Book Review: Pat Metheny (The ECM Years 1975-1984) by Mervyn Cooke

You know the guy: long, bushy hair, beatific grin, jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved T-shirt, usually rhapsodizing intensely via some kind of guitar gizmo. Despite his many stylistic detours, Pat Metheny is a brand all right, and his music inspires a devotion and attendant sales profile that has rarely – if ever – been afforded to ‘jazz’ musicians.

If you – like me – aren’t always enamoured by the bulletproof sincerity of his stage presentation (in Gary Giddins’ memorable words, he ‘intones plush melodies with excessive sobriety, as though the notes were transmitted directly from God’ – the main reason why I’ve always preferred his stuff on record rather than live…), it’s beyond doubt that Metheny is one of the great guitar soloists.

Mervyn Cooke’s superb new book ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ sheds light on the first – and, for me, best – decade of the guitarist’s recording career, when he was the famous European jazz label’s top turn. It’s an academic study, though never boring and certainly never predictable, with close attention played to Pat’s guitar styles, musical history, tunings, key collaborators (loads of new stuff about Jaco, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and Lyle Mays here), equipment, album cover designs and inspirations.

There are fascinating details, like Metheny’s obsession with flat ride cymbals (hence his deliberate placement of drummers onstage, ride cymbals always in close proximity to his left ear) and his singular band-leading philosophies. There are solo transcriptions and quotes from archive interviews. Cooke also shrewdly compares Metheny’s studio work in this era to that of Weather Report’s, drawing parallels between both acts’ meticulous sculpting of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ musical performances and attempts to concoct ‘through-composed’ – rather than vamp-based – material.

Metheny fans will love ‘The ECM Years’, as will anyone who has even the faintest interest in guitar trends of the last 40 years. It also serves as a rich biography of ECM Records in its early years, with numerous revelations about label boss Manfred Eicher.

Reading the book sent me running back to choice cuts from Pat’s early albums that I liked during my teenage years – Bright Size Life, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Travels, Rejoicing, First Circle, Song X. Revisiting As Falls Wichita in particular has been somewhat of a revelation. (Prog fans: check out side one, below. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, analysed in great detail by Cooke.)

Mervyn Cooke’s ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ is published by Oxford University Press.

Advertisements

Superhero Unmasked? Stanley Clarke’s The Message

Stanley’s music first grabbed me sometime in the mid-’80s. It was the bassist/composer’s 1974 self-titled album featuring Tony Williams on drums, Jan Hammer on keyboards and Bill Connors on guitar. It fair blew me away; with hindsight, it was a near-perfect combo of Coltrane, Hendrix and Bootsy.

Clarke remains a hero – I still greet his new albums with some enthusiasm and his career seems to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last 10 years or so. 2006’s Toys Of Men was a huge return to form, and releases since then have been prolific if less impressive.

Which brings us to Stanley’s new album, The Message. It continues his tried-and-tested formula: some sh*t-kickin’, symphonic jazz/rock, vocal-based R’n’B, acoustic interludes with a classical bent and brief novelty curios featuring some guest star or other (this time Doug E Fresh on rapping and human beatbox). On previous classics like School Days and If This Bass Could Only Talk, the formula worked a treat. But this time, besides the typically great playing, there are a few issues – with Stanley’s production, compositions and ‘message’.

The opener ‘And Ya Know We’re Missing You’ is a tribute to all of the following: Al Jarreau, Ndugu Chancler, Tom Petty, Chuck Berry and Larry Coryell. It sounds suspiciously like a demo, complete with distortion and rudimentary ‘slap in E’ groove. In other words, it’s the kind of thing Stanley can do in his sleep. Sure, he can pay tribute to whoever he likes in whichever way he deems suitable, but this seems a really uncommitted two minutes of music.

A re-tread of the Return To Forever classic ‘After The Cosmic Rain’ also emphasises the problem with contemporary production – compare it to Stanley’s 1999 version with his Vertu supergroup. That version had balls, low-end, dynamics, space. The new one sounds hemmed in, dried out, panicky. Drummer Mike Mitchell must take some of the blame too – he has perfected the lightning-fast single-stroke rolls but they get boring very quickly. It doesn’t help that he tunes his drums to choking point.

