit too tasteful

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.

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7 responses to “Listening to Pat Metheny

  1. Yeah, I must say I do agree as well. I haven’t gotten yet to the stage of downloading ‘What’s it all about’ but having listened to excerpts somehow it doesn’t really resonate. Perhaps ‘bland’ is too harsh a word but it really doesn’t touch me at all. Quite a contrast with the many fabulous pieces by PMG from the late 70-ies up to ‘Imaginary Day’ that continue to blow me away! Quite an interesting read! It has helped me to understand better whay some of his music justs doesn’t seem to come across very well. My very first experience with this was when ran down the street to the next record shop to listen to ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’. I just did not want to believe what I was hearing and was indeed struggling with it. But after some 5 minutes feeling completely lost I gave up and hoped for more interesting and appealing music to come. Anyway…. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this great musician who has definitely influenced my guitar playing to a large extent. Just to be honest 🙂

  2. I agree. I was struggling with his jazz stuff. I like the laid back trippy ‘musical starstreamsesque’ Methany music playing at sunset at a lake cabin, a large tumbler of whiskey in hand, candles, with Jen Aniston. After I read ‘Can’t Find My Way Back Home’ I know why I struggle with Jazz. Those boyz were seriouly lit. -And unless U are doing the same thing U don’t ‘get it’.

    • Jen Aniston? Interesting company you keep, Ruairi! Of course, there’s jazz and jazz…I guess we all struggle with some of it; for example, I find someone like Kenny G more difficult to listen to than the free-est of Ornette Coleman, because to me Kenny G isn’t jazz at all, just shopping mall music. I find it hard to listen to ‘Dixieland’, too because I’ve heard so many bad imitations over the years. My way in was via Coltrane, then Miles and Blue Note, but even then I find late period Coltrane and the ‘Soul Jazz’ era of Blue Note pretty sterile. The point is, I guess, that jazz is a broad church and we can all find something in there to stimulate the spirit. Even though Pat Metheny’s music has given me so much pleasure over the years, I feel that he’s been in some kind of comfort zone for too long now and that complacency has leaked into his music somehow. The great thing about jazz though is that other people have picked up the baton and taken things forward or into new areas. If, as you say, you don’t ‘get it’, there’s always someone round the corner doing some stuff that you will get. Thanks for your post.

      • I always keep an open mind. Name some bands and I will give them a listen. I like to be surprised.

  3. OK…if you like Metheny’s fusion stuff, I would recommend Brian Blade’s Fellowship band (particularly the 2 Blue Note albums). Lars Danielsson has just put out a great new album on ACT (‘Liberetto’) and on the same label, both the remaining members of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio – Magnus Öström and Dan Berglund – have produced some good stuff. A lot of good jazz emanating from Scandinavia in recent years – another talented guitarist (in a totally different style) is Eivind Aarset, who uses lots of electronics and effects. Jaga Jazzist are a terrific Norwegian ensemble who have numerous influences from Zappa to Prog Rock yet manage to produce something unique. Mathias Eick from JJ also makes more mainstream albums for ECM and another good trumpeter is Christian Scott from New Orleans. Probably my favoutite band of the 2000’s was Dave Holland’s Quartet/Quintet with Chris Potter, Robin Eubanks and Steve Nelson. Two more terrific guitarists from the USA are Kurt Rosenwinkel (who played with Brian Blade) and Joel Harrison. Two Aarons – Aaron Parks and Aaron Goldberg – are both great piano players producing exciting stuff and on the New York scene, there are some fabulous players – David Binney (alto) Edward Simon (piano), Brad Shepik (guitar), Jim Black (drums), Scott Colley (bass) – all producing challenging and satisfying music. Hopefully some of these will appeal to you.

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