A Trio of Pat Metheny Group Reissues

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Why artists and/or record labels choose to release remastered versions of pre-existing material can range from the purely artistic to the shamelessly monetary. Sometimes it's a case of getting material, previously out-of-print, back into the marketplace for people who, for whatever reason, didn't pick the material up the first time around. Sometimes the target audience is the existing fan base, through promises of radically improved sonics and, in some cases, the inclusion of previously unreleased tracks. But with the volume of reissues far and away eclipsing the new material being released in jazz today, it's no wonder that fans are sometimes more than a little cynical. Dropping an extra ten to fifteen dollars for something you already own, with no real assurance that the new version is going to be worth the investment—especially since there have been cases where the promised improvements have been highly overrated—means that both the artists and record labels have a responsibility to make it clear exactly why they're reissuing pre-existing titles.

In the case of guitar icon Pat Metheny there are a number of points in play, not the least being that his entire catalogue on the Geffen label—eleven albums in total—is now out-of-print. And with Metheny being a relative rarity in the recording industry—an artist who, after his first ten years with the German ECM label, formed Metheny Group Productions to ensure that, no matter who is distributing his records, he'll always own the rights—that means that he's in the unique position to ensure the majority of his catalogue remains in print by bringing it along with him to wherever he happens to go for a distribution deal.

Metheny's first Geffen-era reissue was his landmark 1985 recording with Ornette Coleman. Song X: Twentieth Anniversary (Nonesuch, 2005) was the kind of reissue that gives one hope. In addition to being meticulously remastered, it was also remixed, the end result being an album that was sonically far superior to the previous edition. And by including six additional tracks, totalling nearly twenty extra minutes, at the front of the album as opposed to the end—where bonus tracks are normally placed—Metheny boldly reinvented the record, giving the already-released material a completely different complexion by altering its dynamic flow. No surprise, then, that this reissue was high on many jazz critics' top lists for 2005.

The next three reissues are less likely to cause the same degree of fuss. 1987's Still Life (Talking), 1989's Letter From Home and 1993's The Road to You: Recorded Live in Europe contain no additional tracks. Nor are they remixed. But they are remastered with the same attention to detail as Song X: Twentieth Anniversary. And so, in addition to making them again available to new fans who want to pick up on some of Metheny's earlier group recordings, they also improved the sound significantly over the originals. Fuller-bodied, with punchier lows, crisper highs and the revelation of minute details that were simply inaudible on the originals, these are reissues that are not simply a money-grab. There's little doubt that they come closer to the sound Metheny and the group had in mind in the first place.

Whether or not this is reason enough for Metheny fans who already own the Geffen versions to snap them up is up to them to decide, but one thing is sure: these reissues do sound better and, being budget-priced by Nonesuch, won't break the bank of any stalwart Metheny fan. Sure, one might quibble at the lack of bonus material, but the fact is that all three albums still stand up exceptionally well on their own—as they always have. Another consideration is that given the more heavily-produced nature of Metheny Group records there's less likelihood that there's any bonus material in the can in either finished or close-to-finished form.

Pat Metheny Group
Still Life (Talking)
Nonesuch Records 79948-2
2006 (1987)

Still Life (Talking) was the first Pat Metheny Group album for Geffen, following its 1984 swan song for ECM, First Circle, and it remains one of the group's finest efforts nearly twenty years down the road. The fact that five of the seven tracks have shown up regularly in Metheny Group live shows since that time—more than any other single Metheny Group album—suggests that the group also feels that way about the record, with the overt Brazilian overtones of "Minuano (six eight) and "Third Wind," as well as the anthemic "Last Train Home" being particularly popular choices and fan favourites.

By this point the core group had settled to include keyboardist Lyle Mays—who'd been with Metheny since the earliest days of the group—bassist Steve Rodby and drummer Paul Wertico—both recruits from the early 1980s. Still Life (Talking) saw the departure of singer/multi-instrumentalist Pedro Aznar from First Circle and the expansion of the group to a septet with the addition of singer/percussionist Armando Marçal and singers David Blamires and the recently-deceased Mark Ledford. Freed from the somewhat confining restrictions of ECM label owner Manfred Eicher's approach to recording, Metheny was not only able to take more time with the recording, but create a multi-layered approach to production that had more precedents in pop music than jazz.

