By Carter B. Horsley
If one only read The New York Times and The Village Voice, or attended the New York Jazz Festival, one might almost think that jazz "died" sometime in the 1960's in terms of artistic growth.
Jazz, of course, has continued to grow. Miles Davis, the greatest cultural hero in American history, who was in on bebop, helped give birth to the cool, and explored orchestral jazz in the decades before the 60's, went on to to lead revolutions in electric, fusion and acid jazz in the 70's and the 80's.
Miles, of course, had little patience with labels, or, for that matter, anything, but many "jazz" commentators appear uncomfortable associating with post-60's developments and refinements and concentrate on a nostalgic historicism that reflects aesthetic preferences and a fair bit of confusion over labels. A lead article in the summer of 1997 in The New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure Section, for example, bemoaned the sad fate of the "New Age" moniker. The article correctly emphasized the catch-all label as confusing vastly different music styles, ranging from an international mix of sources to avant-garde contemporary "serious" music to wallpaper murmurings. The article, however, showed little discrimination in the genre and completely ignored mention of the ECM recording label and its artists, who would certainly aver the often shabby connotation of "New Age," despite the not inconsiderate commercial success of the category.
After Miles went into semi-retirement at the end of the 60's, many of his sidemen such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul carried on the fusion banner, the latter two as the co-heads of Weather Report, the greatest jazz group of the 70's. Another Davis "child," Keith Jarrett, took a more meditative leap into lyrical solo improvisations and made money for Manfred Eicher's ECM recording label.
The ECM label, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, almost single-handedly nurtured new explorations in jazz cultivating a new generation of artists of staggering talent, such as Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, and Pat Metheny and its pristine recording studios in Europe attracted other established stars such as Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie.
The ECM "sound" quickly replaced Creed Taylor's recording company, which had featured George Benson, Deodato, Hubert Laws, among others, as the quality house that defined the state of art in jazz music production. Both companies shared a lot of criticism, unjustly, for being too slick and too perfect. ECM, however, was much more cerebral, avant-garde, and intellectual, but a fantastically high percentage of its list contains awesomely beautiful music.
Windham Hill Records discovered a pianist, George Winston, whose pleasant but rather vapid improvisations bore a superficial similarity to Jarrett's legendary lyricism, albeit with guttural groans, on ECM, and with brilliant marketing Windham Hill became the midwife of "New Age" music. The Windham Hill stable has some good musicians, but none of the ECM caliber. ECM's greatest star was Pat Metheny, who finally was lured away by Geffen Records a couple of years ago.
Metheny first came to prominence as a sideman with vibist Gary Burton's band. Within a few years, he formed his own band to perform compositions by him and his keyboardist, Lyle Mays, a collaboration the equal of Zawinul's and Shorter's with Weather Report.
His first major album as a leader, The Pat Metheny Group, demonstrated that this very precocious Midwesterner had prodigious talent and a lyrically happy music. It was quickly followed in 1981 by "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls," perhaps the most important jazz recording of the past 15 years or so and on a par, in terms of historical importance, with John Coltrane's, "My Favorite Things," and some of the great Miles Davis and Charlie Parker classics, which is to say it is a masterpiece.
The title track of the album is a mysterious 20-minute-and-42-second excursion into sound effects that seems to turn a playground into a stadium and has riveting interruptions of great authority followed by digital narration, literally, interspersed with glorious crescendos and great anthemic sweeps of emotion. What is most extraordinary is that the incredible music is performed by just four individuals, one of whom was Nana Vasconceles, a Brazilian percussionist.
Several other good records followed "Wichita," reinforcing Metheny's and Mays's reputations as writers of fine ballads as they became the virtuosi of their instrument categories (for Metheny was experimenting with Synclavier guitar synthesizers on which he wails an incredible horn sound, and Mays became a master of both acoustic piano and synthesizers, especially Oberheims).
Metheny digressed to make a record in homage to the influence of Ornette Coleman's free jazz, which is very unpleasant to these ears, but admirable in its dedication to experimentation.
