Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Pat Metheny Group - The Way Up (2005)

For their final (barring any future reunions) outing together, the PMG core of Metheny, Mays & Rodby, unchanged since the early 80s, plus more recent members Cuong Vu (trumpet/voice) and Antonio Sanchez (drums), produced a masterpiece of a sendoff.

It was the start of 2005; many of us who'd been tirelessly defending Metheny/PMG against the "jazz muzak" putdowns had been getting slightly worried that Speaking Of Now had just been giving those naysayers more fuel.  Then along comes a new album - a single, 68-minute piece of music composed around recurring themes but still leaving plenty of improvisational space, that stretched Pat & Lyle's writing skills and celebrated all that had made them great.  It remains my post-ECM favourite by both bandleader and group.

Conceived by Metheny and Mays as a "protest song" against the dumbing-down of modern music (© every generation since music began), The Way Up was always intended to be a big statement, and a long one, but that doesn't make it inaccessible.  One helpful concession was to divide the hour-plus work on CD into three sections, preceded by a five minute 'Opening', which does make the whole thing more manageable to digest (and to write about!).

It's also just so damn enjoyable: to hear Pat run the whole gamut of acoustic, electric and guitar synth; to hear the main themes introduced then seamlessly reconfigured much later on, like the Reichian pulse in the Opening coming back in Parts 2 & 3; to hear all the buildups in tempo and intensity suddenly stop in their tracks, only to immediately start building up the next stage of the journey.  The Way Up always feels like a lengthy train ride to me, no doubt helped by Metheny's career-long evocation of Midwestern open space; if you ever feel less than enamoured with the scenery for a bit (I'm not crazy about Grégoire Maret's guest harmonica solo, for instance) there'll be something else, both new and familiar, along shortly.  And as a complete journey, I seriously can't rate The Way Up highly enough.  Essential early 21st century jazz at its finest.

link

10 comments:

  1. Nicely put. I've been a fairly tireless defender of Metheny/PMG too, though sometimes he hasn't made it easy (the harmonica solo you mention is a case in point)...this one made more sense to me when I saw them do it live, but I shall revisit...

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    1. Nice one, jealous that you saw this live! I had to make do with watching them play it on YouTube videos - brilliant stuff, switching between instruments so seamlessly and not just reproducing the record but expanding upon it... Pat's a legend. And he has one of the best 'guitar faces' ever, always looks like he's having the time of his life with every single note.

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  2. For me, the last good PMG album was 'Imaginary Day'. I'm not sure why PM and LM went their own ways - perhaps they just got bored with working together. Certainly, everything after 'Imaginary Day' was pretty dismal compared to former glories. What's more, Metheny without Mays has been a dispiriting experience at times - albums like 'One Quiet Night' are just lift music really. Also, what has happened to Lyle Mays? He has just disappeared off the map completely as far as I can tell. For me, 'The Way Up' was just overblown and disappointing. I guess no-one maintains their creativity throughout their career - Miles Davis would be a classic example of this - and whilst the PMG gave us about 15 years of stupendous music from the early 80's to the Millennium, I think Metheny as a guitarist has been eclipsed by players like Kurt Rosenwinkel and his music has become more mainstream and predictable as the years have passed. Others - Jaga Jazzist, Brian Blade's Fellowship Band, Hadouk Trio/Quartet, Nguyen Le and Eivind Aarset have and are continuing to explore the territories that the PMG opened up

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  3. Wonderful blog Alan! But, I must comment here as I feel the need. For me, the last great Metheny album was "Rejoicing". Even "First Circle" was a let down for me after "Offramp" and "Travels". This album seemed to me that they had truly run out of ideas. Indeed the "theme" in part I (maybe 5 or 6 minutes in) was composed by them in the late 70's - I have it on a bootleg. The vocalists he started using after Vasconcelos never did it for me - Vasconcelos seemed so much more earthy and real and he added so much to their music at the time. I saw the band when I was 15 in 1983 (sadly Gottlieb and Vasconcelos had already been replaced) but it was one of the best shows of my life - and I've seen many. I saw "The Way Up" tour seated in the front row at University of Buffalo. It was the last time I saw Metheny. He seems to have become so "big" and his playing just doesn't move me anymore. I still listen to every one of his ECM releases and am still blown away every time I listen. "80/81" - what a gem. Wichita Falls - so good. But - we all have our likes and dislikes. But it's been hard for me to come to terms with a musician who from '76 to '83 created some of the best music I've ever heard and then after hooking up with Jerry Goldsmith in 1983 changed his whole style of writing and playing. Anyway - Alan - again - great great blog! Keep up the fantastic work!!! (I don't mean for this to be a negative post but I just feel the need to state my take on Metheny these days as it all meant so much to me years ago and now seems to fall short every time. To each their own!)

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    1. thanks Chico - always good to hear from you, especially on Metheny as you go so far back with his music.

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  4. One more...here's a link to an interview with Lyle - apparently a software manager these days in Los Angeles. I've heard that the whole cell phone thing these days with people holding up their phones to record at shows kind of shut him down. Sad. I don't know why he still can't record in the studio and release a few things from time to time. Such an incredible player.

    https://www.jazziz.com/lyle-mays/

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    1. Thanks for posting the link to the Lyle interview. I had long been mystified by his disappearance from active music-making but this all makes sense now. Not so much 'Video killed the Radio Star' as 'Downloading killed the Fusion Virtuoso'! Mea culpa, along with a few million others. I guess most musicians are so ego-driven that they continue their careers even though the process becomes more difficult and the returns less impressive with each passing year. I'm sure there are many 'journeyman' musicians who have given up on it all because they cannot get funding for their next album/project but it's a real shock to hear a genuine virtuoso like LM reflecting on this and describing himself as a 'software manager'! His lack of ego is amazing, especially considering his brilliance but he is clearly an autodidactic polymath who is able to turn his hand to pretty much anything - virtuoso keyboardist, architect, software manager - no problem! Even so, his absence from the CD racks, the airwaves and the concert circuit is lamentable nonetheless. Of course, the elephant in the room and something that is never confronted head-on is why Metheny & Mays stopped working together in the first place. Very sad, really

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    2. Thanks for the link. Looking forward to listening. God, that's a bummer that someone with Lyle's talent and experience bailed out from the field leaving Mr Toothy without a sounding board.

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  5. I recently heard the 20th anniversary edition of the Metheny/Coleman collaboration "Song X", and it managed to erase some of the negative perceptions I had about Metheny's playing. I never associated Metheny with muzak, per se, just more with boredom inducement. Ornette got him to loosen up, and Song X showed him to be brilliant and even exciting free jazz player. Haven't heard this one yet, thanks.

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  6. This here rules. When I was a teenager (ever so long ago), the older, sorta weird guy who bought us beer was way into jazz fusion type stuff, and I've had a bit of a taste for it ever since. I hadn't heard this particular album before now, and just finally had a chance to give it the attention it deserves--and was rewarded. Thanks, as always.

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