Which isn't to imply that Metheny Group records don't fit within the jazz arena. But more than his side projects, Metheny Group records are always as much about composition as they are solo prowess, and in that regard Still Life (Talking) is a significant advancement over First Circle. Fans consider it to be the second part of the group's "Brazilian Trilogy" which began with First Circle and concluded with the follow-up Letter From Home. And in many ways it's the most successful of the three in terms of its overall strength of writing and playing. With Metheny and Mays the primary soloists, there are some seminal moments on Still Life (Talking) —notably Metheny's staggering solo on the burning "Third Wind" and Mays' ever-lyrical, ever-harmonically distinctive solo on the funkier Brazilian inflection of "(It's Just) Talk." The group also had the ability to weave contrapuntal wordless vocals with three singers in the band, creating a potential for greater orchestration both on record and, ultimately, in performance.

One of the overlooked aspects to Metheny's writing, as well as his longstanding collaborative work with Mays, is just how successful he's always been at creating music that sounds completely effortless, despite being considerably more detailed under the sheets. Sure, the bridge section that leads into the final restatement of the theme to "Minuano" is undeniably challenging; but more often than not the complexities are only there if you're paying attention. A double-edged sword that has sometimes rendered the jazz intelligentsia to accuse Metheny Group albums of being "jazz lite," these critics might be more respectful if they'd take the time to examine what actually goes on in these tunes.

Pat Metheny Group
Letter From Home
Nonesuch Records 79940-2
2006 (1989)

Letter From Home is the first Metheny Group record to take advantage of the greater capacity of the compact disc, fashioning an album that was even more akin to a musical travelogue than any released to date. However, in the same way that much of Still Life (Talking)'s material still finds its way onto setlists of Pat Metheny Group and Metheny side projects, the fact that only "Have You Heard" would become a set-list regular—and even that has fallen off in recent years—suggests that if it's not one of the group's best efforts, it's certainly not one of their favourites either.

That being said, there's still plenty to recommend. With Blamires and Ledford gone—returning for 1995's We Live Here—Aznar was back in the fold and, just as on First Circle, his multi-instrumental talents are put to great use, not to mention there being two songs on Letter From Home that actually feature him singing lyrics instead of the wordless vocals that Metheny has typically favoured.

There are also a couple of unusual precedents. All Metheny Group albums before and after Letter From Home are comprised of songs composed either by Metheny alone or in collaboration with Mays. Here, "Vidala" is a song written by Aznar alone, while the more experimental "Are We There Yet" is credited solely to Mays.

With the exception of We Live Here, Letter From Home also has material that comes the closest to supporting purist accusations of the Pat Metheny Group being "jazz lite." The tango-informed "Every Summer Night," the ambling gait of "Spring Ain't Here" and the almost pop-like "Slip Away" are as easy going as the group has ever been. Still, the deceptive "Better Days Ahead" features a set of changes that would be a challenge for anyone to navigate—providing further evidence of Metheny's uncanny ability to create melodies that can effortlessly wind through the most difficult of circumstances. And the blues form that makes up the solo section of "Have You Heard" gives Metheny the chance to demonstrate his ever-growing muscularity while, at the same time, never forgetting that any good solo needs to tell a compelling story.

Letter From Home may not be the best album in the Pat Metheny Group's nearly thirty-year history, but its pros substantially outweigh its cons.

Pat Metheny Group
The Road to You: Recorded Live in Europe
Nonesuch Records 79941-2
2006 (1993)

Featuring the same lineup as Letter From Home, the last in this recent series of reissues demonstrates that, like them or not, the Pat Metheny Group is not an entity disposed to inertia. Half the material is culled from Still Life (Talking) and Letter From Home—and the only piece to date any further back is a rousing performance of the title track from First Circle. There are four new pieces, with two of them ballads—the title track and "Naked Moon"—while "Solo from 'More Travels'" is, indeed, a solo acoustic guitar showcase for Metheny.

One of the most notable characteristics about the Pat Metheny Group since its inception has been the integration of technological advancements into the complexion of the group. Metheny began experimenting with guitar synthesizers in the early 1980s, and his Roland GR-300 horn sound has become a signature tone that listeners either love or hate. Assorted variations of acoustic guitars—many built by Toronto-based luthier Linda Manzer—have expanded Metheny's palette even further, and a specific attention to even his more traditional guitar tones through application of processing has allowed Metheny to turn his guitar into a truly orchestral instrument. The same can be said of Mays.

