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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The Bebop Roy Buchanan: Mike Stern’s Upside Downside

mike stern

Atlantic Records, released summer 1986

Bought: HMV Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

9/10

There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).

But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.

Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that shit wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’

Jaco and Mike, 1980

Jaco and Mike, 1980

To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.

Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a set-break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!

Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.

My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and a heckler shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.

But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’. Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.

Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.

The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.

Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.

mike sternMike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I saw him at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.

Mike’s career thrives to this day – he’s just released a duet record with Eric Johnson. Let’s be thankful he’s still with us. Many fellow travellers didn’t make it.

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.