Pat Metheny – Road to the Sun
(Modern Recordings / BMG. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)
The first thing to know about this album is that it’s classical guitar and, apart from strumming on two tracks, Pat Metheny plays on only the final track – and that’s not even his own composition but Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina.
First off is Four Paths of Light, a four-part suite for solo guitar. It’s a credit to Metheny’s versatility that it’s often hard to recognise him as the composer, some highly arpeggiated passages played in strict tempo suggestive of classical etudes, and Part 4 a piece in 3/4 time with a strong flamenco flavour; but inevitably Metheny’s distinctive lyricism and personality shine through, particularly in Part 2.
If anyone’s going to play this suite, Jason Vieaux is the perfect choice. He gained international attention in 1992 aged only nineteen by becoming the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Guitar Foundation of America’s International Guitar Competition; and further cemented his reputation when his 2014 album Play won a Grammy for best classical instrumental solo. His tastes have the breadth needed to do justice to new, genre-defying work, his recordings spanning the more obvious classical guitar repertoire (such as Fernando Sor and Agustín Barrios Mangoré, and transcriptions of JS Bach and Isaac Albéniz) to Astor Piazzolla to more contemporary classical composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis.
But most revealing of all is Vieaux’s 2005 album Images of Metheny, a set of Metheny originals arranged for solo guitar of which the centrepiece is 5 Songs in the Form of a Baroque Suite that does what it says: take five Metheny compositions and perform them as if they were baroque compositions, to beautiful effect. And as well as an obvious love for Metheny’s compositions, Vieaux has a well-matched playing style of meticulous clarity combined with lush romanticism.
Metheny’s also found the perfect performers for Road to the Sun, a six-part suite for four guitars that follows Paths of Light. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet comprises John Dearman, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant and Matthew Greif who, like Vieaux, perform across many genres, from Bach to bluegrass to rock. LAGQ’s classical crossover album Guitar Heroes (2005) won a Grammy and included compositions by composers as diverse as Steve Howe of Yes fame, Chet Atkins and (are we seeing a pattern here?) Pat Metheny.
As with Four Paths of Light, the parts of Road to the Sun show great compositional complexity and a wide variety of moods, from the baroque feel of Part 1 to quiet nocturnal musings in Part 3 to the special effects that conclude Part 4: slithery glissandi that sound like the players running their nails along the strings, dry percussive strums on muted strings, and high-pitched tinkling that I suspect is picking the strings between the nut and tuning pegs. Part 2 and Part 5 sound like vintage Pat Metheny, concluding with sections that could almost be the Pat Metheny Group unplugged – perhaps because they’re the only two parts on which Metheny performs, raising the question of how much a musician’s sound derives from their compositions and how much from their playing style.
We certainly get Metheny’s playing style on the concluding piece, a reinterpretation of Arvo Pärt’s solo piano composition Für Alina. Metheny plays it on his famous custom-made 42-string Pikasso [sic] guitar, so named because its three curiously arranged necks and two sound holes make it look like a cubist interpretation of a guitar. Its sound is incredible, from deep resonant bass notes to bright ringing tones reminiscent of a zither – and Metheny beautifully captures the ethereal melancholy of the original.
For Metheny lovers or anyone interested in classical guitar, this album’s a must. And for anyone not yet familiar with classical guitar, this stunning album could well be their gateway drug to a whole new universe of wonders.
Road to the Sun is released on Modern Recordings / BMG on 5 March 2021