Pat Metheny has been a leading jazz guitarist since the late 1970s, sounding unlike anyone else. While it is possible to describe most jazz artists prior to the mid-1970s by tying them to the influence of some historic musical role models (even if that is often a simplification), Metheny’s airy tone (which is easily identifiable within a few notes), his open-minded approach to playing, and the musical ideas that he expresses do not fit into any historic style. After his early successes, he was sometimes described as “fusion” or “folk jazz,” but those terms are only a hint of the wide-ranging music that he plays which is beyond simple classification.
Metheny was born Aug. 12, 1954 in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, the younger brother of trumpeter-flugelhornist Mike Metheny. He began on the guitar when he was eight or nine, initially attracted to it by the Beatles. However, after being into rock for two weeks, he heard Miles Davis and that immediately led him into exploring jazz. Metheny developed quickly and, by the time he was 12, he was not only into bebop, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins but was heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery who he could credibly imitate. Ironically, by the time he began recording, few guitarists sounded less like Montgomery than Metheny.
Pat Metheny played with local groups in Missouri as a teenager, gaining a strong regional reputation before he was even out of high school. In 1972 he began attending the University of Miami where he met the innovative electric bassist Jaco Pastorius who became his best friend. While the guitarist attended Berklee briefly, his main learning took place by simply playing on the bandstand. In 1974 he and Pastorius moved to New York where they both made their recording debut in a quartet with veteran pianist Paul Bley. Soon Metheny became a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s quintet, a group that also included Mick Goodrick on guitar. Metheny (who eventually became Burton’s only guitarist) was with the vibraphonist’s band into 1977 and recorded Dreams So Real and Passengers with Burton.
#1 – Bright Size Life (ECM, 1975)
The guitarist’s debut album as a leader teams him with Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses. Many of his originals (including “Missouri Uncompromised” and “Omaha Celebration”) pay tribute to his roots in the Midwest as does the feeling of wide open spaces that can be felt in his compositions and in his solos. Defying the stereotype that would be attached to him in his early years, Metheny also includes a medley of two Ornette Coleman tunes (“Round Trip” and “Broadway Blues”) that feature particularly adventurous improvising.
While Bright Size Life was an excellent introduction for the jazz world to the unique Pat Metheny sound, it can also be considered (along with his Gary Burton recordings) to be the end of the guitarist’s relatively brief apprentice period. Starting in 1977, Metheny would be heard almost exclusively as a leader or a featured special guest.
#2 – Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978)
In 1975, Metheny met pianist-keyboardist Lyle Mays at a college jazz festival in Wichita, Kansas. The guitarist recognized a kindred spirit and within three weeks they were playing together in public. When he left Gary Burton’s group in 1977, he formed The Pat Metheny Group, a unit that co-starred Mays that lasted for nearly 30 years.
While Watercolors, a quartet set with Lyle Mays, bassist Eberhard Weber, and drummer Danny Gottlieb from Jan. 1977, was Metheny’s first recording with Mays, it was the self-titled album The Pat Metheny Group (with Mays, Gottlieb, and bassist Mark Egan) that launched his longtime band. The music was unlike anything heard before. The rhythms are floating rather than swinging, the group’s sound was electric but not rockish, and their repertoire includes a full set of folkish melodies that inspired strong but melodic improvisations by Metheny and Mays. “Phase Dance” and “Jaco” are the most memorable selections but all six songs helped define the group.
To the surprise of Pat Metheny, his band became extremely popular very fast and retained its popularity for decades. As with such popular jazz artists of the past as Dave Brubeck, George Shearing and Erroll Garner, Metheny did not have to alter his music for it to catch on. His music was not conceived for radio airplay or to fill up stadiums; it was simply the way he and Mays (who was often his co-composer) enjoyed playing.
