In our series in which musicians do a “deep dive” into the music of their inspirations, jazz composer, pianist and broadcaster Simon Lasky describes ten tracks by Pat Metheny. Simon writes:
I got into jazz quite late (my early twenties) and Pat Metheny’s music even later (my mid-late twenties!). But, when I first discovered a handful of Pat Metheny Group albums, I felt as though I’d found my guy. Often in combination with Lyle Mays, his music does everything I want music to do. My background is as a contemporary classical composer, so I’m drawn to long, through-composed narrative structures which explore and develop a wide range of sophisticated harmonies and emotions. Essentially, that’s a very Central European classical construct. But, I also love the immediacy of improvisation, the jazz vocabulary and a high level of instrumental performance. Like I said, I found my guy! For me, first a foremost, Metheny is a great composer, producing a body of work which would rival anything by a contemporary composer of music for the concert platform.
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I also detect a sense of profundity to all aspects of Metheny’s music making; there’s an intensity and a sense that he’s trying to express something quite profound. This is very intangible, but he makes me believe that making music matters. That it can make a difference. And I try to carry that into everything I do in the world of music.
1. Third Wind originally from Still Life (Talking) (Geffen Records, 1987)
This is a great example of the through-composed, long form, narrative structures that I love, and which directly resulted from one of the great compositional partnerships of recent decades: Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. This track has everything: instrumental virtuosity (Metheny with a nod to Charlie Parker with his four-bar guitar break at the end of the first section), complex polyrhythms which create thrilling grooves, motivic development, and the use of dynamics and different rhythmic feels to create and release tension.
2. Facing West/Cathedral in a Suitcase from Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992)
A masterpiece, the album opens with Metheny’s reverb drenched nylon string guitar emerging from The Choir of the Cambodian Royal Palace; it’s one of the great moments of recorded music from the last 30 years. But I’ve gone for tracks 2 & 3 (I’m not really breaking the rules because track 2 segues into track 3!). I love the compositional confidence of Facing West; Metheny gives his melody the time and space to emerge and develop. The pacing of it is perfect. Cathedral In A Suitcase kicks in at the same tempo. There’s an intermittent upper pedal point on strings and kalimba which create a wonderful tension. The first time the melodic material is presented to us, it’s on synths + pads. After an extended tension creating passage, we then hear the same material, but this time it’s on tutti strings + blazing French horns. Yes, I know it’s a long way from Charlie Parker, but it’s a great moment…and we’re only on track 3! The ambition and scope of the album is huge, but Metheny manages to make it all hang together with the force of his musical personality.
3. Phase Dance from Travels (ECM, 1983)
The eponymous Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978) recording is about as close as you can get to a perfect album. It’s hard to imagine how startlingly different this would have sounded when it was first released in 1978. I’ve chosen this live version for the stunning solo by Lyle Mays. He improvises with the same intention that he composes; like Metheny, he’s always looking at the long game, to build dynamically and texturally to an arrival point. The pièce de résistance is Lyle holding back the use of a triumphant analogue synth sound for the Coda.
4. What Do You Want from Trio 99-00 (2000)
A great example of Metheny’s straight ahead playing in a more conventional trio setting over rhythm changes. No ‘production’ here, just killing soloing shapes and lines which seem to go on forever. Metheny has the chromatic Bebop vocabulary under his fingers, if he wants it, and that’s what makes the bigger Pat Metheny Group projects so special: a fusion of a quasi folk/rock sensibility, plus the ability to draw upon on a chromatic improvisatory language while soloing, if and when required!
5. The First Circle from First Circle (ECM, 1984)
Pianist/composer Billy Childs told me that this is one of his favourite pieces of music. It’s an obvious choice for this list but, nonetheless, it’s a compositional masterpiece (co-written with Lyle Mays) and an exercise in how to make a small ensemble sound huge. That’s something that the Pat Metheny Group has in common with Weather Report (another of my favourite bands). Sure, this is achieved by using mountains of synthesisers, wordless vocals and tons of production, but the results are epic, symphonic and thrilling.
6. Better Days Ahead from Letter From Home (Geffen Records, 1989)
Melody is at the conceptual heart of everything Metheny does. Both as a soloist and a composer; he’s always thinking melodically. By any definition of what constitutes a good melody, this track is crafted exceptionally well. Move quickly past the late 1980s’ production values and focus on the shape of the line; I would stand it alongside any melody by Mozart, Schubert, Chopin or Gershwin and comfortably talk about it in the same breath. Every time I hear it, it makes me smile!
7. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from Beyond The Missouri Sky with Charlie Haden (Verve, 1997)
Beyond The Missouri Sky is a special album for a lot of people. It’s a masterpiece of understatement. In common with Kind of Blue or John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman or You Must Believe in Spring (Bill Evans), it’s essentially a one mood album. It’s an immersive experience which draws you into its sound world and keeps you hooked. Consequently, picking just one track is somewhat missing the point! But, I have to confess, I get goose bumps and a lump in my throat within seconds of hearing just a few notes of this track. Metheny’s essentially soloing on simple pop chord changes but, while simple, his soloing lines are so memorable, it’s almost as though they themselves become the ‘head’! In a sense, this album brings together so many of the things that make Metheny the musician he is: an improvising jazz artist, but he also has a folk/rock sensibility, and he’s from the wide open spaces of the Midwest (born in Missouri). However, to get the album’s full impact you have to listen on some decent audio equipment (not through your smartphone speaker, please!).
8. Everyday I Thank You from 80/81 (ECM, 1980)
Metheny collaborated with Michael Brecker many times during his career and this track of searing Romantic (in the 19th Century sense) lyricism is one of the highlights. Brecker and Metheny didn’t invent the tenor sax + guitar unison, but I doubt it’s ever sounded so good! And the way they feel the rubato phrases together is magical. Metheny’s understated finger picking passages on acoustic guitar, after Brecker’s epic solo of burning intensity, provide great contrast. Then, when the unison rubato melody returns at the end, your heart melts.
9. The Gathering Sky from Speaking of Now (Warner Bros. 2002)
A less heralded album than some of his others but, for me, it’s one of his best. Again, the brilliance is in the writing and the handling of long structures. Initially we hear an ingenious melody in a variety of orchestrations. Cut to later on in the track and a short Antonio Sanchez drum solo out of which emerges a dark, brooding arco bass line by Steve Rodby (which could be something by Shostakovich!) creating contrast, so the shift back into the initial melody, at the end of track, takes your breath away.
10. Pat’s solo from Shadows and Light (Joni Mitchell live album, 1980)
Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker, Don Alias…on stage at the same time! Occasionally we have to remind ourselves that, in the quite recent past, we’ve been fortunate enough to share this planet with giants. Emerging out of Joni’s repeated motive from her song Amelia, this is 3.5mins of the most excitingly conceived guitar playing imaginable. Lyle’s subtle pads behind Metheny show the telepathic relationship between the two of them. Musical giants making the earth a better place for their presence!