If you were tasked with listing the influences of JazzGuitaristPatMetheny™, some good entries might be Four and More (Miles Davis), Ornette Coleman’s Something Else!!! (Sorry, couldn’t resist), and Smokin’ At The Half Note by the Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery. Ah, but people often forget that influence can come from many directions. Pat has stated that he’s drawn inspiration from sources as disparate as the street sounds of Miami to the paintings of Paul Klee, so it should come as no surprise that pop music figures into Metheny’s repertoire as well.
Put simply, What’s It All About is a collection of tunes that are important to Metheny, songs that were in the Top 40 during his teen years. These are songs that impressed Pat at a time before he’d written his first note. Some in fact, came before he learned to play an instrument. We all have songs like this, songs that stay with us as the years go by. Obviously, Pat Metheny is no exception.
Played mostly on baritone and nylon-string guitars (with one notable exception), the presentation is quite intimate. Metheny cradles the melodies and extracts unexpected chords from the (seemingly endless) harmonic avenues. He plays with the tempo and, in some cases, toys with the song’s structure. This isn’t just Pat turning out well-behaved versions of vintage pop tunes, it is instead a tour of Metheny’s pop music past by way of his entire career’s arc.
The album opens with a haunting take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” Played on the 42-string Pikasso guitar, Pat takes that sense of space found in the original and leverages it to maximum effect. Chiming arpeggios accent the stated melody lines, and shimmering chords paint the in between-note shadows in varying hues.
I had forgotten about quite a few of these songs, but Metheny’s readings of radio nuggets such as The Association’s “Cherish,” Carly Simon’s “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” and the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays” made me remember just how powerful those melodies and hooks were (and continue to be!) Those songs hold a lot of musical information, with verses taking so long to unwind that the chorus to follow doesn’t feel separate from the rest of the tune. Maybe that’s why they hold their power so many years distant.
The album’s heart is clearly “Alfie.” Metheny winds his way through the Burt Bacharach standard, employing several modulations that seem to give the song a sense of slow liftoff. Like many of the tunes listed on Bacharach’s sizable resume, there are a lot of harmonic possibilities to play with, fitting in perfectly with Pat’s sense of musical adventure.
And speaking of adventure, let’s consider two songs at opposite ends of the pop music spectrum: Jobim’s classic “Girl From Ipanema” and the Chantay’s surf hit “Pipeline.” On the former, Metheny slows the tempo down so as to pull the tune into an (almost) unrecognizable shape . On the latter, Pat fits energetically-strummed chords over the melody line, taking the song further and further out. Both tracks tease essential harmonic content into different forms, putting signature Pat Metheny on display while partially obscuring (but lovingly so!) the source material.
“What’s It All About” ends with the Beatles “And I Love Her,” a song that was impossible to escape if you grew up anywhere near the 1960’s. Like a lot of these tunes, it has become part of our pop music DNA, whether you’re a FamousJazzGuitarist™, or just a regular ‘ole person.
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