Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pat Metheny Group - First Circle

Apparently, Frank Zappa was quoted as saying that writing about music is like dancing to architecture. An article I read on Wikipedia has attributed it (or variations) to a number of quotable people. If that’s so, how much more difficult then is my task to write about an album without the luxury of lyrics? Yet, these articles are less music analysis and more how the music has made me feel. Could Zappa hold me to account for that?
Nearly 30 years ago, I made friends with a guy called Steve who, for the second time in my life, altered the bedrock I’d based all my musical perceptions on.
In a previous article, I’d described the first such change when a school friend played me the Beatles’ version of Twist and Shout, after I’d lived with mainly classical music for all of my then 10 years. Apart from some guidance my sisters and their folk records, I rampaged through the world of rock and pop – both good and bad – till Steve led me down a new musical path at the age of 17. When he scoffed at my love of artists like The Tubes and Rick Wakeman (or at least my perception that they were a genuine quality alternative to the Pina Colada song or whatever else top 40 radio was dishing out), he loaned me a record by the guitar trio of Al Dimeola, John McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia called “Friday Night In San Francisco”.
“Can people DO that with a guitar?” I kept asking rhetorically after listening to that album countless times? I had not yet entered the world of jazz or guitar histrionics, and this was like a nuclear bomb being dropped on my musical landscape. This was a supergroup. It was flashy and show-offy, yes, but there were melodies that I found absorbing. I bought my own copy and played it over and over.
Of course, it was only an evil side-step from the guitar trio to jazz-fusion with all its excess. Jean-Luc Ponty, Return To Forever….they were my new interests. However, to bastardise an interesting phrase, jazz-fusion was a brief madness.
Yet, I still hadn’t discovered other forms of jazz of which I eventually became smitten with. When the million notes per minute offered by jazz fusion became a bit tiresome however, there was an artist whose music wasn’t quite jazz, wasn’t rock, and wasn’t a fusion of the two. There were elements of the forms, but there were elements of country and Latin in his music. I’m talking about the guitarist with the world’s largest striped t-shirt collection – Pat Metheny.
My mate Rani loaned me an album called “Travels” by the Pat Metheny Group. Unlike traditional jazz which would have a form of the soloist playing a theme for a verse, a variation on the theme, improvising like crazy over the band, then returning to the theme at the end, Metheny’s music seemed to have a more compositional structure (if that’s a valid phrase). There were definitely moments for improvisation by Metheny and his long-time pianist Lyle Mays, but there was an almost classical structure to the frame of his music. With my lifetime love of classical music, it wasn’t too hard to fall for his music.
The Pat Metheny Group for all its ongoing personnel changes (and there have been many) have a sound that’s completely recognisable. Metheny’s guitar and Mays’ piano (the two consistent elements) help shape that sound. The other element that makes his music recognisable is the use of the voice as an instrument. From the late 1970s, Metheny would use very distinctive sounding vocalists starting with Nana Vasconcelos and then Pedro Aznar for a number of years. They always contributed to the ”Metheny sound”. 
Back in 1985, the Pat Metheny Group toured Australia for what (till now) has been their only tour here. They were touring off the back of what was to be their final album for the brilliant ECM record label – their final one for ECM - “First Circle”. We’re all used to tour advertisements with endorsements as to the “brilliance” of the artist. The posters for the Metheny tour claimed his guitar playing was like “the wind blowing through the trees of heaven”.  Normally, I’d roll my eyes at such a pretentiously worded accolade. In the light of the guitar machismo of some of the jazz-fusion musicians of the time, however, this made perfect sense to me about Metheny.  The music breathed, and was full of gorgeous melodies. Metheny could play the strings off any of his contemporaries (in my opinion), but he served the composition, not his ego.
The concert I saw in Melbourne opened up with the first tune from First Circle called “Forward March”. On record it didn’t make any sense. It sounded like a demented circus march of a herd of wounded elephants (I’ll return to the elephant theme soon) or a rehearsal by the Portsmouth Sinfonia. In concert, however, it was a perfect show opener.  Mays was on trumpet, Bassist Steve Rodby took the bass drum, and Aznar played a kiddie xylophone. Brilliant drummer Paul Wertico played march time on the snare, and Sgt. Metheny led them with one of his weird sounding synthesizer guitars. The members of the band entered the auditorium from the various foyer doors, not stage side. They all marched onto stage and their (deliberately) awful playing combined with the surprise of the entrance was funny. I can now happily listen to that on the album, thanks to the memories of that show.
Forward March” was definitely a novelty, and yet it had a purpose. While the Pat Metheny Group are all serious musicians, this was no hardcore jazz purists’ band. They want to entertain you. They want you to smile (I’ve never seen a musician look as happy as Metheny does). For all its novelty, “Forward March” made its audience smile right from the word go.
The album then launches into “Yolanda, You Learn”, an uptempo  4/4 tune. Paul Wertico sets the pace with a driving bass / snare / half open high hat rock combination playing sixteenths on the hats. The melody itself just sticks in your head, because it sort of sounds like a child’s nursery rhyme – set to a rock beat. Hugely catchy.
The whole album is beautiful and memorable, but allow me to bring two more highlights. The title track is a 9 minute ray of sunshine that works with clever time signature changes (well, they wanted to use their jazz chops somewhere). It opens up with the group performing a pattern of hand claps for a number of bars. It sounds like a bar of 6/4 followed by a bar of 5/4 ( says the tune is in 22/8 – how could I have not picked THAT?). Pedro Aznar sings the main wordless melody over the claps in some sort of contra time (but I ain’t educated enough to work it out), and you just know that this piece is going to be special. The claps break away and there’s a section - a movement perhaps - with Mays and Metheny playing a gentle melody before the whole band launches into the main tune. Pedro returns to sing the main melody for the last 3 minutes or so, and he sounds like he’s reaching some sort of ecstasic peak. Word of warning – if you listen to this tune and don’t feel elated by the end, check your pulse.
The other highlight is the album closer, “Praise”. By this point, I really am beginning to feel that Frank Zappa’s description of music writing may be true. I can tell you “Praise” is in 4/4. I can tell you it starts in the key of D, then modulates to E. I can tell you it’s a medium tempo tune. None of this conveys what the tune is about. What I can say is that like First Circle, it makes me feel stupidly happy. There are some seriously beautiful melodies here. It may be the Pat Metheny Group, but “Praise” belongs to Pedro Aznar and his soaring voice. The word beautiful has been overused, but “Praise” truly is. Hairs standing on the back of the neck.
After First Circle, the Metheny Group left ECM and Pat divided his time between the PMG and many side projects playing with the likes of John Scofield, Brad Mehldau, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman. I confess to not being a fan of his Coleman collaboration, Song X. The music sounds to me like elephants fornicating. I still respect him for making an album like that, though. The important thing is that Pat Metheny can’t be tied down to the one sound of the PMG, as brilliant as that sound is. He’s forever experimenting, and in an ideal world, his compositional and guitar playing skills would make him a household name. All I can suggest in the mean time is for you to search out First Circle, or any of his other wonderful albums and make yourself smile. Try to describe how it makes you feel…. but don't try dancing near a building while doing it.


  1. a very nice and interesting article; but the link??

  2. If you’re referring to a link for the podcast, this was only a written article done before I started the podcast talking about favourite albums.