Pat Metheny and Jazz Fusion

For close to forty years Pat Metheny, and his right hand man Lyle Mays, have created some of the most influential and popular jazz in the whole post-Coltrane, post-Miles era, and yes he still wears his hair and his shirts as if he was a refugee from the 60s.   As is so often the case, though the Pat Metheny Group (and various individual permutations with Pat teaming up with others or going solo) has had success in the U.S., it has been even more wildly successful in Europe.   On top of all this,  Pat Metheny is prolific  in a way that few jazz musicians have ever been,  creating one classic tune after another, after another.    There are literally hundreds of important tunes added to the jazz lexicon by Metheny and Mays, or just Metheny.   What is perhaps most amazing about this is that front man Pat Metheny is a guitarist.   Granted he is an extraordinary guitarist,  but guitarists have seldom had a major impact on jazz in the way Metheny has.   Yes there is Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and George Benson  (and pop jazz artists like Stanley Jordan or Norman Brown), but jazz is mainly a form of music which fronts horn players and pianists, not guitar players.    In most any way you can measure things,  Pat Metheny has been a game changer when it comes to that uniquely American art form known as jazz.   Even more surprisingly,  Pat Metheny is a white boy born in 1954 in Lee’s Summit Missouri, not notably the epicenter from which famous jazz musicians come.

I will leave to you the reading of online articles about the life and career of Metheny, and there is plenty to read, including his classical training,  but the focus of this post must be on the music itself.   If you listen to the earliest albums of Metheny  like  Bright Sized Life or Watercolors you would not guess that Metheny would become a leading exponent of that hybrid music form combining rock influences with jazz influences, using the electric guitar (often the synthesized electric guitar) to create an art form.   Nor would you guess he could score movies like The Falcon and the Snowman, or  Map of the World, both excellent scores.   Nor would you have anticipated that he would hire a boatload of Brazilians and Latinize his jazz for a good period of time.  Pat Metheny was and is an impresario and a musical genius, recognized even by those who do not find Metheny’s kind of jazz their cup of tea.   All those Grammy awards and albums of the year show not merely his productivity, but his creativity and skill.

So where should the novice listener begin if they want to take in the Metheny oeuvre and begin to appreciate it?   Frankly there is just too much to choose from, and in too many forms—solo, duets, trios, quartets, the whole group,  with a symphony orchestra, etc.  You catch my drift.     Here is simply a good list, not a definitive list of twenty  Pat Metheny albums you should check out.  I promise, it’s diverse.  It’s not just jazz fusion— its all kinds of things jazz, and it’s a blessing.

Among the early albums  start with Bright Sized Life, which features the great fusion bass player, Jaco Pastorius.    You will find it acoustic as much as electric, but already you can hear the lyricism that is so often remarked about with Metheny’s compositions.  His music is melodic, not a-tonal, lyrical, not boringly repetitive.   Then move on to his basically duet album with Lyle Mays, As Falls Witchita Falls…. Here you can begin to see what a lethal combination these two musicians could be.  I would say that Mays definitely brings the best out of Metheny, and they are great musical collaborators at the composition level as well as at the performance level.  They stimulate each other to greatness.    The proof is in the listening.  This post could just focus on the Pat Metheny Groups’  highlights.   All of the following albums are keepers, and some are classics—-

American Garage (1980)

First Circle (1984)

Still Life (Talking) (1987)

Letter from Home (1989)

The Road to You (1993— actually go with the Live version)

We Live Here (1995)

The Way Up (2005).    This latter one is the closest thing to a major four movement jazz symphony ever created, and I doubt the band could ever equal this magnificent composition, so rich and varied.  If you want to start with complex and textured,  Metheny at his finest with a band, this is it.

There are frankly too many solo projects and collaborations to mention, but here are some of the very best ones—-  solo— One Quiet Night (2003), Orchestrion (2010 an amazing musical creation that allows one person to be a one man band through the genius of computer programming).

As for duets the gorgeous Beyond the Missouri Sky with fellow Mizzou native Charlie Haden is a keeper (1997).   The Metheny/Muldau  duet CD and the following CD with drums and bass, are both fantastic (2006/2007). The duet CD with Polish chantreuse Anna Maria Jopek entitled Upojenie (2002) is enchanting), and just for good measure,  Shadows and Light with Joni Mitchell (doing her songs—1980— with Mays and Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius) is a tour de force (watch the DVD).

There is so much more I could say, but if your vision of Pat Metheny is ‘that train song’  (Last Train Home— from Still Life) or the jazz synth stuff of Offramp days you need to broaden your horizons

Pat Metheny is far too polymath to be pigeonholed into any one jazz or fusion category.   For my money however,  the Pat Metheny group was mostly at its best when it had Pedro Aznar and the Brazilians bringing that Latin heat and soaring chanting and intoning (see Letter from Home and the Journey to You Live).  We are still singing those tunes.

  • Rjcooke01

    Just simply curious, are you a Chuck Mangione fan by any chance?

  • Lawson Stone

    Well done, Ben. As a life-long guitar fooler-arounder, Pat Metheny is the first guitarist I ever heard who actually got me to stop thinking about the guitar, and just to think about the music itself. He’s got chops, but he fulfills what Joe Pass once said, that the guitar is just a device for producing music, it’s the music that matters.

  • Lawson Stone

    One other thing…if someone is coming from music of a more traditional mixed-genre dance-beat style of music, “We Live Here” is a wonderfully approachable, accessible album with which to start. It might not be Metheny’s most profound or technically developed, but it’s beautiful listening and if you listen closely, turn it up a bit, it has layers underneath to startle and delight.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Cooke I liked ‘Feels so Good’ and in general I like the flugel horn, but I heard too little of his music in the old days, and none now.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree with Lawson and others that ‘We Live Here’ is a good point of entry. I saw them do this whole shebang in Louisville to a very poor audience. Unlike other Metheny concerts I have gone to, they did not play for long, because the crowd was not attentive and was constantly coming and going—- what a shame.

  • Michael Flowers

    I have followed Metheny since his first album. Mesmerized by his live concerts, my first Metheny show in 1979 opened my eyes to the glory of God in music, helping me escape the sacred/secular divide. In this first concert, I experienced God’s presence much in the same way I did in worship. Confusing at first. I hold Pat’s vast exploration of the musical landscape a work of creative genesis.

    It saddened me to discover that Metheny promotes the writings of Sam Harris, a key voice among the new atheists (see Metheny’s website). Again, confusing. The positive beauty of Metheny’s music seems to not only draw from Life’s eternal spring, but, musically, declares it. Does anyone have any thoughts on this dilemma?

  • Katoikei

    Do you think it has something to do with the fact that they are/were minimilists? ;)

  • RobSuggs

    Still Life-Talking is probably my one desert island album. I would not care to know how many hundreds of times I’ve heard it–and each time, it must be listened to very attentively. To me, that one is the PMG’s high point. The followup, Letter from Home, is lovely but not awe-inspiring in the same way. First Circle is aptly named, the moment when PMG found its voice. I’m wondering whether there are any more PMG albums to come (I vastly prefer Metheny in this group context; his solo Secret Story, which is very Group-like, is the exception. It’s a masterpiece.). It’s been a while since The Way Up, which almost feels like a Summing Up. I hope there is more to come, but we’ve been blessed to receive the group’s canon.