The Way Up
The Pat Metheny Group ought to be one of the best understood ensembles in jazz. It has been essentially intact since 1977, has recorded and toured extensively, and has cultivated an identifiable (if multidimensional) sonic signature. But The Way Up is completely unexpected. The band-which now includes Cuong Vu (trumpet), Antonio Sanchez (drums) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica), in addition to the long-term core of Pat Metheny (guitars), Lyle Mays (keyboards) and Steve Rodby (basses)-has moved to a new level, rather like a short story writer who suddenly publishes a major epic novel.
The group's 12th studio album is a 68-minute through-composed work of richness, complexity and stunning execution. Over its length, as in a good novel, themes and motives and details appear for a reason-because they will be developed and connected into the wholeness and meaning of a total design.
This album is also an example of how the technologies and resources of the modern recording studio, so often misused, can in the right hands be exploited in the service of art. The density and scale and range of sounds that synthesizers and overdubbing can enable four people to generate (Vu's trumpet and Maret's harmonica are used sparingly) is astonishing in its sheer sonic vastness. Metheny sometimes commands an overdubbed guitar orchestra that surges and washes and sweeps up everything in its path. But with his ongoing gift for melodic crystallization, he sometimes contracts the gigantic sound-world of The Way Up until it is only pristine single-note lines from one acoustic guitar.
This long work is also remarkably successful in sustaining narrative interest, through multiplicities of subplots and myriad shifts of mood and tempo and texture. Passages of reflective lyricism escalate to keening crescendos, then the music falls away, to reconfigure itself and build again. This is music that demands many listenings.
The Way Up was released on January 25. Responsible critics ought not to choose their record of the year in January, but it is difficult to believe that a more ambitious, more profoundly realized, more important album will appear in 2005.