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Once and Future Pat Metheny

Don’t play that song for me (yet)

By BlueTwango

Remember the first time you ever heard a live band that grabbed you by the ears and wouldn’t let go? Maybe not for a lifetime. You walked into the theater on a hunch, a tip or just a lucky accident. Then, a musician you’d never met struck a chord that resonated within your soul. Your life as a music listener divided at that moment, into before and after.

For me, that happened one night in Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium, in the early Seventies. It was one of those apples-and-oranges double bills like Bill Graham put on at his Fillmores, East and West, mixing up the likes of the Dead or Quicksilver with soul singers, folk musicians and straight-ahead Jazz cats.

My big night started out calmly enough, with a mellow set by the Marshall Tucker Band, who more of us will probably remember than admit remembering. With a twang and a flute in 4/4 time, they were perfectly adequate.

Then came something completely different. Five men dressed in white walked to the front of the stage. A tall, thin Englishman asked for a minute of silence. The first thirty seconds of that came for free, as the audience puzzled over the unfamiliar request. But I wasn’t so surprised. This was the home of the city’s symphony orchestra, after all. Every time I’d been there on school field trips, they began by ordering us to be quiet. But this Bubba-studded crowd started to grumble. “Play some music!”, someone demanded. Someone else, in the back, yelled,”Whipping Post!” That broke the tension, a perfectly timed joke lifted from the Allman Bros.’ live album of the time.

Finally, the long minute passed and the Orchestra began to play. The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Rivers of surging electric violin poured from the stage, while a double-necked electric guitar shot lightning bolts at the ceiling. Chiming keyboard notes clattered the chandeliers. A landslide of drums tumbled over the crowd who, caught helplessly in their seats, had no chance to resist.
Mahavishnu Orchestra
The world hadn’t known such a juggernaut as John McLaughlin’s breakthrough instrumental ensemble. Like no band before and few bands since, it mixed classical complexity with Jazz audacity, delivered with the amplified power of arena rock. Although a commercial success, Mahavishnu was dismissed by generations of critics under the dreaded label of “fusion.” Much of their music is unendurable to me now, but at the time, the wonder was that there could be such music at all. So wild, but so controlled, so committed, so composed, so free. I’d never heard their records, and the music certainly wasn’t played on the local Top 40 stations. This was the very first Jazz I’d heard, except in some passing, lo-fi soundtrack. And I’d walked in expecting some guy to sit on a cushion and play sitar, or something.

Virgin ears — that’s what I brought to that concert, and it was part of the magic. I’ve tried to recreate that feeling, but as every ex-virgin knows, it’s a bit more difficult now. But the challenge has come, and I’m doing my best to meet it.

Every day, I say this little affirmation to myself: “I will not listen to the new Pat Metheny album.” Not yet. And don’t think about an elephant, either, that’s about as hard. For I’ve followed Metheny like a sunflower follows the light, ever since he emerged as a more melodic, less frenetic master of his own post-fusion school of eclectic, adventurous jazz. Now he’s debuted a new project, the Orchestrion. Rumor has it as a remotely-controlled array of acoustic instruments forming a backup band, inspired by the mechanical orchestral music machines that were briefly popular a century ago. I imagine a steam calliope that brought all its friends along to play, with the Mighty Oz standing behind the curtain in a striped shirt.

Every other “Metheny-ac” already knows how this contraption looks and sounds. The record is on the shelves, the downloads are streaming and Pat’s own board is bubbling with ecstatic reviews. Emphatic adjectives abound, such as “epic” and “amazingly complex.” One fan writes, ”I gotta say, for a bunch of solenoids, it swings pretty hard in places.”

Me, I’m keeping cotton in my ears until the Orchestrion Tour arrives locally, on May 5. Only three (ouch) months (damn) away (no!).
Pat Metheny's Robot Orchestra
Am I crazy? Am I denying myself sure pleasure now, in exchange for future delight? Maybe I’d enjoy the live performance better if I was familiar with the music, the better to follow the flow. I dunno– I don’t even know if I can keep my curiosity in the bag for that long.

