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.

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Space-Age Muzak: Lyle Mays’ Street Dreams

lyle maysGeffen Records, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, 1988

9/10

I was a fan of most things jazz/rock as a 16-year-old, scuttling off to HMV or Virgin in central London to buy the latest stuff by John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, Steps Ahead, John Scofield, Bireli Lagrene and Miles.

Whilst Pat Metheny was never a favourite, I dug American Garage and 80/81, and always had a soft spot for Lyle Mays’ keyboard playing. His 1987 debut album featured a fantastic band (Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, Billy Drewes, Alex Acuna and Nana Vasconcelos) and promised a lot for the future.

1988’s Street Dreams didn’t disappoint. It is to some extent a big-budget ‘vanity project’, full of guest appearances and experiments, but it’s all the better for that and virtually impossible to categorise. Recorded exclusively at the Power Station in New York, Street Dreams has the range and ambition of some key pop albums of the era – yup, this is jazz’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome It also for the most part avoids the new-age sentimentality that Metheny is sometimes prone to.

lyle mays

I delved deeply into Street Dreams – it was a real Walkman album, creating a movie in one’s mind. To this day, I seldom listen to a tune in separation; I have to check out the whole thing in one sitting.

‘Feet First’ sounds like an outtake from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly with the vocals taken off (and features some classic Steve Gadd); ‘August’ and ‘Hangtime’ are superb tone poems featuring tasteful work from Frisell, Johnson and Peter Erskine; ‘Before You Go’ is space-age muzak with sprawling orchestrations out of the Claus Ogerman book, and ‘Possible Straight’ is cracking big-band jazz with some great drumming by Steve Jordan.

The title track is just bonkers and has to be heard to be believed. It takes in elements of prog rock, modern classical (with its brooding orchestra, gorgeous oboe and Reich-influenced marimba), New Age textures and a playful, Hermeto Pascoal-style Latin workout with Mays’s piano at its most Keith Jarrett-like.

Here’s part 3:

Compared to the sterility of most major-label jazz releases these days, Street Dreams still sounds pretty fresh, even if it is a touch lighter than what passes for jazz/rock or fusion in 2015.

Lyle Mays’s solo career unsurprisingly never returned to this kind of ambitious project, moving to the piano trio format for 1993’s Fictionary, and he has never again been given the budget to repeat the Street Dreams formula. Shame.