For the past 45 years or so, it’s been pretty much a truism: When Pat Metheny writes a guitar part, Pat Metheny performs it. On the new Road to the Sun, that changed—mostly. Classical guitarist Jason Vieaux took the honors for “Four Paths of Light,” while the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) handled the title suite (the album closes with Metheny himself playing a solo arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s “Für Elina” on the custom 42-string Pikasso guitar built for him by Canadian luthier Linda Manzer).
When, in 2018, Metheny finally delivered the composition he’d long been promising to Vieaux, the guitarist was thrilled. “It’s a killer piece,” he enthuses, “and it really is a piece, not just a collection of four tunes. That’s what’s going to give it longevity, because the strength of the piece compositionally is really all the way through.”
Vieaux notes that Metheny was extremely hands-on during the “Four Paths of Light” recording process, and even more so in post-production. “It’s a 20-minute piece and he booked 28 hours of studio time over three days, and he used all 28 hours. I’d get two or three good takes of a four-bar phrase, and then he’d say, ‘Now let’s try this,’ and he’d reinterpret the same phrase verbally to me: ‘Can you play dynamically flat until the last three notes and then make a big dynamic shift upward?’ And then I’d get two or three good takes of that, and then he’d ask for another version of that phrase. I was getting a little disoriented during the second day—I’m just not used to doing that many takes—and then it dawned on me: He’s getting all these different versions to play around with in the studio, to create the piece in the editing process and also to sort of interpret it. I was his soundboard, if you will. No pun intended.”
Scott Tennant of the LAGQ confirms that Metheny worked much the same way with them for the recording of “Road to the Sun,” which the group has been playing regularly in concert for the past five years. The composer also pulled a couple of other surprise moves in the studio. “We all have written ‘solos’ in movement five,” Tennant says. “There’s music in front of us, but we have to make it sound spontaneous and loose. So I had a solo I’d been playing all along, and then Pat came in one morning and said, ‘Play this instead.’ He put down a sheet of music and he’d utterly rewritten my solo—made it harder—and I had to just read it there and record it. And then after the session, he went, ‘Great, man,’ and took the sheet away. So now I don’t have it. What I recorded was literally a moment in time, and anyone who hears the recording might actually think I’m improvising because it’s different from what I play live.”
Tennant only heard the second surprise after getting his copy of the final recording. “Pat picks up a steel-string and strums along with us,” he reveals. “And throughout the piece, not just in one particular place. He told us he might overdub something, maybe percussion. But no, he just adds a nice subtle color that broadens the whole thing. Now those parts when he comes in are my favorite parts.” Call it the L.A. Guitar Quintet.