”Jazz is the music of surprise,” said Duke Ellington. Should be, anyhow. I’ve grouched about other musical efforts that didn’t bother to try stretching envelopes — including Pat’s recent string of Trio records. Now, the most inventive Jazz guitarist since Les Paul has been tinkering again. I can’t wait to hear what he’s come up with. But I will wait… until I can see it for myself.

Has anyone else ever faced this dilemma? My best advice is to avoid it. Instead, check out http://www.patmetheny.com for the whole scoop. If you like what you hear, do me a favor and don’t tell me too much about it. But do yourself a favor,too.There might still be a seat available when the Orchestrion visits your town.

Note from thejazzmonger – See Bluetwango’s earlier post at: https://thejazzmonger.wordpress.com/2009/08/27/pat-metheny-fusion-guitarists-genre-purity/

bluetwango

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Pat Metheny – Fusion Guitarists & Genre Purity

Pat Metheny
Image via Wikipedia

In a recent comment on another post, Do I Like Jazz & Big Band?, bluetwango (Our Man in Colorado) offered the following regarding guitarist Pat Metheny:

A funny & unexpected pop cult reference to Metheny was heard tonight on NPR’s “Fresh Aire.” Check it out at npr.com/programs. It was a clip from a comedy by producer Mike Judge, the interviewee. A pair of overeager music store salesmen were pitching a Gibson guitar to a fetching and flirtatious young beauty.

“It’s just like Metheny plays,” said one. “He’s the greatest fusion guitar player.”

“I… don’t know who you’re talking about. But it’s a beautiful guitar. Do you have it in another color?”
Both guys rush to the back room to fetch the instrument, while she picks up the first guitar and walks out the door.

That’s the first joke, the one most folks get. But a true Pat-head knows he stopped playing the Gibson ES-175 ten years ago, and that he hates being called a fusion guitar player. “My stuff was a reaction against that,” he writes. His music is built from melodies, not riffs. Compared with McLaughlin, Coryell and DiMeola, Pat slowed the music down to my speed of listening. And he takes most of his inspiration and style from horn players, not guitarists.

But if he’s not a fusion guitarist, he’s certainly created a wide assortment of fusion music, leaping continents to seek new musical material. Brazilian grooves mix with Asian instruments, classical orchestras with synth guitars, all seasoned with steely broad-strummed textures from country music.

So he’s an anti-fusion guitarist creating fusion music. That’s like the other paradox he’s often posed: All the members of his band must be familiar and expert in bebop, although they’ll hardly ever come right out and play it.

I am breaking this out into a new post because it brings up the whole debate about genre purity. Kevin Kneistedt had a good discussion going recently over on his “Groove Notes” page on the issue of Jazz purity. Check out  Where Is the Fine Line In Jazz? and stay to read more of Kevin’s stuff. His post came out of a complaint he received from a listener to his regular live-stream broadcast on Jazz24Live. Kevin had played Steely Dan’s Aja, and the listener complained bitterly that the track was Rock, not Jazz and did not belong on the show.

I, along with a few others, responded about the general idiocy of labeling styles and genres, especially when it leads, as it typically does, to a kind of huffiness about who “belongs” and who doesn’t.

For the sake of research, here is the “offending track” in live performance:

While the Pat Metheny incident is, instead, a question of self-labeling (or, more precisely label-denial) I think it grows out of the same tendency, when it comes to musicians, for us to seek pigeonholes. You correctly point out that one of the notable things that Pat has done, over the years, is to tap into, blend, yea fuse many disparate styles into his music. And yet, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the word fusion. His marked avoidance emphasizes the power he accords the label.

So where does the tendency for genre labeling come from?

Does this come from the marketing side of the business?

Is it inherent in fan-dom?

Are musicians, themselves, prone to sort out into categories, like religious denominations?

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Do I like Jazz & Big Band?

