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Cover Story [Issue # 13 ]
Pat Metheny: The Way Up

By Dean Truitt

The Way Up ( CD Nonesuch )
Listen to Pat Metheny on the ONE WAY CD 13

Since his emergence on the jazz scene with the release of his debut album, Bright Size Life, Pat Metheny has constantly redefined nearly every aspect of playing guitar.

Using uncanny technical prowess, distinctive tone, experimental arrangements, and complex songwriting, the Missouri native has continually established himself as one of jazz's most significant architects. Having earned 16 Grammy Awards in a record-breaking nine categories, one would think that the 50-year-old maverick would feel the desire to rest on his laurels after a staggering career. Amazingly, Metheny seems to grow more daring with each successive pursuit.

The guitar prodigy has led various incarnations of the Pat Metheny Group since 1977, in which they embarked on a successful journey with the self-titled first album. On their latest effort, The Way Up, Metheny and his supporting cast have reached yet another artistic landmark. One of the most interesting aspects of the project is that the entire CD is an epic, 68-minute piece. While Metheny realizes that the goal of creating a monumental composition was a challenging undertaking, he notes that the group has always been interested in eliminating musical boundaries. He explains, "We've been headed in the direction of expanding different kinds of structures and pushing what a jazz group can be in the modern era with all the possibilities that are particular to this time. That's been one of the main focuses of the band from the beginning; not just in terms of the instruments we use and the sound that we make, but also on a structural level. Even in the early days of the group, there were always things going on that sort of took it outside the straight up and down song form. There was always a motivation to push it [the song structure] a little bit and have different sections that you would improvise on from the written material."

Metheny also feels that the latest endeavor was more of a natural evolution than a sudden, impulsive decision. He believes that the process of pushing the envelope for structure and change can be traced back throughout his catalogue. He reflects, "We've always been looking towards that idea [of making an extended composition] and there have been a couple of records along the way that even had this feeling of being continuous from the beginning to the end. As Falls Wichita [So Falls Wichita Falls] was an early record like that or there's a record I made, Secret Story, that kind of just kept going and never really stopped, or even Imaginary Day, which is a recent group record. But, those were all kind of loosely grouped-together, disparate pieces."

As far as labeling the type of composition featured on The Way Up, Metheny seems to believe that it might defy specific definition in the standard musical lexicon. He explains, "I've heard people describe it as a suite, which it really technically isn't. A suite would be like a loosely grouped-together thing [piece]. This really is kind of compositionally dedicated to the development of the particular ideas that are laid out in the first 20 minutes of the record. In that sense, it follows more of a formal structure or classical kind of thing. There aren't too many examples in jazz of that particular kind of writing."

From the start, pianist/keyboardist Lyle Mays has been a collaborator and creative sounding board off which the guitarist has done much of his best writing. However, the bandleader notes that the partnership has evolved over time. While many venerated songwriting teams such as Lennon and McCartney or Gilbert and Sullivan found their ability to work with one another soured in time, Metheny and Mays have been able to deepen their musical bond and continue to inspire one another. Metheny reveals, "Starting in the mid-90s, we entered a zone of much more genuine collaborative writing. There was a record, We Live Here, that sort of opened up a new territory of actually filling in a lot more stuff sitting in the same room together. And that continued through all the records that followed: Imaginary Day became a little more that way, Quartet had a lot of stuff like that, Speaking of Now there was a lot of stuff like that."

To write The Way Up, Metheny and Mays spent much time simply discussing the project before even picking up their instruments to begin crafting the material. The guitarist wanted to ensure that they had a clear understanding of the task at hand and what musical message they were trying to express. He remembers, "We sat in a room for six weeks working eight, ten, 12, 14 hours a day with this goal in mind of coming up with a single piece that could represent where the group was at now. I have to say that before we wrote a note, we talked for about three days about the world we that find ourselves living in now and the climate that we felt like writing a bunch of music that was in protest in the way that the culture has been moving of making things shorter and shorter, dumber and dumber, and less harmonically interesting, less structurally interesting."

As the duo delved into the writing process, the time allotted to rehearse and prepare for the recording drew to a close. Ultimately, Metheny recalls that the band had no time to learn the material because the writing stage went well into the eleventh hour and beyond. He admits, "We had hoped that we would have a week or two to rehearse; but, as the piece became more and more ambitious, we ended up with absolutely no time to rehearse because we were writing up to literally the night before we went into the studio to record."

Because the Pat Metheny Group is literally a gathering of the world's preeminent jazz musicians, the recording process went exceptionally smoothly. As both an artist and producer, Metheny found recording The Way Up to test his conceptual horizons because, "The guitar component in this [CD] was going to be pretty huge, kind of an orchestral thing and in many ways recording this was a lot like making a movie: you were playing things out of sequence and you were playing where there weren't things [instruments]. But, you knew there were going to be things there later so you had to imagine how they were going to be, especially for me because I knew I wanted to do a whole lot of guitar orchestration stuff, which I hadn't done for quite a while."

Not only did the process resemble movie production, but the end result is possibly the group's most grand, cinematic effort to date. While the collaborators certainly deserve an enormous amount of credit for the remarkable work, Metheny is quick to share the praise with the other members of the sextet. The remaining veteran member of the group is bassist, Steve Rodby. With great admiration, Metheny describes, "On so many levels, Steve's presence is that of organizer. He helps not only from the playing standpoint, but his role in the production of the records is absolutely gigantic and so important to how it all comes together."

The remaining three members of the band are from around the world and Metheny could not be more honored to perform with them. In discussing Antonio Sanchez, PMG's latest drummer, Metheny beams, "Antonio is the drummer that I thought was never going to be born. He's got this incredible skill to get inside the music with a kind of maturity and musicality that goes along with this sort of superhuman facility on the instrument that took us a while to completely understand. " Sanchez's rhythmic drive propels the music's numerous shifts in time and timbre with dazzling fluidity.

Another sound that permeates richly throughout the album is the ethereal cry of Cuong Vu's trumpet. Of the Vietnamese trumpeter, the maestro praises, "He is a really unique, new voice in the music who has done something that doesn't happen very often where somebody has invented a place for themselves in the music. A little bit like when Bill Frisell came along and there really wasn't a spot like the before he came along for a guitar player. He carved out this new role. To me, Cuong has done a very similar type of thing with the trumpet. He's just got this amazing textural skill that opens up a new role for what a trumpet player can do in a group like ours."

Perhaps the most interesting instrument to join the band on The Way Up 's recording is the harmonica work of Switzerland's Gregoire Maret. While creating the 400-page score for the composition, Metheny explains that an instrumental voice was lacking in the production. The guitarist coincidentally met Maret while playing a concert with Cassandra Wilson and discovered, "When I got together with him, I was quite pleased that he was extremely familiar with our music and had followed it very closely. He was really excited about the possibility of doing something with us and it worked out perfectly. Suddenly, we have a harmonica player." In the opening section of The Way Up's Part Two, Maret's soulful playing defies description and conjures mesmerizing attention.

Without a doubt, The Way Up is sonic hallmark that requires multiple listens to be fully appreciated in scope and beauty. While it is both sophisticated and complex, the Pat Metheny Group once again communicates with its audience on several levels that will inspire all fans. Metheny is excited by the early reaction and awaits performing the composition in its entirety on the upcoming world tour. He closes, "I have a lot of faith in the piece and I know, being involved with the group after all these years, that we're up to the task."

The Way Up

Listen to (Pat Metheny) on the ONE WAY CD

The Way Up Pat Metheny The Way Up

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