For many jazz fans, listening to Pat Metheny can be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. As a teen guitarist for legendary vibe player Gary Burton, Metheny played contemporary jazz with a hint of fusion. By 1977, the young prodigy branched off to form his own band, recording a series of albums that sometimes verged ion new age territory, and even dabbled in the avaunt-garde (most notably with 1994′s baffling experiment Zero Tolerance for Silence). Often he crossed into the rock world, recording with David Bowie for the 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman (their collaboration, “This Is Not America,” still proves haunting). In recent years, beginning with 2003′s Grammy-winning One Quiet Night, Metheny has returned to his roots, namely playing acoustic guitar with minimal production. His latest album, What It’s All About, continues in this vein, showcasing his considerable finger-picking skills and ability to reinterpret classic songs. Although sometimes verging into “smooth jazz” territory, What It’s All About’s delicate renditions of The Beatles, The Stylistics, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and many more proves a mainly enjoyable listen.
For the new album, Metheny selected songs that influenced him in his formative years, and the tracks range from rock to jazz to folk. Although the tunes have been covered by many artists–”The Sound of Silence,” “Slow Hot Wind,” and “And I Love Her,” to name a few—Metheny manages to make them his own. “The Sound of Silence” is accentuated by Asian elements, while “Betcha By Golly, Wow” benefits from a jazz makeover. This standout track effectively highlights Metheny’s superior abilities as a guitarist and arranger, often straying from the original melody to take the R&B classic in new directions.
The sultry “Slow Hot Wind” is stripped down to its bare elements, allowing audiences to hear the melody and beautiful chord changes. A Henry Mancini staple, the song also known as “Lujon” evokes images of steamy beaches in Brazil. Metheny continues his obvious affection for Brazilian jazz with Jobim’s “Garota de Ipanema,” (AKA “The Girl from Ipanema”), although his sleepy interpretation does not do justice to the melody and the important exotic rhythms that make the song a everlasting favorite.
Other highlights include his jazzy makeover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David gem “Alfie”–once again, Metheny’s version removes the song of its lyrics and original production to lay bare the melancholy, sophisticated aspects of the 1960s classic. Many artists have covered The Beatles’ catalog, but Metheny’s “And I Love Her” is a lovely addition to the list. His intricate finger-picking spotlights the track’s Spanish flair, and does not stray too far from the original’s structure. However, he does expand upon the bridge, adding touches to the melody and astounding the listener with his complicated solos.
While What It’s All About maintains a mellow mood, he departs from the tone with “Pipeline,” an offbeat choice for a jazz guitarist. Originally recorded by the 1960s group The Chantays, the song’s lightning fast guitar riffs and overall spooky tone signaled the emergence of “surf rock,” later perfected by The Ventures and Dick Dale. While Metheny does retain the track’s rhythmic guitar work, he lends the song a Spanish spin with his six-string acoustic guitar work. While it bears only a passing resemblance to the original, it demonstrates how rock can overlap with jazz, as it does often in Metheny’s music.
Admittedly, I lost track of Metheny after 1990′s Still Life, which produced the new age track “Last Train Home.” Still a staple on smooth jazz radio, it showed that while Metheny certainly had the guitar chops, he still had the tendency to lean toward meandering tunes that (contrary to the song title) simply went nowhere. But What It’s All About marks a welcome return to his jazz roots, even if it sometimes seems too laid-back. Metheny’s skill in re-imagining familiar material, rather than simply copying the originals note-for-note, is indeed impressive and should attract his original fans who may yearn for a simpler, more intimate portrait of the artist.