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by Dan Grunebaum

Pat Metheny

The jazz guitarist’s new recording is a protest album in disguise, he tells Metropolis

One only has to try and count Japan’s profusion of jazz bars and legions of jazz fans to understand the country’s importance in the worldwide jazz marketplace. Because of the size of Japan’s jazz audience—second only to the U.S.—performers have been crossing the Pacific (some even putting down roots) for as long the journey was made simple by modern transportation.

So it was that the most influential guitarist of late 20th century jazz found himself in an anonymous hotel room in Shinjuku in December to promote the release of his Pat Metheny Group’s ninth and latest album.

“I’ve been coming since 1979,” the famously shaggy Metheny said, leaning forward in his seat. “And as much as you hear about Japan being a special place in the jazz panorama, it’s true. The level of intense and deep scrutiny that is applied to what we do and the genuine support we feel from the people here really does set it apart from anywhere else on earth.”

Entitled The Way Up and released this week on specialty label Nonesuch, part of Warner records, the album is the latest in a long series of collaborations between Metheny and pianist Lyle Mays, the pair at the heart of the group.

The two shook up the jazz world in the late ’70s and early ’80s with recordings that defied the norms of mainstream and avant-garde jazz, and even fusion, despite Metheny and Mays’ extensive use of electric instruments. Wildly popular albums like 1979’s American Garage were built around decidedly non-blues-based, folksy melodies that shifted imperceptibly into extended improvisations. Their songs jettisoned the standard jazz form of beginning with a melody, followed by improvisations from each instrument, and ending with a restatement of the melody, establishing a new template for jazz and bringing it to fresh audiences at a time when its future looked iffy.

The Way Up, says Metheny, came at a critical juncture for both the group and the culture at large. “This time there was a certain urgency. We really changed our band around drastically as of the last record. We got a new drummer, and we needed a record and a tour to bring the new guys into the fold and bring them to the point where they can speak with comfort and fluency in this really odd dialect that we trade in.”

Metheny explains that after more than two decades, it was time to bring the group’s experiments to their logical conclusion. “Much of the group’s platform from the beginning was to look at ways in which we could expand the general idea of what a quartet could be, because at the core of it in fact is this guitar, piano, bass and drums sound. We’ve always been interested in using form in an expanded way...and it really felt like this was the time to finally follow through on what we’d been hinting at on a couple of records, which was in fact to use an entire CD as a platform for one single statement.”

Symphony is the form that comes perhaps closest to describing what Metheny and Mays were aiming at, but listeners will still recognize the hallmarks of the Pat Metheny Group sound: Metheny’s fleet, uplifting guitar work and Mays’ impressionistic piano and synth playing are at the heart of The Way Up. Their almost telepathic interplay is enriched by new textures provided by the recent additions of Vietnam-born trumpeter/vocalist Cuong Fu, Swiss/American harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, and Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez.

But Metheny says the extended form the album took was also intended as a political statement to the culture at large. “This record in a lot of ways is a protest record. Lyle and I both feel completely out of step with the direction that the larger culture is moving in: a culture that’s about reducing things, placing less demands on listeners, and making things shorter. It went from a five-minute tune to a three-minute tune, to now you just have to have a ring tone. We reject that. That’s not an effective way of getting to a deeper point of understanding and the good things that we have found through our research in music that lead us to conclusions that are in fact enlightened or enhanced views of wisdom.
“They don’t come through reduction, they come through nuance and detail and expansion and development. And there’s several hundred years of musical wisdom and truth that also support that. The general tendency of the culture to go for the most common denominator is something that with this record we’re fighting against.”

While the polemical aspect of The Way Up will probably be lost on most listeners, this is not the first time Metheny has dipped his toes into the treacherous waters of jazz politics. A few years ago, he excoriated smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G for overdubbing himself onto old Louis Armstrong recordings, igniting an instant controversy in the jazz world.
“I kind of zipped something off, never expecting it would turn into this international thing that it has,” recalls Metheny. “I was shocked that anyone would give a shit what I think that much, but on the other hand everything I wrote I completely stand by. To me it was incredible that there wasn’t more of a reaction to someone overdubbing themselves on a dead guy’s record and saying it’s theirs. Have we really gotten to a point where that’s cool? And the answer is, yes.”

Metheny opposes the current neo-orthodox movement in jazz, embodied by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his amply funded Jazz at Lincoln Center program, with as much passion as he did Kenny G’s necrophiliac use of jazz great Louis Armstrong.

“The tendency of jazz to become an academic music is one I resist with the same fervor I reserve for guys overdubbing themselves on a dead guy’s record. To me, they are both directions that will lead nowhere. Within the world of jazz there is a strong fundamentalist, neoconservative movement. In fact it parallels in amazing ways the political issues that involve fundamentalism and religious issues.
“To me, the academic part is one that presupposes that it’s OK to go to this idealized, mythological version of what a form of music is. ‘Let’s put it in that box. That’s what it is, it’s done. If it doesn’t have the right key, it’s wrong.’ This would make jazz like baroque music or some kind of clearly defined form. To me it needs to remain malleable, so that each new generation can reinvent it using the found materials that are true to them, and can keep replenishing the supply.”

Tokyo International Forum, April 21-22. See concert listings for details. M

Credit: Dan Grunebaum

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