There are substantial pieces of music here: the title track, ‘The Rugged Truth’ and ‘The Legend Of The Abbas And The Sacred Talisman’ are great compositions which bear comparison with Stanley classics like ‘Light As A Feather’, ‘Life Is Just A Game’ and ‘Song To John’.

The acoustic-bass take on Bach’s Cello Suite is gorgeous too, but a few other tracks are beyond help – the treacly ‘Lost In A World’ and ‘To Be Alive’ irritate, while only Stanley knows what’s behind ‘Combat Continuum’, a nutty futuristic spoken-word/fusion piece about impending war. I preferred his preposterous, sci-fi-influenced outbursts on 1978’s Modern Man.

What a shame. It could have been a classic, but The Message has 5/10 written all over it. It’s definitely one for filleting on streaming services though, and I’m sure the music will come alive in concert.

The Message is out now on Mack Avenue.

Nick Mason: Fictitious Sports

Who are the luckiest musicians in rock? Which players have made the megabucks peddling middling-at-best instrumental skills and generally keeping their heads down? Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Eric Clapton, Phil Selway, Adam Clayton?

Nick Mason would probably have to be in that list too. But then you wonder if the Pink Floyd sticksman has hidden talents – after all, he’s produced the Damned, Robert Wyatt, Gong and Steve Hillage. Good musicians seem to really like and respect him and, to be fair, he has always seemed one of rock’s gentlemen.

He was at it again in 1979 when he gathered a rock snob’s dream team (Wyatt on vocals, Chris Spedding on guitar, cover designers Hipgnosis, record label Harvest) for his one and only solo album Fictitious Sports, eventually released in 1981.

Entirely written and arranged by jazz provocateur Carla Bley, it’s a fascinating, intermittently brilliant project that borrows from art-pop, prog, new-wave rock and even musical theatre to produce something pretty original (hardly surprising if one delves into Bley’s ouevre with any depth).

On the superb, disquieting ‘I’m A Mineralist’, Wyatt rehearses a Peter Gabriel-style blanked-out vocal and Bley inserts some witty Philip Glass Einstein On The Beach-style tomfoolery. And she doesn’t scrimp on the silly but menacing lyrics either: ‘Just the thought of ironing gives me spasms of lust’, ‘Mother used to try to meddle in my affairs’, etc…

‘Do Ya’ is a highly original, witty evocation of a crumbling relationship, reminiscent of something from Robert Fripp’s Exposure, with Wyatt sounding like he’s at the end of his tether. It could almost be the soundtrack to one of those Bruce Nauman man/woman video art pieces.

There are loads of other treats littered throughout, and even a Floyd/Kate Bush-style symphonic rock piece (‘Hot River‘). Mason adroitly leaves the clever stuff to Bley, generally only picking up the sticks during the riff sections. But it’s the best thing I’ve heard him do, with the exception of Syd-era Floyd. An interesting beginning – and end – to an almost fictitious solo career.

 

 

John Abercrombie: Getting There 30 Years On

Maybe John Abercrombie was the Andy Murray of jazz guitarists. People say Murray was ‘unlucky’ to be playing tennis at the same time as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal; Abercrombie was arguably ‘unfortunate’ to have been forging a career at the same time as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

But a superb career he forged all the same. Starting out as somewhat of a John McLaughlin imitator playing unhinged jazz/rock with Billy Cobham and Dreams on ‘some of the worst fusion albums ever made’ (his words), by 1974 Abercrombie had settled into a long, intriguing career on ECM Records, where he could pursue all his interests, from acoustic guitar duos with Ralph Towner to organ trios with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette.

But one of his best bands was this mid-1980s outfit with ex-Bill Evans/Lyle Mays sideman Marc Johnson on bass and legendary Peter Erskine on drums, often augmented by Michael Brecker on sax too. Abercrombie was getting heavily into the guitar synth around this time, while also using loops and ethereal keyboard patches to beef up the studio sound.

’86’s Current Events was a fine ‘blowing’ record but followup Getting There – released 30 years ago this month – was arguably Abercrombie’s most commercial album. It’s big and bold but definitely no ‘fusion’ sell-out, and it distills its ideas into relatively short, concise statements. It’s also somewhat of a rarity for the ECM label in that it’s not produced by Manfred Eicher – Lee Townsend is in charge here, assisted by James Farber.

