Speaking of Now
More than any of the diverse performing contexts guitarist Pat Metheny has found himself in over the years, from Michael Brecker to David Bowie, it's impossible not to think of his playing as being defined by, and defining, the Pat Metheny Group. Certainly it was not until 1987, after dedicating himself to 10 years of 250 to 300 gigs a year, that Metheny began to be heard away from the group. Yet for Metheny, the PMG is more labor of love than meal ticket. Not since the death of Miles Davis in 1991 has a group exerted an appeal that extends beyond the normal jazz constituency and been able to fill auditoriums around the world. Of course, this does not sit well with Metheny's harshest critics, who require their jazz heroes to endure a respectable degree of penury and steer clear of the trappings of electricity. Yet this is missing the point: The PMG is the only major electric-jazz group exploring extended ad hoc compositional forms, extending the boundaries of electronic sounds within the world of jazz and setting standards of individual and group virtuosity.
The virtuosity is more apparent than ever since his current group, built around the nucleus of Metheny, keyboard player Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby, has upcoming trumpet talent and singer Cuong Vu, drum virtuoso Antonio Sanchez and, most unusually, bass whiz Richard Bona, who here eschews his Fender in favor of percussion and vocals. But even with this influx of new talent, from the opening track of Speaking of Now there is no mistaking the musical landscape. Metheny has often compared his Group to a big band, with its use of voices and thickly voiced guitar and keyboard colors, and the way his compositions unfold with steadily evolving logic-Metheny calls this "the trip factor"-makes Speaking of Now another intriguing musical journey that fits comfortably alongside First Circle or Still Life (Talking).
Yet for all Metheny's increasing compositional sophistication-and it has to be said that in jazz, theme and development broadly remain relatively underexploited-he is not afraid to make melody work for him. His is a carefully honed lyricism, conscious of how less can be more; perhaps this is the secret of the PMG's broad appeal: neither lowbrow (which is to say fusion) or highbrow (by exploiting the inherent athleticism of the guitar). Instead, Metheny has surmounted the key challenge in jazz of today by creating an effective context on Speaking of Now for his playing while simultaneously imposing the challenge of developing and broadening not only his own expressive range but also that of his ensemble. To be fair, this is something Metheny's consistently aspired to; the distance the band and leader have traveled since Pat Metheny Group (1978) to Imaginary Day (1997) is representative of consistent artistic growth that shows no sign of abating with the new CD.
The careful sequencing of tracks on Speaking of Now, each mutually complementary, coalesces like a suite. The languid tempo of "As It Is" contrasts an evocative exposition of the theme by Metheny on the sitarlike 42-string Pikasso, with an elegant solo on Synclavier voiced an octave lower, and it sets a mood of romantic contemplation that is sustained throughout the album. "Proof" unfurls gracefully, and Metheny unexpectedly thrusts the burden of lyric responsibility on Vu, who responds with eloquent logic. Mays, who solos on acoustic piano, follows Vu and his playing, together with the rest of his work on the album, constitutes some of his finest work with the Group. "Another Life" opens with a wordless Third World-sounding vocal choral by Vu and Bona; the graceful, slow-moving melody by Metheny, one of three pieces not written in collaboration with Mays, has the guitarist speculating with unhurried lyricism on his compositional discovery.
Throughout the album there is a pleasing feeling of structural unity. A feature of several pieces, such as "One" or "Wherever You Go," is how the new band members fit into the Metheny Group's template, constructing their individual voices around the needs of the composition rather than asserting their individuality. Richard Bona's falsetto, for example, in introducing "That Was the Day..." is half elfin fanfare, half cradlesong, and it's climaxed by another acoustic piano gem from Mays. "Afternoon"'s easy weekend-in-the-sun feel has echoes of a Michael Legrand film score of the '60s, while in contrast "This Just In" has a theme of bebop complexity that is belied by the sunny disposition of unison falsettos and guitar during the theme's exposition. Indeed, it is fascinating how often Metheny draws on the conventions of bop (harmonically and within the construction of his solos) yet he molds them into something entirely personal and contemporary.
If in the past some of Metheny's work has brought to mind Anthony Blanche's observation in Brideshead Revisited that "charm can be fatal to works of art," on Speaking of Now there's an edge to Metheny's playing and invention, seemingly liberated from conventional restraint on tracks like "One" or "A Place in the World," that dispels such notions.
Speaking of Now is an eloquent state-of-modern-jazz address.