Pat Metheny – From This Place
(Nonesuch 075597924374 CD review by Peter Bacon)
There is only one Pat Metheny but I remember a time when there were two Pat Metheny audiences. There was the “jazz” one which admired his skill upon the frets and the fact that he had come up through Gary Burton’s band, was working with Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, etc, and who took heart from the later trio albums. Then there was the Pat Metheny Group (PMG) audience who, at their most ecstatic, would sing the band’s themes as stadium chants (just listen to the start of the 1993 live album The Road To You), and who were always slightly mystified by jazz that went head-solo-solo-solo-head without it being dressed in all manner of world rhythms, synth washes, marimba interludes and high wordless vocal lines.
Gradually, with various solo projects and the Unity Group along the way, Metheny appears to have arrived at a form of his music which, by virtue of having a core (mainly acoustic) jazz quartet, a (mainly) string orchestra, some subtle keyboard/sample/production tweaks and a set of substantial compositions as strong as any he has written, might just bring both fan factions together in a single, thoroughly satisfied throng. (Though I probably should acknowledge that the “jazz” purists are a little more laid-back these days, having been reminded that absolutism is never a good look, and so are more malleable in the hands of such a charming and persuasive man as Pat. Either that or he has worn them down…)
There is a glorious lot to like on From This Place. It may get a little close to prog/pomp in its grandeur on occasions, but if it is portentous in manner it is beguiling in execution. The lushness of the sound is matched by the muscularity of the playing. There are some sublime solo moments from each of the quartet: Metheny on guitar, Gwilym Simcock on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums.
While Metheny is capable of all manner of moods in his writing and arranging, in his guitar playing he seems to me an exquisite explorer of the brighter, sunnier shades, at his best soaring like an eagle or cruising down the interstate. Compare his solos on this album with those of Simcock. Is it because the skies of Missouri are so much higher and wide open compared to, say, those of Bangor or Manchester, that Simcock is able to tap into a very particular strain of intimate melancholy that the wide-smiling Pat can never quite reach? Sure, Pat can play poignant, but it always sounds so simply pretty as well; Simcock, as he shows here on The Past In Us (just as he showed with The Impossible Gentlemen’s It Could Have Been A Simple Goodbye) can break a listener’s heart. And, my heavens, on Everything Explained, Simcock and Sanchez dance together brilliantly, stamping out an ecstatic fandango of potentially leg-tangling complexity with never a false step. Oh is a marvellously lithe anchor throughout and her double bass solo on Sixty-Six, and her work on Wide and Far and Same River leave one beaming as broadly as Pat must have in the studio. The sound and production – for which all credit to Metheny and co-pro Steve Rodby – is as good as you’ll hear in many a year of listening.
I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to hear in From This Place (underlined by the storms depicted on the cover) the idea that if these are dark days we are living in, both politically and ecologically, then it is the search for beauty and love which can help to bring the light in.
The title of the substantial (13min and a bit) opening track, America Undefined, inevitably triggers memories of This Is Not America, the theme Metheny and David Bowie wrote for the film The Falcon and The Snowman. Disillusionment with the behaviour of the U.S. Government of the 1970s was a motivator of the “falcon” in that film even if the course of action he took (and the company he kept in the form of the “snowman”) was, to understate it, reckless.
Forward skip the newCD to the title track (beautifully sung by Meshell Ndegeocello and digitally knitted together from different, sometimes overlapping, takes to produce a complex reading of the lyric) and we get these lines, written by Alison Riley for Metheny’s melody: “From this place I cannot see / Heart is dark, / Beneath rising seas” and, later, “Fear and hurt / Again we bleed”. That sounds like Trump’s America to me. But the final verse is: “From this place, I must proceed / Trust in love, / Truth be my lead” and it finishes with this pledge of solidarity: “From here I will stand with thee / Until hearts are truly free”.
If some of the arrangements on From This Place lay down a backdrop of dark and swirling storms, the foreground is filled with playing, both ensemble and solo, that sounds like it comes from hearts which, if they are not already truly free, certainly conjure that impression in music. They give us hope.