BOOK REVIEW: Mervyn Cooke – Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975–1984

Mervyn Cooke – Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975–1984
(Oxford University Press, £12.99, 322pp. Book review by Chris Parker)

The Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series now includes scholarly works on Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Keith Jarrett and Thelonious Monk; this latest offering concentrates on the work of a man described by the late Richard Cook as ‘surely the most popular jazz musician of the modern era’: Pat Metheny. In the same article, however (an entry in his Penguin Jazz Encyclopedia), Cook neatly summarises the controversy often arising in the jazz world at the mention of the Missouri-born guitarist’s name: ‘his embrace of electronics regularly leads him towards clichés which he himself may have created … the Pat Metheny Group … sound[s] like a brainy prog-rock group with particularly nostalgic leanings … And he couldn’t care less.’

Mervyn Cooke, Professor of Music at the University of Nottingham, meets such criticism head on in this study of Metheny’s recordings for ECM (Bright Size Life to Rejoicing), readily acknowledging the many apparent paradoxes that characterise his subject’s musical reputation. Metheny’s music is, his detractors claim, bland and commercial, yet the man himself is as much an unabashed admirer of Ornette Coleman as of his great hero Wes Montgomery; he dislikes having his music labelled ‘fusion’, yet his Grammys place him firmly in that musical category; he made his name with ECM, yet accuses label boss Manfred Eicher of putting ‘a dark blue barrier … between us and the tape’.

Cooke, unlike his near-namesake, is generally positive about the considerable appeal of Metheny’s music, which, he claims, ‘deftly balances, to varying degrees in different contexts, spontaneous improvisation, avant-garde experimentation, straightforward melodic appeal, and firm structural control’ and quotes extensively from interviews with the guitarist in which he expresses his open-minded, thoughtful approach, epitomised by this statement, made to Jazz Forum’s Pawel Brodowski and Janusz Szprot in 1985: ‘I’ve always felt very lucky that somehow, early on, no one ever told me “Well, this is jazz and this is that.” It was never an issue for me. And yet everything I’ve been involved with as a musician has had to do with improvising which, from my point of view, has made everything that I play jazz, with no fear of style.’ Cooke then goes on to explore Metheny’s attitudes to many current controversies. On the term fusion: ‘I really didn’t want to hear backbeats and rock beats and distorted guitar sounds. I really wanted to deal with harmony. I didn’t want to play on one chord or two chords.’ On the celebrated ‘ECM sound’ (in this instance on Rejoicing): ‘It’s just so bad, muffled and reverby.’ On the balancing of rock elements and improvisation: ‘Our music has elements of [rock’s] power and rhythmic stuff, but at the same time we try to keep the tradition of improvising in mind too …’

The meat of the book, however, is found in Cooke’s scrupulously detailed musical analysis. Illustrating his descriptions with copious musical examples, he surveys Metheny’s decade at ECM album by album, concentrating on the leader himself, but also acknowledging the contributions of Danny Gottlieb, Nana Vasconcelos, Mark Egan, Lyle Mays et al., and concludes with this ringing endorsement: ‘… this balancing act [between the spiritual and the mathematical, loud notes and soft notes, lots of chords and simple chords, free and structured] constantly aspired to promote the overriding ideal of the new paradigm which lay behind all Metheny’s music: the passionate commitment to find ways in which a jazz-based idiom might communicate meaningfully to a contemporary audience versed in contemporary musical styles’.

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