#3 – American Garage (ECM, 1979)
Building upon the success of their debut, American Garage by the Metheny-Mays-Egan-Gottlieb quartet is filled with intensity, hints of rock (as if to show that Metheny could play that way whenever he liked), sophisticated electronics from Mays, a Latin flavor on “The Search,” and its highlight, the nearly 13-minute “The Epic.” While the unit might have looked a little like a garage band on the album cover, in reality they were sophisticated jazz artists who, rather than copying the past, were creating very original new music that was both consistently inventive and accessible.
#4 – 80/81 (ECM, 1980)
While the Pat Metheny Group would be the guitarist’s main outlet for quite a few years, he also enjoyed taking time off for side projects. In 1979 he was part of the Joni Mitchell album Shadows and Light (participating as part of a jazz group with Mays, Pastorius and tenor-saxophonist Michael Brecker).
The double-Lp (later two-CD set) 80/81 was something much different. Metheny teams up with two veterans of both the Ornette Coleman groups and Keith Jarrett’s 1970s quartet (tenor-saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden) plus Michael Brecker and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The music is their version of Ornette’s “free bop,” improvising in a swinging manner with strong forward momentum but minimal chord changes. The guitarist was in fast company on this project and shows throughout that he was very much on the level of his well-known sidemen at playing adventurous acoustic jazz.
#5 -Travels (ECM, 1982)
By this point in time, all of the recordings by the Pat Metheny Group were best-sellers including So Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (which is by the trio of Metheny, Mays and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos) and Offramp from 1980-81. The double-album Travels, taken from a variety of concerts (Metheny was constantly on the road), has Steve Rodby succeeding Mark Egan and Vasconcelos making the group a quintet It is particularly notable for Metheny’s new-found mastery of the guitar synthesizer and the strong influence of Brazilian music on the unit’s sound. Quite typically, the result is not a set of predictable sambas or bossa novas but the infusion of the Brazilian influence on the band’s eclectic sound and repertoire, along with aspects of New Age, rock, classical, folk, and World Music from other cultures. Everything was blended together to achieve a group identity that could only have come from this unit.
#6 – Still Life Talking (Geffen, 1987)
Although not quite 33 at the time that Metheny and his Group recorded Still Life Talking in 1987, the guitarist had already been a household name in jazz for nearly a decade, was increasingly influential, and was considered one of the main leaders of modern jazz. During the past few years he had recorded a highly rated trio album with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins (Rejoicing, ECM, 1983), collaborated with one of his idols altoist Ornette Coleman on the rather wild Song X (Nonesuch, 1985), appeared as a featured sideman on recordings by his brother Mike Metheny, drummer Bob Moses, and Michael Brecker, and recorded First Circle (ECM, 1984), the soundtrack to The Falcon And The Snowman (EMI, 1984) and Still Life Talking (Geffen, 1987) with his regular quartet which now included bassist Steve Rodby and drummer Paul Wertico.
Still Life Talking added percussionist Armando Marcal to the group along with vocalizing by Marcal, David Blamirez and Mark Ledford. Metheny was experimenting not only with adding a strong Brazilian tinge to the group’s sound but utilizing voices and additional instruments. 1989’s Letter From Home would include Pedro Aznar on tenor, vibes, and percussion and have both Metheny and Mays utilizing synclaviers. Metheny may have been filling stadiums as one of jazz’s best-sellers but he never wanted his music to go stale, become predictable, or lose its sense of adventure.
#7 – Imaginary Day (Warner Bros, 1997)
Pat Metheny has been a musical workhorse throughout his career, and that was certainly true in the 1990s. Among his many projects during the decade before recording Imaginary Day were recordings with Gary Burton (Reunion, GRP, 1989), a trio with bassist Dave Holland and Roy Haynes (Question And Answer, Geffen, 1989), an orchestra album (Secret Story, Geffen, 1991-92), sideman sets with Joshua Redman, Roy Haynes, Abbey Lincoln, Tony Williams, Michael Brecker, Kenny Garrett, Marc Johnson (teaming him with guitarist Bill Frisell), and Dave Liebman, collaborations with fellow guitarist John Scofield (I Can See Your House From Here, Blue Note, 1993), and Charlie Haden (the duet set Beyond The Missouri Sky, Verve, 1996), and rather passionate free improvisations with avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey (Sign Of 4, Knitting Factory, 1996).
