Pat Metheny Group: Travels

John Kelman By

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Pat Metheny Group—TravelsPat Metheny Group
ECM Records

There are some records that cannot help but become etched in the memory as a reminder of times past... a happy circumstance, perhaps, or (though hopefully not) something less positive in one's life. Today's Rediscovery is an album that, no matter the time of year, brings back memories of warm summer evenings beneath a star-lit country sky. When Pat Metheny Group—the guitarist's then-six year-old group that had, by that time, been on the road ten months/year every year crisscrossing North America and Europe—hit the road in 1982 to play a collection of music from its first three studio recordings for ECM (1978's massively acclaimed Pat Metheny Group, 1979's American Garage and 1982's Offramp), as well as material from Metheny's duo album with PMG keyboardist Lyle Mays and guest percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos (who would subsequently go on tour with PMG), the unexpectedly experimental As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1981), the guitarist brought the show to Camp Fortune—a ski resort across the river on the Quebec side, just a short drive from my home in Ottawa, Canada. At the time, free shows were put on throughout the summer months, with a stage set up at the bottom of a ski hill and the audience congregating on the hill.

It was a warm and friendly summer's night, the hill packed with people who'd brought coolers filled with food and drink. When Metheny, Mays, Vasconcelos, drummer Danny Gottlieb and the group's newcomer since Offramp, bassist Steve Rodby, hit the stage with the familiar strains of Pat Metheny Group's "Phase Dance," it felt as though this was music made for a night like this, beginning in the light of the setting sun but ultimately going on through dusk and well into the evening.

For over two and a half hours the group not only covered a broad cross- section of material from those four albums, it introduced no fewer than seven new songs. When you're on the road ten months a year, new material is often introduced and rehearsed, out of necessity, during sound checks; but based on these performances you'd never know it. With Travels—the resulting double-LP live album (Metheny's first)—and today's Rediscovery limited by the length of vinyl (though two of its four sides pushed that limit, exceeding the 25-minute mark)—many of the more familiar songs were left off in favor of these eight new compositions, which collectively represented more than a full album's worth of new material.

Travels was, in some ways, a culmination of the Midwestern Americana that had so imbued PMG (along with a young person's healthy dose of electricity and rock energy) up to that time; it also represented, however, a signpost of things to come with its next studio record, 1984's First Circle (its last for the label), as the band moved towards the Latin and, specifically Brazilian-inflected music that would also occupy the group's attention for subsequent albums including 1987's Still Life (Talking) and 1989's Letter From Home (both on the group's new label, Geffen Records), specifically with "Straight On Red."

Of the new compositions—one, "Farmer's Trust," going on to become true jazz standard performed by everyone from previous employer and subsequent re- collaborator Gary Burton, bassist Charlie Haden's Quartet West and the guitarist's older brother, trumpeter Mike Metheny—six were written by Metheny alone, another sign of change as the majority of music written up to this time was co-written with Mays. The two would continue to write together right through to the group's so-far swan song, 2005's The Way Up (Nonesuch), but with Travels, Metheny began to assert himself as a more regular sole composer to the PMG canon, rather than on just the extracurricular projects—occupying the tireless guitarist while the rest of the group took those much-needed two-month breaks between seemingly relentless touring—such as 1979's solo album, New Chautauqua, and, more importantly, his now-classic meeting with Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker on 1980's 80/81.

The incendiary "Song for Bilbao" was another Metheny composition from Travels that would become well-covered, showing up on albums including Brecker's Tales From the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996) (on which Metheny guested) and pianist Chris Parker's Chris Parker Trio (Naxos, 2013). Both "Bilbao" and "Farmer's Trust" would also find their way back into live sets by both PMG and Metheny alone in subsequent years, and remain two of the most memorable of the new compositions debuted on Travels. But all the new material, including the lovely Metheny/Mays ballad "Travels" and Metheny's bossa-informed "Extradition," were strong contributors to making Travels an album often cited by the guitarist's fans as one of their favorites—if not their absolute favorite.

By this time, Metheny had begun experimenting with guitar synths on Offramp, in particular, the horn-like Roland GR-300 tone that would become a signature from this point forward, heard during the guitarist's first solo of this set—a gradually building look at Offramp's "Are You Going With Me?," another song so popular that Metheny has continued to perform it, albeit in sometimes much- altered form, right through to his 2014 Unity Group world tour. But it was with Travels that he began to explore even more technology in what would become a lifelong pursuit of taking the guitar to places no-one had previously gone before. It was early days for the technology, however, and one of the instruments he used at the time—a synth driven by a controller that looked like a guitar except that instead of strings there were simply wires embedded into the neck, with a set of six tines (thin metal bars, where the strings should be, that the guitarist would strike with his pick)—would prove to be too cumbersome and too unwieldy that it was quickly retired.

Still, it's important to note that this was, indeed, the time where Metheny began to significantly augment his previous mix of acoustic guitar and a hollow body electric that was fed through two digital delays to create another signature tone that most guitarists tried to emulate with an inexpensive chorus foot pedal, but which was ultimately ineffective as Metheny's sound was simply a far more complex concoction.

The guitarist's mastery of the guitar was also growing in leaps and bounds, as his harmonic conception remained instantly identifiable even as it became increasingly sophisticated and his chops far more impressive. But a defining characteristic of the guitarist's approach at the time—one missed, to no small extent, by many fans who finds the greater complexities of his current work to have lost some of what made him famous in the first place—was an unrelenting lyricism and devotion to melody. Nowhere can this be heard to greater effect than on "Travels" and the folkloric "The Fields, The Sky," a song driven as much by Vasconcelos' berimbau as it is Gottlieb's drum work.

Mays, too, was evolving rapidly as a player. He'd built his own signature tones—most notably the wind-inflected Prophet 5 synth tone that can be heard in his supporting work on "Are You Going With Me," as well as on a live version of As Falls Wichita's side-long title track that, a true studio creation if ever there was one, manages to be different but equally effective in Travels' slightly abbreviated live version, segueing after Metheny's a cappella guitar solo, "Goin' Ahead."

It was an absolutely perfect show for an idyllic summer's eve: clear and warm, and taking place in the country where so much of this music belongs. Travels may be nostalgic for some, but across a career that now spans forty years, it remains a particular milestone in a career filled with high points that have come to define both Metheny's career and that of his then-flagship PMG. With Unity Group now on hiatus as some of its members return to their own solo careers—especially reed and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter who, with Imaginary Cities (ECM, 2015), has delivered an early contender for 2015's "Best Of" lists—it's unknown if Metheny will finally satisfy the wishes of many of his fans and reconvene Pat Metheny Group; but revisiting Travels helps fill the gap and satisfy the need—a most welcome Rediscovery that, with ECM's ever-present attention to detail and clarity, sounds better than ever through Tetra's 222 listening instruments.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you know this record, and if so, how do you feel about it?

[Note: You can read the genesis of this Rediscovery column here .]

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