By the mid 1980's, however, Metheny and Mays expanded their band to include a Brazilian singer, Pedro Aznar, and more percussion and got a new drummer, Paul Wertico, who has to be seen in non-stop three-hour concerts to be believed. The new band issued several albums that are devastatingly exciting, not so much for their innovation and mix of different international styles, but for their sheer and spectacular musicality and jubilation.
These CD's/tapes include "The First Circle" in 1984, "Still Life Talking" in 1987, "Letter from Home" in 1989, and "Secret Story" in 1992, the latter of which departs from the normal band setup and involves a substantial orchestra. "The First Circle" was Metheny's last effort on the ECM label, but its title cut sets the new style for the next several records and is the best Metheny/Mays composition after "Wichita."
Metheny/Mays concerts are fantastic because virtually the entire repertoire makes you want to both boogie and hug someone and then take you over the top, not in the insipid washes of Yanni, a modern day Mantovanni, or the commercial cliches of Vangelis, who is a fine musician, but in the heartstopping triumphs of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and Gershwin's Concerto in F - unforgettable, indelible peaks of Romantic emotion.
The great problem, both with the concerts and the CDs, is that it is not possible to separate favorites or remember the titles, not because they are alike, but because each is so good. Not every cut is a masterpiece, of course, but that is all right because the listener really needs some calming space to come down off some of the highs.
"Wichita" still stands out as the definitive Metheny/Mays work, but clearly the switch to Geffen did not entirely destroy the magic, as evidenced by the stunning and truly impressive "Secret Story." However, the five most recent Metheny CDs on the Geffen label, "The Road to You," a tour compilation from 1993, "We Live Here," released in January, 1996, "Zero for Silence," "Quartet," released last November, and "Passaggio per il Paradiso," a soundtrack for an Italian movie starring Julie Harris, just released, are ominously very disappointing. The middle two are atrociously lacking in memorable melodies and are even poorly mixed and Pedro Aznar is not only absent but sorely missed. The soundtrack album, on which Metheny plays all the instruments, is pleasant, but filled mostly with overwashed strings and incomplete themes.
Lyle Mays, who still collaborates with Metheny, also went to Geffen and has put out three disks as a leader on his own. The first, simply called "Lyle Mays," in 1986, is the best and is finely evocative. It and Metheny's "Secret Story" are in many ways better than the best of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, which is meant as a complement. Neither Mays nor Metheny are minimalists by any stretch, and combine great rhythmic sense with drama. If New Age was not a put-down, these disks are as quintessentially as good as New Age might be. Mays's second disk, "Street Dreams" in 1988, was not very satisfactory, and his most recent, "Fictionary," is pleasant, but has little to do with his past accomplishments and smacks of commercial exploitation.
In concert, Metheny plays about half a dozen guitars, not simultaneously, but always with greatness. Mays plays four or five synthesizers, a grand piano and an autoharp in his concerts and is rarely playing only one instrument at a time. Although he has created some of the most classic electronic sounds, he has admitted in print interviews to preferring the piano, which is featured in his most recent album. His touch and playing is wonderful, but his real genius is with the synthesizers, which need virtuosi to demonstrate their richness and wonder.
In their collaborations, Metheny and Mays have taken jazz to new heights. Their music is rich, textured and complex, but full of motion, excitement and rhythm. They were not the original world music group, nor the first group to incorporate state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, Weather Report and Miles Davis not only laid the foundations, they built great monuments. But Metheny and Mays have done both and also written dozens of hauntingly memorable, often uplifting and intriguing, if not downright orgiastic, compositions.
