For more than four decades, the guitarist Pat Metheny has left an indelible mark on the jazz world, with a string of contemporary jazz and other albums that defied conventional boundaries.
From Bright Size Life in 1975, a brilliant recording that fused jazz sensibilities with the sound of the American heartland and a modern vision, his records have pushed listeners to open their minds to new approaches and sounds. His large fusion groups deliver sweeping musical scores filled with vibrant melodies, percussion and electronic wizardry, while his small jazz ensembles allow him to focus on jazz improvisation in a more-traditional setting.
Much like his greatest influence, the truly legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Metheny has redefined how jazz is played on the guitar. He thrives on telling stories, a technique that has led to three gold records: Still Life (Talking), Letter from Home and Secret Story. He also can deliver excellent straight-ahead jazz, as he does on Trio 99>00 with Larry Grenadier on acoustic bass and Bill Stewart on drums.
Indeed, Metheny is a songwriter at heart. Perhaps that’s what led him to record his latest CD, What’s It All About, solo versions of 10 classic pop songs from the 1960s and 70s, from Alfie by Burt Bacharach and Hal David to Betcha by Golly Wow by the Stylistics.
Like his 2003 solo recording, One Quiet Night, Metheny recorded his latest at home in between his busy touring schedule. But the new recording contains songs from an earlier era, before he starting writing music and in some cases before he began playing.
Instead of the huge amount of electronic gear he normally uses, on his latest CD Metheny largely plays a baritone guitar, a cross between a conventional guitar and a bass guitar.
The few exceptions include Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, on which he plays a Pikasso 42-string guitar. From the song’s opening series of notes, Metheny delivers a version that is light and airy with harp-like sounds and bass notes that give the impression of movement.
On That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be, by Carly Simon, Metheny’s playing on baritone guitar opens a window into his moments of solitude. A listener can hear how the guitarist’s fingers glide between chords, how he breathes between notes. His expert use of space adds a thoughtful quality to the song.
For And I love Her, by the Beatles, Metheny picks up a nylon-string guitar and builds a nicely improvised story from the simple melody. In his hands, the song is sweet and expressive.
Though all of the songs are recognizable tunes, Metheny delivers them in his voice. His playing is inescapable and distinctive: a bright and clear sound that reflects his roots in Missouri, his grounding in the work of the masters that came before him and his modern vision.
Some jazz fans may find his approach too contemporary. But if you judge Metheny’s compositions and his playing by the standards that make for good jazz – a blend of rhythm that owes much to the blues, strong melodies and a sense of swing – he is definitely a jazz artist. Even on an album of pop tunes.