Unlike some guitarists who seem to dabble almost continuously with the aural possibilities of their instrument, Metheny introduces new sounds so infrequently that it's clear he spends a lot of time honing them before letting them loose on the public. While they may be used with greater frequency initially, they ultimately become simply one more colour on the palette.

The fifteen-minute "Half Life of Absolution" is the standout track on The Road to You for more than one reason. First, it's a piece that evolves gradually out of abstraction into something that's the closest thing the Pat Metheny Group has come to a progressive rock aesthetic. Second, it introduces an atypically distorted guitar tone for Metheny and a more rock approach to note-bending. While it's never ended up on subsequent set-lists, it's unquestionably one of Metheny and Mays' most distinctive and powerful collaborations, and sets the precedent for later compositions like "The Roots of Coincidence" from Imaginary Day (Warner Brothers, 1997).

Metheny group shows, in their size and scope, have always had a certain rock and roll aesthetic. They tour with their own lighting and sound system. Unlike most jazz artists, who specify drum kits and amplifiers to be provided by the venue/promoter, they bring everything; from Mays' now-MIDI'd grand piano to Metheny's complicated amplification and sound processing rig. They're also less about risk, despite the soloists taking liberties every night. The material is heavily arranged, with solo spots predetermined. The group has used, and continues to use, sequencers to flesh out the material to sound closer to the multi-layered studio recordings. But despite that, there's no question that it still fits within the jazz purview. The tour that resulted in The Road to You was the group's most ambitious to that point, and subsequent tours have become even more complex—culminating in last year's five-month tour in support of The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005), where the logistics of putting the show on, night after night, were arguably as challenging as actually playing the music itself.

But at the end of the day, while the Pat Metheny Group lacks some of the open-ended freedom that some feel is an inherent definer of what jazz is, the group has also created some of the most enduring compositionally-based jazz of the past thirty years, and a surprisingly large and intensely devoted fan base. So, while these three reissues might displease fans looking for some bonus material, they ultimately succeed on two fronts. First, they bring the albums back into print, with Still Life (Talking) the clear winner, The Road to You a close second and Letter From Home an album that, despite its being the weakest of the bunch still having plenty to offer. And that's good news for new fans that haven't had the opportunity to hear these three fine discs. And second, the remastering is so good that existing fans who already know and love these albums shouldn't think twice about repurchasing them.

The plans are for Nonesuch to reissue remastered versions of the rest of the Geffen-era releases throughout 2006. If these three are any indication, it won't matter whether or not there are any bonus tracks. On the strength of the sound alone it's like hearing these discs again for the first time, and that makes them absolutely worth the investment.


Personnel and Track Listings

Still Life Talking

Personnel: Pat Metheny: acoustic & electric guitars, guitar synthesizer; Lyle Mays: piano, keyboards; Steve Rodby: acoustic & electric bass; Paul Wertico: drums; Armando Marçal: percussion, voice; David Blamires: voice; Mark Ledford: voice.

Tracks: Minuano (six eight); So May It Secretly Begin; Last Train Home; (It's Just) Talk; Third Wind; Distance; In Her Family.

Letter From Home

Personnel: Pat Metheny: acoustic & electric guitars, 12-string guitar, soprano guitars, tiple, guitar synthesizer, synclavier; Lyle Mays: piano, organ, keyboards, accordion, trumpet, synclavier; Steve Rodby: acoustic & electric basses; Paul Wertico: drums, caja, additional percussion; Pedro Aznar: voice, acoustic guitar, marimba, vibes, tenor sax, charango, melodica, panpipe, additional percussion; Armando Marçal: percussion.

Tracks: Have You Heard; Every Summer Night; Better Days Ahead; Spring Ain't Here; 45/8; 5-5-7; Beat 70; Dream of the Return; Are We There Yet; Vidala; Slip Away; Letter From Home.

The Road to You: Recorded Live in Europe

Personnel: Pat Metheny: guitars, guitar synth; Lyle Mays: piano, keyboards; Steve Rodby: acoustic & electric basses; Paul Wertico: drums, percussion; Pedro Aznar: voice, acoustic guitar, percussion, sax, steel drums, vibes, marimba, melodica; Armando Marçal: percussion, timbales, congas, voice.

Tracks: Have You Heard; First Circle; The Road to You; Half Life of Absolution; Last Train Home; Better Days Ahead; Naked Moon; Beat 70; Letter From Home; Third Wind; Solo from "More Travels."

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