First and foremost, let's establish one thing. This review has absolutely nothing to do with my friend and fellow Blogcritic Mark Saleski, who is known to anyone who reads this site regularly as a somewhat big Pat Metheny fan.
I've actually been listening to Metheny for quite some time myself. Though I admit that up until recently viewing this marvelous concert captured on DVD by the folks at Eagle Rock, that I'd lost track of Metheny for a number of years. But before we get to that, and at the risk of possibly angering Saleski and a few of our other music scribes like Pico, I've got a few words to say about jazz in general these days.
The vast majority of what I hear that passes for jazz today turns me off for two reasons, which can more specifically be tied to two of its sub-genres. One, is the human sominex variety of jazz popularized by such practitioners as Kenny G. It's certainly well played enough. But, for the most part, it has all the soul of a ride in an elevator, or a trip to the dentist's office — which ironically, but not coincidentally are two of the places you'll most commonly hear it.
The other is what I refer to as the "virtuosity without an apparent point" sub-genre. This is where you get some virtuoso musicians in a room and have them all go at it in various turns of hundred miles an hour soloing. Sure these guys can play their asses off (well most of them anyway), but where is the emotion and the nuance? It's a little more exciting than the sleepy background sort of music of Kenny G's ilk to be sure. But most of these type of records (and yes, I do know there are exceptions) have exactly the same "no-soul" sort of quotient about them, precisely because it all sounds so clinical.
This is why I always liked Pat Metheny.
Clearly, the guy can play. But he also knows exactly where every note does and does not belong, and more importantly why they do in terms of how they relate to the actual composition. Nothing is wasted. Metheny understands his scales and his arpeggios as good, if not better, than anyone. But he also knows a thing or two about songwriting — something missing in a lot of today's so-called modern jazz.
Two of my favorite Metheny records came from the mid-seventies and are both perfect examples of why I so appreciate his music. As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, a "solo album" made with longtime musical cohort Lyle Mays, and OffRamp, made with the then four piece Pat Metheny Group, are amazing albums because of the moods and atmospheres they invoke. Listening to each, one can imagine driving along on a lonely two lane road on a pitch dark night. In fact, I've done so to both records on many occasions.
Sometime after those records came out, I lost track of the Pat Metheny Group. I'm not exactly sure why, but I just did.
I did see him play live twice though. Once it was as part of an all-star band that also included the late, great bassist Jaco Pastorius and the Brecker Brothers backing Joni Mitchell on a tour during the height of her own jazz phase. The other was in a small, now long gone Seattle music venue called the Place, where I unfortunately had a seat near the back of the house next to an ice machine which seemed to want to rattle during all the quiet parts.
Damned ice machine!
Anyway, on Imaginary Day Live I was instantly reminded of all the reasons I enjoyed the Pat Metheny Group so much. On this DVD, the group has gotten a bit bigger than the four piece I remember. They've expanded to a seven piece that now includes horns, and also seems to emphasize the percussion a lot more.
They've also expanded their musical repetoire quite a bit since I last remember. There are exotic elements of African based rhythms, and more of an international sort of world music flavor. But what the two core guys — Metheny himself and Mays, his longtime right hand man at the keys — haven't forgotten is how to create stunningly beautiful pieces of music that have this unique ability to carry you off into another place. It's just that now the locale has made a turn away from the atmospheric, and more towards the worldly exotic.
On this DVD, the Metheny Group is captured during a 1998 outdoor concert at a winery in Saratoga, CA. The material comes from their new at the time release Imaginary Day, an album that based on this performance is definitely in my purchasing future. The surroundings are beautiful, and as always with Eagle Rock's live concert DVDs, the digital 5.1 sound surrounds you as though you were actually there.
It begins with "Into the Dream," played solo by Metheny on an amplified double necked combination acoustic guitar/sitar. Evoking a mood as he so often does, there is a bit of an oriental motif to this song. All I know is that it sounds absolutely gorgeous, and man will ya' look at those fingers fly!
Later he is joined by the rest of the band, and I am immediately reminded again of just why Metheny and Mays work so well together, and why their musical partnership has lasted as long as it has.
The closest thing I can compare these two musicians to is the symbiotic relationship once enjoyed by Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer. The music is nowhere near as frenetic as on those Beck albums (well, not usually anyway). But the two of these guys play so seamlessly together, that if you close your eyes, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Honestly, I had forgotten just how much I love the way these two play.
Later in the concert, Metheny and Mays (as well as the rest of the band) also get a chance to rock out during "The Roots Of Coincidence," a song that begins with a percolating synth rhythm, but crashes into glorious guitar induced cacophonous noise before long. Metheny and Mays slash and burn side by side on this one, and it is a beautiful noise they make together indeed.
This is what good jazz is supposed to do plain and simple.
It expands musical boundaries, forces you to consider broader ideas and horizons, while at it's best transporting you to another place as if by magic. Miles Davis and John Coltrane both understood this. And so do Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, and the rest of the incredible musicians captured on this amazing concert DVD.