The epic title track is loud and proud, almost approaching avant-rock with Erskine absolutely lamping his drums and a hysterical, exciting set of screaming guitar-synth solos. It gets near the approach of David Torn’s sometimes raucous Cloud About Mercury album. Ethereal, gentle and gorgeous ‘Thalia’ (composed by Vince Mendoza) and ‘Chance’ are ambient/jazz masterpieces with shades of Mark Isham’s work.

Classic ballad ‘Remember Hymn’ initially sounds like a re-harmonisation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’ but slowly becomes a vehicle for Brecker’s haunting tenor. The latter also cleans up on the raucous two-chord blowout ‘Furs On Ice’, reminiscent of Johnson’s Bass Desires band, with Erskine at his most Elvin Jones-like.

Getting There predictably received a somewhat muted critical reaction on its release. I wasn’t bothered about that – having been recommended Abercrombie by a guitar player friend, I bought it sight unseen from HMV Oxford Street on vinyl a few weeks after it came out. It’s still my favourite album by the guitarist. But it would be the last time Abercrombie dipped his toe into ‘rockist’ waters – he quickly regrouped to continue his ever-eclectic, increasingly gentle career, and, to the best of my knowledge, never picked up the guitar synth again…

John McLaughlin: Music Spoken Here 35 Years On

WEA Records, released August 1982

Bought: Shepherd’s Bush Record & Tape Exchange, 1990?

8/10

All great artists with any kind of career longevity have very distinct periods, and John McLaughlin is no exception. Apart from his mid-’60s output, the early 1980s (let’s face it – the whole of the 1980s… Ed.) is probably his least understood/appreciated era.

McLaughlin had moved to France and formed a new band occasionally known as The Translators featuring a top-class American drummer (Tommy Campbell) and otherwise French unit including his new paramour, the outrageously talented keyboardist Katia Labèque. His music too had turned away from electric jazz/rock and moved towards a gentler – but still intense – fusion of jazz, classical, blues, flamenco, Indian and Latin music, centred around the acoustic nylon-string guitar.

I was a major John completist in the late ’80s/early ’90s but didn’t have a clue Music Spoken Here even existed until chancing upon a vinyl copy. You’d be hard pushed to find it in any jazz reference book these days; it’s virtually been written out of his discography. Some would say with good reason, but to these ears it’s one of the nuttiest, most piquant albums of John’s career.

At times you can feel him edging again towards the Mahavishnu reunion which happened a few years later in ’84, reaching for the Les Paul on a few cuts and pushing the drums and synths higher in the mix. But in its own way, and considering what else was going on in the jazz world at the time (Wynton, Branford and the Young Lions traditionalists) Music Spoken Here is as shocking an album as The Inner Mounting Flame.

‘Blues For LW’ is the album’s centrepiece, a thrilling, richly-chorded tribute to the Polish activist Lech Welesa with a neat quote from Miles Ahead and completely insane Chick Corea-meets-Rachmaninoff synth solo. ‘Honky Tonk Haven’ is brilliant too, a cacophony of early hip-hop beats, modal keyboards and a killer guitar/synth melody line borrowed from the Shakti track ‘Get Down And Shruti‘. You’ve gotta think that Miles would have dug it.

The cover of Egberto Gismonti’s ‘Loro’ may be taken a tad too fast but the arrangement kicks ass. Elsewhere, the album is full of sunny, fresh, cosmopolitan grooves, with frequently outrageous guitar and keyboard playing – the latter way too high in the mix though.

Music Spoken Here was another two fingers up to the purists of the music world, and another artistic success. It reached #24 on the US jazz album chart, a reasonable return but not exactly a big hit for an artist of his magnitude. It’s crying out for a remaster though, one of the muddiest-sounding records of McLaughlin’s career. The Translators played live on and off during summer 1982 too (see below).

Next stop for John was a so-so trio album with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, and then the aforementioned return to Mahavishnu, reuniting with Billy Cobham and also adding Bill Evans, Jonas Hellborg and Mitch Forman. Needless to say, it would be another hard sell for the critics…

Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely in their fingers and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he put out some fine studio albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing with Steely Dan but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range so effortlessly. He kills on the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and has spent a lot more time on the road in his later years.