Pat Metheny Group – Offramp/ First Circle (1982/1984)

Share this:

Whenever you examine a great band that’s been going on as long as The Pat Metheny Group has, you can usually look back and find a period where they reached a crucial turning point in their development.

They found some initial success with their original sound but after a few years felt themselves growing stale and before the public started clamoring for the change, they rolled the dice and changed up their sound risking alienating their original fan base. The Beatles, U2, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan were just a few examples of artists who made that critical jump successfully; many more did not.

For most of them, the transformation didn’t happen with a single release; it usually took two or three to complete the metamorphosis. In this review, we’re going to look at two albums which together represents that turning point for perennial jazz-world fusion favorites The Pat Metheny Group.

For those of us who’ve followed the career of Pat Metheny since the seventies, the image of a lanky, longhaired twenty-one year old Missouri country boy is still fresh in our minds. He took on the world of guitar gods dominated by the likes of Larry Coryell and Al diMeola with his Jim Hall-meets-Ralph Towner folk jazz approach and conquered them by winning over an audience tiring of endless loud wanking and craving thoughtfully played, softer notes.

His 1976 debut Bright Size Life brought guitar jazz back down to the basics but with just enough of a contemporary sound to attract a younger audience. The following album had begun his long association with keyboardist Lyle Mays and the for next album The Pat Metheny Group Metheny and Mays formed a full fledged four piece band of the same name, which was a more coherent presentation of ideas Metheny first presented in the first two (officially) solo records.

After another album in the same vein, American Garage, Metheny returned to releasing solo records under his own name as a vehicle for side diversions that revealed the artist to have many more influences than what he’s revealed before, including an advanced hard bop record and another one featuring him an mostly unaccompanied acoustic guitar.

And then in 1980, he recorded an interesting record credited to him and Mays entitled As Falls Wichita So Fall Wichita Falls, a sort of a folk-prog record that in hindsight brought forth some of the ideas the formed the basis for The PMG’s upcoming new sound.

But in 1982, the fans of this four year old band still had no idea of the seminal album that ensured the Pat Metheny Group would never be just another fusion group. That year, Offramp was unleashed to the world. I can still remember when that record was first released my brother remarked that the “offramp” symbolized the band getting off the highway of a more conventional form of fusion jazz and that really sums it up even more in retrospect.

The opening moment signals the drastic change by heralding the African rhythm of Brazilian percussion phenom Nana Vasconcelos, and the strange sound 11 seconds into it is probably PMG fans’ first taste of Pat’s guitar synthesizer, an instrument he still plays with some regularity today. This track, titled Barcarole, is a three minute free flowing, trippy tune in the style of that Wichita album of the prior year, but now that newly printed calling card has been officially handed out.

The nine minute centerpiece selection Are You Going With Me? follows with a long developing cyclical theme that is played at a raised pitch halfway through. The solos space it allows for first Mays and then Metheny (with two differing guitar synthesizer solos) allow them to fully develop their statements without haste and as he usually does Pat exercises restraint to give his audience something a lot more interesting in the bargain. (Note: this version nonetheless pales to the live one on Travels (purchase) released the following year).

Au Lait is perhaps the weakest tune of the set, with Nano providing some borderline goofy wordless vocals but once the beginning sequence is played out the song settles into a relaxed groove with Mays providing his usual lean piano voicings.

The fast paced Eighteen is most notable for Dan Gottlieb’s rolling drum solo, still one of the best I’ve heard of those lasting under thirty seconds.

The title track is perhaps the most bizarre of the set, an all out whack jazz workout with Metheny back on the Synclavier and Steve Rodby on acoustic bass (who proves to be more than up to the task on this tune). Almost as if to make amends to the traditional PMG crowd, it’s followed by the very American Garage sounding James.

The closer The Bat, Part II is another free flower like the first track, but with a melancholy mood.

In contrast to the first two PMG albums, Offramp offers a much more varied selection of tracks, each with its own personality. You can still hears echoes of the original sound, but the introduction of the guitar synthesizer, percussionist/vocalist, and a bass player who plays acoustic as well as electric (Rodby replaced original bassist Mark Egan on this release) altered their sound.

Furthermore, the band had added world fusion and some avant garde elements to its original presentation. The following album, the aforementioned live Travels (1983), and another Menteny solo release put off a proper follow up release, which they produced the two year later with First Circle.

On Circle, the palette widened and the songwriting tightened up somewhat. There were also more personnel changes; Gottlieb made way for Paul Wertico, while Vasconcelos was replaced by the Argentinean Pedro Aznar.

Like the first album in this review, the second one starts off on with a curveball, an off key marching band ditty called Forward March (you should see them play this live, it’s an absolute hoot). The poppish Yolanda, You Learn follows with some fine guitar and synth guitar work by Metheny.

Aznar was not in Vasconcelos’ league as a percussionist, but he possessed an angelic tenor, almost like a Latin Art Garfunkel, and a powerful falsetto to boot. He used both talents to maximum effect in his wordless vocals in The First Circle. If I Could features Metheny on acoustic guitar; for a man who is responsible for so much soft pop-jazz, this ranks among his softest and sorrowful; a direct descendent of the Wichita‘s Bill Evans tribute “September 15th”.

Tell It All is distinguishable by Lyle Mays’ gogolo bells ushering in Pat’s display of some massive chops on electric guitar before doing so again on the Synclavier.

End Of The Game is representative of the South American-flavored fusion that was becoming part and parcel to the PMG’s music by this time, while Mas Alla (Beyond) is a showcase for Aznar singing real lyrics this time, albeit Spanish ones. The album ends with an upbeat straight rock track appropriately called Praise and probably wouldn’t have been out of place on a Bruce Springsteen album of that time if not for the lack of lyrics.

By First Circle, the Pat Metheny Group has firmly established themselves as a band that was capable of tackling a wide range of styles very loosely held together by jazz music; they could go from soft pop fusion on one song and veer toward all out free jazz in the next, and everything in between. All the bandmembers have the wherewithal to pull it off, both live and in the studio. The foundations they laid down on these two albums set them up for the commercial successes of 1985’s The Falcon And The Snowman and 1987’s Still Life (Talking).

But even today, you never know what to expect from the Pat Metheny Group. Only now, we’ve come to expect that.

Purchase: Pat Metheny Group “Offramp”

Purchase: Pat Metheny Group “First Circle”

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
Share this:
Close