Film the live performance of a Grammy-winning jazz CD, give it Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and present it nearly as flawlessly as the performance itself and you have an audio and visual tour de force. And that is perhaps the only way to describe The Way Up – Live, the DVD of the Pat Metheny Group's 2005 performance of that CD.
The Way Up was the 13th release by the Pat Metheny Group. Written by Metheny and his longtime collaborator, keyboardist Lyle Mays, it is a single, continuous piece divided into four sections. With it Metheny, Mays and the rest of the group took the listener on a stunning multilayered, polyphonic odyssey, mixing the electronic and the acoustic, the past and the future. The CD won this year's Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
As impressive as the CD was, Metheny and Mays had the audacity to take the CD's music on tour. As Metheny admits in an interview on the DVD (the only "bonus" on the disc, which is also being released in Blue-Ray and HD-DVD), neither he nor Mays ever gave a thought to how to present this intricate and complex piece live. The reason was simple. They never thought it would be done. Yet not only did they do it, the group did so in excellent fashion.
Yet simply releasing a concert performance on DVD doesn't make the performance or the DVD special. And that is what is so wonderful about this DVD. As I watched it, I kept thinking how intimately familiar the director and editor of the DVD had to be with the music to make the film fit so well and follow its intricacies and flairs. My belief was well-founded. It was only when the credits rolled I saw the director and editor was Steve Rodby, the Pat Metheny Group's bassist since 1981. (Rodby also directed and edited the group's DVD release, Imaginary Day – Live.) Rodby is as deft with film as he is with music.
Rodby seems to follow the "less is more" school, an adage that can serve both music and film quite well. He relies on standard camera angles and overhead cameras for the bulk of the film, not trying to impress or overwhelm with tricky camera shots, fades or mixes. Yet that's what makes his occasional use of cameras that appear to be perched on the edge of Mays's keyboard or Metheny's fretboard that much more compelling. Likewise, Rodby does not focus on any particular musician for an extended period of time. Because this is truly an ensemble piece and full of unique interplay and stylings that crop up at almost any point, Rodby relies on and masters quick cuts.
The camera takes us from Metheny to Mays's hands to a percussive accent as quickly as the music itself yet the cuts are never distracting. That is also where Rodby's intimate familiarity with the music becomes apparent. It would be difficult to imagine another director or editor knowing the precise moment to cut and which location or camera angle to use to emphasize what the viewer is hearing.
Another aspect of Rodby avoiding focusing on any particular musician for too long is to make the viewer much more appreciative when there is a close-up of Metheny's fingerwork or Mays's. You also begin to really see and understand the simple phrases that evolve into far more complex musical expressions as the piece develops and how seemingly intricate statements relate back to and were built upon simple phrases.
The DVD is instructive in another basic sense. It starts with simply seeing the band's unique configuration. While Mays is in a customary position on stage level to Metheny's right, drummer Antonio Sanchez also is on the stage floor on Metheny's left. As a result, most of his kit is angled toward the center or right center of the stage, not toward the audience. In addition, thanks to the angles and quick cuts Rodby uses, we see the panoply of percussive instruments the band members use, often to counterbalance the electronic flavor from the synthesizers occasionally used by Metheny, Mays and trumpet player Cuong Vu.
Thus, the DVD bolsters and informs the wonderful music here. This is still, at times, quintessential Metheny. The images of Metheny in his horizontally-striped white pullover playing his hollow-body Ibanez guitar could just as well appear in a press kit for the original release of The Pat Metheny Group in 1978. Likewise, the at times almost symbiotic playing of Metheny and Mays is an inimitable hallmark of the band for going on three decades. Yet the music also reflects the continuing growth and development of both Metheny and Mays.
In the opening "Intro" alone, Metheny plays four guitars, including his guitar synthesizer. Although Mays and Rodby concentrate on keyboards and bass, Vu, Gregoire Maret (harmonica) and Nando Lauria (guitar) switch instruments and percussion as needed to provide the unique texture that flows in this composition. Yet there are also tastes of the past. There are occasional echoes of Wes Montgomery in Metheny's hollow body playing and Vu's performance and the support by the ensemble are reminiscent of the work of Miles Davis at the beginning of the 1970s on such albums as Bitches Brew, Live-Evil or A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
But The Way Up – Live is not about the past. It is a stunning demonstration of the continuing magic, growth and expansion of the jazz idiom. It doesn't matter if you get lost in the music, the film or both. Immerse yourself in this DVD.