Pat Metheny hasn't exactly been on a roll lately. The guitarist typically alternates safe and daring work, satisfying mainstream hordes while reassuring purists he's still among the modern masters. But lately it's been more mellow and less leaving the nest, and some of it sounds long in the tooth.
So it's refreshing that, even though The Way Up is another album by the mainstream- oriented Pat Metheny Group, it contains just four tracks, three of which are between 16 and 27 minutes long. Furthermore, the five-minute "Opening" shifts through a collage of snippets resembling previous releases with the speed and abruptness of an MTV video.
Maybe there's something to this album's title.
It's not that there's anything terribly new. In fact, for Metheny fans it may provoke something of a Rorschach response, with everyone hearing snippets from previous albums that they want to hear. It might be the long-form structure of As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM, 1980), the eclectic instrumental collaborations of Quartet (Geffen, 1996), or the overall soothing pace of Speaking Of Now (Warner, 2002). Many more comparisons are possible.
But The Way Up is one of the freshest and most accomplished albums by Metheny in recent years and fairly bold for a Group outing. Regular Group fans may be a bit disappointed, in fact, as the lengthy and complex compositional outing requires more attention to appreciate than the typical crowd pleasers.
That structure may also disappoint Metheny's more straight-ahead jazz fans, as the soloing lacks the depth and intensity of his best work. He's fine on both rapid-fire jazz riffs and rock-laced guitar synth passages, but it's the same form he's occupied for a number of albums and there's a strong desire to hear him construct something approaching the likes of "Are You Going with Me?" or "Half Life Of Absolution."
Longtime pianist Lyle Mays makes the expected return, contributing more textures than inspiring passages. Cuong Vu continues the solid trumpet and vocalsalthough the latter is minimalfrom his Group debut on Speaking Of Now. Drummer Antonio Sanchez lays out an exceptionally scenic path for the Group to follow, but it's up them to supply the actual scenery.
The album is both one composition and manyall part of a whole, but jumping and shifting frequently in short bursts everywhere. There are a number of unexpected moments and the complexity generally increases throughout, culminating in a very pleasing surprise ending. Ultimately, it's an album that takes a while to grow on youbut grow it will.
One of the problems with Metheny is that he's critic-immune, even to critics. He can release tepid film scores or thrash-noise hoaxes like Zero Tolerance For Silence (Geffen, 1992) and get raves praising them as high art. The accolades are already stacking up for the new album, but it needs to be kept in context. Metheny is still a ways from topping 2000's Trio Live, but The Way Up is the first album since then that's likely to outlast a "flavor of the week" playlist.
Opening, Part One, Part Two, Part Three.
Pat Metheny: acoustic, electric, synth and slide guitars; Lyle Mays: acoustic piano, keyboards; Steve
Rodby: acoustic and electric bass, cello; Cuong Vu: trumpet, voice; Gregoire Maret: harmonica;
Antonio Sanchez: drums; Richard Bona: percussion, voice; David Samuels: percussion.
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