While the Pat Metheny Group was becoming a little more of a part-time venture (although they recorded 1991’s The Road To You, 1994’s We Live Here and 1996’s Quartet), the Metheny-Mays musical partnership was not running out of gas. Imaginary Day is filled with fresh melodies and new sounds including both Mark Ledford and David Blamires on trumpets and vocals, along with guest percussionists. A special feature is hearing Metheny on the 42-string Pikasso guitar which he often used as an unaccompanied showcase to begin concerts. On “Into The Dream” he displays its potential.
#8 – The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2003-04)
Lyle Mays, who was becoming very tired of living on the road, dropped out of the Pat Metheny Group after 27 years in 2005. His ability to blend his keyboards with Metheny’s guitar, his composing skills (leading to co-writing many originals with Metheny), and the similar way that they thought about music were irreplaceable, so his retirement resulted in the end of the group. The Way Up (the band’s 11th studio recording) consists of a 65-minute piece broken up into four parts, featuring both the band’s distinctive although ever-changing sound, and its members’ individual solo talents. The final version of the Pat Metheny Group was one of its strongest with Metheny and Mays joined by Steve Rodby, drummer Antonio Sanchez, trumpeter Cuong Vu, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, and Richard Bono and Dave Samuels on percussion.
#9 – Orchestrion (Nonesuch, 2009)
While his regular band broke up, Pat Metheny’s life remained a whirlwind of musical activity. He recorded duets with one of his musical heroes guitarist Jim Hall, cut several trio albums, teamed up in duets and a quartet with pianist Brad Mehldau, and recorded for the last time with Michael Brecker and Gary Burton.
By 2009, Metheny was heavily involved in what was called his Orchestrion Project. The Orchestrion has its roots in one-man band machines of the late 1800s. Built by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots and Peterson Electro-Musical Products, the huge machine allows Metheny through his guitar to trigger the sounds of pianos, marimba, vibes, orchestra bells, basses, other guitars, all types of percussion, and even horns and strings. His live shows with the Orchestrion certainly make one wonder how it works, how he can get so many instruments playing complex lines and how he manages to keep everything straight while looking relaxed.
Metheny’s debut album with the Orchestrion concept is a strong introduction to his one-man band period. He used the Orchestrion for several years, sometimes in conjunction with a live band, amazing audiences and creating some remarkable music.
#10 Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012)
A long-time fan of tenor-saxophonist Chris Potter (who also plays soprano, bass clarinet and flute), Metheny formed a quartet with Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez in 2012. A quartet that includes a horn may not be a radical idea, but Metheny had never led a group with that instrumentation before. Ranging from a little bit of bebop and free improvisations to new versions of older Metheny tunes and fresh unclassifiable originals, the Unity Band has toured extensively and recorded several albums (2013’s Kin and 2014’s The Unity Sessions). Their first release, Unity Band, is an example of the typically eclectic music that Metheny has performed with this stimulating group.
Pat Metheny, whose most recent recording (Side-Eye NYC, Modern Recordings, 2020) is his first album in a bassless organ group (one that features organist James Francies and drummer Marcus Gilmore), can always be counted upon to perform music that is adventurous and full of unexpected moments. He remains one of the most influential guitarists around. These ten releases are excellent places to start in exploring his large and colorful body of work.
Scott Yanow: jazz journalist/historian and author of 12 books including Life Through A Life Of A Jazz Journalist (My Musical Memoirs), The Jazz Singers, The Great Jazz Guitarists, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film, and Jazz On Record 1917-76
10 Essential Pat Metheny Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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