by Mark Saleski
Much like those pointless negative reviews where the writer (read: attacker) has never liked the band in question, I sometimes wonder if maybe it’s just not right to go on about my favorite artists.
Let’s face it, I own just about every recording Pat Metheny has ever produced. Solo records. Sideman projects. Film music. Soundtrack singles. Group albums.
So, is it possible for an uber-fan such as myself to deal with a new Metheny composition in an impartial manner? Is impartiality worth anything in this context? No. That’s just not what I’m here for. Aside from the implication that music can be graded via some sort of empirical scale, there’s one very important aspect of the music that is done little justice by the application of detachment: me. That is: I’ve been listening to this music for so many years that the memories and emotional attachments simply cannot be ignored. This isn’t just music, it a part of me.
So be it.
To these ears, The Way Up was one of the most impressive and thrilling compositions that Metheny and collaborator Lyle Mays have ever done. Metheny has spoken about his idea that the music of the Pat Metheny Group can be thought of as one long tune. The Way Up takes that idea, expands upon it and then distills it down to 68 minutes of Metheny Group essence. It’s a career retrospective brought to life through a new and forward-looking four-part suite. A retrospective that’s not looking backward? Isn’t that a contradiction? Metheny himself states that “This record takes every aspect of the band to a new level.”
That is not mere hyperbole. Some sound fragments to consider:
–The staccato guitar (recalling his work with Steve Reich on Different Trains) that simulates the arrival of a train at the very start of the program
–The tag-team phrases that seem to complete each other’s thoughts as “Opening” expands
–The gorgeous Lyle Mays piano solo during “Part Two.” It’s full of long chords played very rubato. The final notes of the solo morph into a Cuong Vu trumpet solo.
–The Gamelan-like “dropout” section in “Part One”
–The cymbal crashes that decay and fade out as “Part One” concludes … leading into the guitar arpeggios of “Part Two”
Structurally, The Way Up introduces a theme in “Part One” that is returned to at various points of the suite. This is very reminiscent of the Metheny/Mays album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. What’s new is that nearly every other aspect of the band’s history can be heard throughout. There’s the exoticism of Imaginary Day, the tension of “Halflife of Absolution” (from The Road To You), the dynamics and sheer joy of First Circle‘s title track, and the slow-burning emotional overload of “Are You Going With Me” (from Offramp).
Relative Metheny Group newcomers Antonio Sanchez (drums) and Cuong Vu (trumpet) make huge contributions here. Metheny has always stressed the importance of the drummer in his band. Sanchez’ rhythmic concept glues together both the composed and improvised sections so that the interplay seems effortless, even when the tempos are at their most breathtaking. Vu adds beautiful trumpet tones and ghostly atmospherics throughout.
Right! Then there’s the guitar. There’s Pat’s signature hollow body, acoustic guitar, sitar (probably the Choral electric), guitar synth, distorted guitar, slide guitar, even a little EBow. Layers and layers of guitar. Clearly, Pat and Lyle have been inspired by the aural capabilities of the latest group lineup as the ideas flow nonstop. Of course, with Metheny’s guitar winding its way through the proceedings.
It’s still a mystery to me, this thing I call musical resonance. Why does one particular piece of music feel “at home” during the very first listen. I’ll never know. What I do know is that The Way Up was instantly a part of my life. There’s no taking that back.