Another new Metheny album just out in early 1997 is "Beyond the Missouri Sky" (short stories), a series of duets with bassist Charlie Haden on the Verve label. This is a very fine collaborative effort to which both have contributed several contributions and they also give their renditions of some other music such as Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse's Two for the Road and Ennio Morricone's "Cinema Paradiso." The music here is softly intimate and very closely miked and Metheny is clearly developing a new tone on his acoustic guitars that is a bit deeper and richer and one of his compositions, "Tears of Rain," manifests an almost exotic experimentation with unexpected notes that is most interesting and effective utilizing his new acoustic sitar/guitar. Haden and Metheny grew up about 100 miles apart in Missouri. Haden is older, but a great Metheny fan: "His melodies, chords and voicing are unique unto him. He is an innovator in the sound he gets, as he is in his composing and improvising....His musical presentation is always beyond category, and his sense of the sound in music that comes from the feeling of this country is uncanny. Of course, he is from Missouri, as I am, which surely has something to do with it. I call his sound 'contemporary impressionistic Americana,'" Haden explains in the handsome album notes.
In June, 1997, Metheny appeared on a 3-CD album, "The Sign of 4," Knitting Factory Works KFW197, with Paul Wertico, his group's drummer, and Derek Bailey on guitars and Gregg Bendian on percussion. Most of the album was recorded live in December, 1966, at the Knitting Factory, the city's leading avant-garde jazz club.
The album, which has nifty graphics, is difficult as the first CD is unmitigated static, free-form but grating and many listeners may have trouble getting up the courage to put on the second and third CDs in this release. They should as the distortion declines somewhat and the percussion begins to speak, rattle, trip and accentuate the spaces and the guitarists restrain themselves a bit and concentrate on some interesting sounds. This is Metheny's free jazz/Ornette Coleman side and is not likely to be played often by those who prefer the ballads and the tight discipline of his regular group. The second and third albums of "The Sign of 4" have some interesting moments that will probably reward replaying. Just avoid the first disk.
Jazz, which is America's greatest contribution to world culture, encompasses many great traditions and in this politically correct era many jazz critics and aficionados sometimes begrudge the flourishing of what has been a great Afro-American tradition in European hands or even white hands. The situation has become even more confused because of inadequate definitions of "contemporary jazz" and "fusion," categories into which Metheny and Mays are sometimes put.
All that really counts is that the music be mighty and Metheny and Mays can meet that challenge. Perhaps they should go back to ECM, or do more on Verve.
The latest album, released in October, 1997, "Imaginary Day," (Warner Bros 9 46791-2) is a very welcome return to very high artistic levels of which the group is capable.
Here, the core of the group - Metheny, Mays, Wertico and Rodby - is joined by Mark Ledford and David Blamires on vocals and other instruments as well as Mino Cinelu, David Samuels, Glen Velez and Don Alias on percussion.
The title cut is very lush and pleasant as is the second cut, "Follow Me," which ends with Pat doing his liquid trumpet guitar gig. These are vintage tracks that are not masterpieces, but very, very fine.
"Into The Dream," the third cut, is a brief masterly solo by Pat on a 42 string pikasso guitar that is slightly reminiscent of the "China" album by Vangelis.
The fourth cut, "A Story Within The Story," starts with a bass intro, and purrs along nicely and gently changes with a melodica and trumpet transition of great sweetness leading into a typically lovely ballad solo by Pat.
"The heat of the day," the fifth cut, sounds like an addendum to Chick Corea's "My Spanish Heart," a rhythmic, Flamenco-influenced excursion that borders on being a bit saccharine, but gets on solid ground with a fine piano solo by Mays that starts about three minutes into the piece, building up to another triumphant trumpetized guitar solo by Pat.
"Across The Sky," the sixth cut, will most likely enter the group's core repertoire as yet another exquisite, romantic, soft beauty, proving that Pat has not his heavenly touch.
On "The Roots of Coincidence," the seventh cut, Pat employs the VG8, the latest Roland guitar synth with a gritty resonance that marks this as yet a new sonic departure for the group. This is the most rock-oriented, experimental track on the album and bears some of the stamp of the best of "King Crimson." While it starts out promisingly, it almost falls apart, and then the listener will think his CD has skipped as the piece jerks through several nano-transitions that are freaky before moving back into a more traditional rock vamp, complete with terrible distortion that, fortunately, quickly gives way to harp-like soft tinkering and some very low analogue rumbling, probably on some Oberheim synth monster of Mays's. The last two minutes of this piece are brilliant, but one feels the group had lugged along the kitchen sink for most of it.