This is the first posting from bluetwango, “Our Man in Colorado”

Do I like Big Band, Jazz and Swing? That’s a simple question that calls for a complicated answer. I’ll try to riff on this awhile…

Not so much in its original form. I enjoy watching an old clip of a nattily tailored band playing to elegant dancers in a sleek Art Deco ballroom, caught on some classic movie on TCM. It truly was a time — but not the only time — when popular music achieved excellence, and excellence found an audience. That said, I don’t listen to any classic Big Band, at all.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, about a year ago when I dropped by a humble tavern in my neighborhood that had started booking jazz.  I stepped inside and found myself face-to-face with an 11-piece Big Band in full thunder. What I took for the front door turned out o be a side door, so I was literally fronting the band, a yard in front of the rhythm section. If there had been a mike and a song I knew, I might have tried to sing it– the experience was that immediate and involving. Instead, I found a seat among a crowd that barely outnumbered the players. It was bigger the next week, though.

I probably spent five hours in there, coming back with my little family, and again as the cast of players shifted from week to week. They always were some of Denver’s best players, many of them are teachers at a local college’s jazz program. I realized I”d been hearing their names on the local jazz radio station (one of the few 24-hour jazz spots on any dial). We’ve quietly been developing a cadre of notables, most notably trumpeter Ron Miles. Bill Frisell, who knocks me out with his Hendrix-influenced Americana, was a Denver native who comes by often.

GuitaristBbill Frisell

GuitaristBbill Frisell

How was the music? Oh, the music. Melodic, dynamic, intensely emotional. Cheerful, in a way jazz often isn’t, but that’s in tune with the bandleader’s debut title, “Unfailing Kindness.” The composer and conductor was Chie Imazumi, a Berklee grad who’s set up shop in Denver for now. She paints with the usual big-band’s broad palette of instruments, along with a prominent lead guitarist who sometimes cranks it into overdrive. (It’s my generation, cuz- without a little feedback and distortion now and them, something’s just missing for me.) I’d be happy to send you a copy, or suggest you buy one– she’s still small enough to need the income.

That was only one of the incidents that periodically remind me that I like Big Band, though I don’t… much…

Another was my first after-show chat with my musical idol, Pat Metheny. When I asked him why he never stretched or altered compositions or arrangements when performing with the Pat Metheny Group, he replied, “They’re the big band. They play the charts.” (Later when he cut my favorite movements out of two of his songs played live, I was deeply irritated and sorry I’d suggested anything!) It was easy to see the Group as a modern Big Band. Its core quartet are augmented by between three and five second-line musicians who multiply their own efforts with a battery of wind instruments, arrays of mallets and percussion oddities, plus guitars and vocals. It’s something to see live, as deliberate and intricate as a watching a team of top chefs working up dinner in the diner of a speeding train, to stretch a metaphor. The Group’s last effort, “The Way Up,”  involved nine musicians playing over an hour with a composition that fills a 300-page music book. So yes, I like complexity, which is one thing Big Bands were good at, and something that got lost in the bebop age of minimalist bands. Pat’s next act, which should push complexity to a new level, is too compose and tour with a modern Orchestration. Check his site for details- any attempt at description of this would keep me up even later, and it’s too late now.

Guitarist Pat Metheny

Guitarist Pat Metheny

I’d recommend you look up “The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays” by Bob Curnow and the LA Big Band. It’s a small label, hard to find, but a great project. It’s a note-for-note rearrangement into the language of a big Big Band, with over two dozen players, IIRC.  These compositions are deeply grooved into my brain now, but hearing them with oboes and clarinets taking the leads was a whole new experience. It removed all the distance between me and the Big Band era, all those pencil-thin mustaches and zoot suits and dry cocktails. But I have pretty big ears. Driving through Kansas City once, I was treated to an hour’s program on Lounge music. Sandy Denny and the like. Wow, what a forgotten genre of music! I found myself digging some of it. Lots of emphasis on orchestration; not just what notes are played, but what voices play them. A good bit of world music influence, too, like I hear in Metheny’s music, who also grew up in KC, listening to this stuff, perhaps?

So, Big Band strikes me when I’m out looking for something else. As for Swing, I hear that in all good jazz. If I had to find some on my shelf, I’d dig for my disc of David Grisman with Stephane Grappelli. Anything by Grisman swings like Chipper Jones at a high fast one, right?

’til later,

bluetwango

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