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I was in south Florida last week and decided to catch the beginning of Pat Metheny's new tour, a multi-city affair in support of his new CD The Way Up. The CD, which is No. 2 on Billboard magazine's contemporary jazz chart, is a single 68-minute opus reprising Metheny's jazz-rock-pop-folk-fusion musical evolution. At the concert, held at the Count de Hoernle amphitheater in Boca Raton's Mizner Park, the Pat Metheny Group played the entire CD score and remained on stage for almost 3 hours working through an exhaustive sampling of the guitarist's genre-bending repertoire. The PMG arrives in New York for a 2-night stint on April 2nd.
A native of Lee's Summit, Mo. Metheny played around Kansas City and, while still a teen, was recruited to teach music at the University of Miami during a brief (3 week) time as a student there. Quickly, he transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and soon joined the Gary Burton quintet in 1974 at age 19. A year later, he recorded his first solo album, Bright Size Life, featuring the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, and in 1977 formed the PMG. In a long musically labyrinthine career, Metheny has constructed sounds accessing huge audiences both on CD and in large venue live concerts. His efforts have garnered 16 Grammies and sustained considerable popularity.
Even though Metheny has always advertised his music as strongly jazz-related, some caveats are necessary in order to analyze his contributions. That there are large portions of improvisation at a Metheny performance is incontrovertible. But his many formulas (i.e. guitar/ drum call and responses) always utilize highly amplified sounds too often designed to woo audiences that simplistically groove on volume and speed. These are the same patrons who applaud any drum solo no matter how amateurish it may be and who attend boorish concerts for purposes that are anything but musical. It must be remembered that there are huge numbers of these folks and capturing their attention can result in staggering financial remuneration from concert revenues and CD sales.
At the Florida concert the PMG spent hours improvising. But if you were searching for anything resembling jazz compositional development with ensuing themes and variations, you were destined to be disappointed. Instead the PMG wound through aimless improvisations that bore no relation to cultivated design except to quote musical styles (i.e. folk, rock, fusion etc.) and clichéd formulae that went nowhere. As for the improvisations themselves, whole-note sequences droning on and on were too often the bill of fare. Such whole-note indulgences may service the whims of sound mixers but are often a telltale sign employed by technical tyros. Some of the musicians, notably keyboardist Lyle Mays and drummer Antonio Sanchez revealed sparks of considerable technique and creativity but these expostulations merely served to relieve an ennui that had reached considerable proportions after almost 3 hours.