"Too Soon Tomorrow," the penultimate track, is another gem-like ballad, full of youthful pining on a slow summer day.
The last cut, "The Awakening," finds Pat playing a tiple. It begins a bit like a Irish hoe-down and one can imagine the beauteous Jean Butler of "Riverdance" fame enchanting the audience in some future multi-discipline video of the group. (Wish, wish.) After a few minutes, Mays starts one of his magnificent piano forays, always economical and measured, but mounting. Here the crescendo in which the group joins is handled with some pomposity before returning to the fading refrain of the beginning.
With impeccable, brilliant engineering, and a delightfully hierogyphic cover design, the boys have found their groove again, returning to their lyrical, romantic roots in this New York studio recording, now on Warner Bros.
This is a fine effort that is an excellent interlude between the group's masterpieces and its lesser efforts.
In late 1999, Metheny issued a new CD, "A Map of the World," which is a soundtrack to a movie of the same name. It consists of acoustic guitar work by him with an orchestra. It is pleasant but not substantial.
In the spring of 2000, Lyle Mays released "Solo Improvisations for Expanded Piano," a very good effort that was recorded in a studio on a Yamaha diskclavier after he finished a world tour in 1998 with the Pat Metheny Group. The recording has a fabulous sound that is rich and clear and combines his improvisations on the piano/diskclavier with sometimes wispy, sometimes, windy, sometimes thunderous sounds that the liner notes suggest were added after the performance but generated in part by the sounds he played. The pieces vary from Scriabinesque flurries to Bill Evanesque lyricism to tonal poems somewhat in the style of Ravel and Debussy. Most evolve nicely but a couple are dramatic and almost abstract and are reminiscent of his great work on "As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita." All but two of the pieces are improvised and indeed several fade away rather surprisingly and none really bother to develop themes, which is perfectly o.k., and in stark contrast with the famous solo recordings of Keith Jarrett, whose lengthy improvisations sometimes rambled as he searched for a theme but usually ended up with startlingly strong ones.
Mays, who happens to be a superb pianist, is widely regarded as one of the great virtuosi of synthesizers and many major new synthesizers in recent years usually include a patch that tries to mimic some of his famous sounds. Here, the sounds are fine, although the liner notes are rather lacking in detail and refer without detail to piano samples, and Kurzweil modules. One suspects he has sampled some of the notes he played and stretched them out and warped/morphed them with heavy processing. The overall effect is of great presence and surprisingly little reverb and long resonating piano strings. It is not as wonderful as his first solo album, which was not improvised, "Lyle Mays," but it is recommended.
In early 2002, the Pat Metheny Group issued "Speaking of Now," a pleasant, but not major album in which Paul Wertico has been replaced by drums by Antonio Sanchez, which deprives the group of his great driving propulsion, and the addition of Cuong Vu on trumpet.
This same group, augmented by Gregoire Maret on harmonica, came up with "The Way Up" in early 2005, a 68 minute and ten second work in four parts. The first two parts are full of furious and screaming trumpet and guitar sounds mostly with occasionally interesting phrasing and figures and textures that are randomly intriguing but not cohesive. The record liner notes "very special thanks to Steve Reich (see The City Review article) and Eberhard Weber, which is puzzling until one listens to Part II, which is actually the third section of the work. It begins with a wonderful imitation of Weber's incredible bass sound and ends with a lovely pulsing section reminiscent of Reich's works for his large ensemble. This section and the last one are much more satisfying than the first half of the album. The harmonica is used only in the second half and Cuong Vu's voice is only heard on the final part in a section that recalls some of the group's much earlier work. The second half is much more modulated than the first and full of fascinating odds and ends, snippets that surprise and stop, passages that are strangely alluring and mysterious. This is not up to "Wichita Falls," but hints at some serious experimentation that hopefully will evolve in more disciplined compositions. The influences of Reich and Weber are welcome.