There is an inherent risk with a solo jazz guitar concert that rather than experiencing a tour of a verdant garden, with life flowing in all directions, an audience might be subjected to a monoculture. Proceedings can get very same-y, awfully quickly. Which is perhaps why Pat Metheny had put off doing for so long what he is now doing, and did admirably on May 23 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, a sea-jewel of a concert venue tucked on a ridge above the Atlantic in Rockport, on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann. As the Impressions sang, people get ready, and maybe it took Metheny the bulk of his career to prepare for a night like this.
The bulk of the show is played on acoustic guitar, Metheny starting with a doozy of a number knit together from pieces of an expansive back catalog. Even the diehards recognized the folly of playing spot-the-tune; old chordal patterns registered in re-engineered forms—fresh guitar flora and fauna dancing, shimmying, shimmering, and probing a backdrop of new sonic space.
In a given ripple, Metheny’s lower-register lines are like pinnaces guiding a larger ship out to sea. Moments later his sun-splashed strumming flirts with the English pastoral; arpeggiated twirlings slow themselves down and segue into folk strands. This is music as a journey, or, more to the point, a letter detailing where a traveler has been, a storehouse of experiences being made to mix with ours in a delightful new annex.
Metheny is an experiential artist, something he commented on, in a way, with a between-numbers reference to Beyond the Missouri Sky, an album he made with bassist Charlie Haden that he termed one of his two or three cult records. Some people got married to it, some had their kids to it—laughter from the crowd—some died to it. Less crowd laughter.
The explorations of the album’s themes, in extended free-flowing pieces, had the feel of dusty quadrilles played on a carillon. Metheny has a marvelous bell-like tone to his acoustic work, and yet such mathematical precision in his playing. You have the sense that if you took any given figure, one freshly extemporized, and placed a level atop it, as one would across the lintel of a door, that figure will be perfectly balanced.
He rocks it up, too. There were times when we felt like we were in the throes of a Duane Eddy number, via the hard strumming of a Liverpool beat act. Other times he went full blues, as if we were on Chicago’s Maxwell Street in the mid-1960s, and this was what the man who followed Robert Nighthawk sounded like.
For one tune—we might call it the negation of a tune—Metheny all but destroyed his guitar. It was a performance of sound necrosis reaching our ears, just barely, as he strafed his fretboard. You’d think that he must have been cutting up his hands, so violently was he running them along the strings, strangling his instrument. Sound hit the air, then died almost instantly.
Jeff Beck did something like this on electric guitar at the close of the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man,” but the auto-destruction quotient here was higher. One wondered if it would ever be possible for this guitar to be in tune again. It was thrilling, a kind of sound that is not sound that is sound, a ceaseless refraction, both rhythmic and arrhythmic; neither dead nor alive, but abeyant. Or the sound made by the ghost of one form of guitar music, as it manipulates a well-callused finger and emits a six-string cry of “behold.” Very glad that Metheny made the journey to get to here.