With Pat Metheny, you simply never know what is coming next. But among the many things that make this ever changing artist so special is the astoundingly consistent level of commitment and quality that he brings to everything he does.
Whether purely acoustic or searingly electric, powerfully intense or deeply contemplative, highly composed or totally improvised, or even with some new fangled contraption of his own design, there is always that unmistakable Metheny sensibility at work that has stood at the forefront of jazz for what is now approaching four decades.
With “What’s It All About”, we have, yet again, another angle to consider in the Metheny oeuvre. After nearly 40 recordings under his own name, this is the first Metheny album where there is not a single Metheny composition represented. But far from being a “covers” album, this a personal view of ten classic songs, some very well known, some less so, filtered through the harmonic and melodic ideology of a modern master with a most individual approach.
Metheny sets the stage for this recording; “Almost ten years ago, in the fall of 2001, a special period in New York City, I was home one night and basically started playing in a way I never had thought about before. Like all of us living in the city around that time, I had a lot on my mind. I had just gotten some new recording equipment and set up a mic and turned it on. Six or seven hours later, I had a whole bunch of stuff recorded. Over the next few months while on a long tour I listened to it and realized that something unique had happened that night. I had gotten to some stuff that was quite different for me.”
Of course, the performances from that evening became the foundation for his Grammy winning album “One Quiet Night”. Metheny continues “I had owned a beautiful baritone guitar that (luthier) Linda Manzer had made for me a few years earlier, but I could never quite find what exactly to do with it. That night, I remembered a tuning that had been shown to me by a great local guitarist in my hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri back when I was in high school that required restringing and retuning the middle range of the guitar up one octave. I applied that to the baritone, and it was like the sky opened up with possibilities”.
“The recordings that came from that evening were an exploration into unknown territory for me, but in the almost 10 years since then, I have performed with the baritone in that tuning all over the world in what must be hundreds of concerts by now, often beginning each show solo with just that instrument. It has become a fairly significant new voice for me. While on tour, during the day once sound check is over, I often sit onstage and continue to play that instrument for hours before the show starts, on occasion picking out songs that I used to love as a kid but had never played in public. The range and timbre of the baritone with it’s deep bass and the unique clustery types of voicings that become possible with it lend it to a certain way of rethinking conventional harmonies.”
As the years went on Metheny got so many comments from promoters, crew and bandmates about those extended sound checks that it got him thinking. “Almost every day as I visited one well known tune or another to work through, various visitors or local crew people would come up to me and ask which record was my version of this tune or that tune that they recognized was on, and I would have to say that I had never made a record like that. And over the years, I have had it in the back of my mind that I actually should do a CD of some of some of those tunes at some point”.
With “What’s It All About”, that moment has arrived. Like it’s predecessor, these recordings were made late at night in his New York City home over a relatively short period of time. But with the choices of material represented in this collection this becomes something more. This is easily one of the most revealing and intimate records Metheny has ever made.
“In addition to making it a pure solo guitar record, I also intentionally wanted to make a record that sort of addressed some of the specific music that was on my radar before I ever wrote a note of my own, or in a few cases, even before I played an instrument. I kind of wound up choosing tunes that targeted that impulse.”
“I was born in 1954 and all of these songs were songs from the Top 40 during my childhood and early teen years. It was a period when harmony and melody were still important and viable elements in popular music. Every one of these songs has something going on that is just hip on musical level, no matter how you cut it. These are all pieces that have stuck with me over the years.”
And there is more on the personal history front with these song choices.
“One thing that is kind of funny that I hadn’t even noticed until the record was finished was that I wound up including “Pipeline” and “Girl from Ipanema” which were actually two of the first three songs I ever learned how to play on the guitar. The theme from (TV series) “Peter Gunn” could have been in there too, that was the other one! (laughs)
But these are not casual remakes by any means. A careful listening shows multiple modulations, sometimes radical reharmonizations and always poetic meaning in each of these reimaginings.
“Each tune has a real meaning to me musically. Of course, I am aware of the lyrics, but my focus is really on the actual notes and harmonies that make these pieces interesting to me as a musician. It is mostly about the way the chords move or the kind of feeling that I loved about the melody. But in some cases, the totality of songs themselves are so deeply mixed into the culture at large and affected how I wound up being the musician that I ultimately have become so deeply that it is hard for me to really unravel what the meaning of it all actually is. It is fairly abstract to me, and when I listen to these performances back, there are a lot of different dimensions at work there. I am not even sure I can trace all of them.”
Although the baritone guitar is featured, appearing on 7 of the 10 tracks, there are some other instruments represented on the disc.
“What’s It All About” is an altogether interesting window into Metheny’s subconscious as an improviser, performer and guitarist. But how does a record like this fit into his role as one of the most prominent composers in jazz?
“I have written so much music in the past few years. Between long form pieces like Orchestrion and The Way Up and the many small group pieces written for the recent trio records (Day Trip and Tokyo Day Trip) and the collaboration with Brad Mehldau and his trio and the many other things that have come up it has been a very busy period for me compositionally. Doing something like this is a nice change of pace from all that writing, but that isn’t really the motivation. My goal has always been to honestly represent the music that I really love in everything I do. This is really just another chapter in that ongoing search for the good notes.”