Never one to take the easy or expected path, Pat Metheny goes for three firsts on From This Place: the first recording of the quartet he’s led since 2015, his first “with strings” album, and the band’s first encounter with the guitarist’s 10 new compositions, which were presented to them on their arrival at the studio. (The Hollywood Studio Symphony was dubbed in later.) It’s an album, in short, with multiple ambitions—so many that it can’t quite decide what it wants to be.
Listening, for example, to the beautiful solo-bass outro that Linda Oh lays down on “Wide and Far,” one is struck by the flutes in the orchestra echoing her closing phrases. The point of the quartet’s fresh attack was to capture spontaneity; how spontaneous can it be when it’s been transformed into a symphonic work? The strings also step—albeit lightly—on the otherwise sublime back-to-back solos by pianist Gwilym Simcock and Metheny himself (on synth-guitar) in “Same River”; we know this is improvisation, the phrasing seems fresh, yet the arrangement, choreographed to the arcs of the solos, seems determined to obviate that freshness.
Metheny puts the strings to good use on “From This Place,” where they supplement Meshell Ndegeocello’s stunningly delicate vocal (and just barely underline his own pretty solo), and has the good sense to let them accompany, rather than embellish, his feature on the closing ballad “Love May Take Awhile.” By getting it right in these spots, though, Metheny highlights the tragedy of the rest of From This Place. These are fine compositions, perfectly in character (nobody but Metheny could have written “Wide and Far” or “Pathmaker”) and played beautifully. The strings, too, are impeccable—or would be in the right context. Alas, washed out is the tension between craftsmanship and inspiration that lies at the core of jazz’s identity.
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