It isn’t often that an up and coming band is able to create a piece of music that singularly defines their mission. A musical manifesto, if you will. Rarer still, is when the passage of time supports the integrity of said gauntlet. There is probably no single tune more closely associated with Pat Metheny, the Pat Metheny Group “sound”, or the musical partnership of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays than ‘Phase Dance’.
‘Phase Dance’ virtually opened every PMG concert from late 1977 through the Letter from Home tour, ending late in 1989. We are talking concerts that number in the thousands, folks. It got things underway. It set the tone for the evening.
I believe, but have heard differing accounts, that ‘Phase Dance’ truly marks the first tune these two wrote together. We are all extremely lucky that these two kids found each other. Both were under the age of 25, both were damn near prodigies/virtuosos on their given instrument, and (this is the best one) both were NOT interested in living out the life of the classic, working jazz musician. With a clear respect to the jazz tradition in mind, they both wanted something new. A niche and sound that was their own. I’ve heard Pat reference the jazz climate of the 1970′s in interviews, and he states that he feels this was the last period in jazz where people were taking real chances, and actually had some support to do so at the level of the record labels and companies. I totally agree. That isn’t to say that it all worked, but this was context in which the Group was born. It wasn’t as easy as going electric anymore, like Miles, or just more “out”. These guys wanted a change in the fundamental structures, at both the song and group level. Starting at the compositional level, Pat and Lyle set out to redefine what the song and the group could do.
From the opening notes of the now famous guitar figure, ‘Phase Dance’ is all its own. Pat was already deep into various tunings and stringing configurations on his expanding arsenal of guitars. Employing an old country/folk technique known as the “Nashville Tuning”, Pat gets an extra octave on the high end of his acoustic guitar for the intro and main line/melody. The first change in the hooky, off beat guitar figure is a slight shift and re-voicing down a simple chromatic step, which cleanly and simply resolves after equal time spent. The bulk of the tune is built around that relationship, with a nice little turnaround. I think a big driver for Pat and Lyle has always been to keep the structure open, especially for soloing. The setup for this tune gave these guys plenty of room to tee off during the blowing sections for years to come.
A key innovation of this tune will probably only appeal to players and gear geeks. For the studio recording being reviewed here, instrument changes and overdubs are easily accounted for, but how would this be handled on stage? How would Pat switch guitars effectively and quickly? This is where the iconic image of Pat comes in, half wrapped/slumped over a Nashville-tuned Guild acoustic guitar, hastily fastened to what appears to be repurposed drum hardware, with THE Gibson ES-175 simultaneously slung around his back, rifle-style. (I think many who have seen the PMG can share this image). Grinning wildly with that wall of white teeth while he repeats the distinctive, ostinato figure; the silhouette of his post-Beatles, frizzy moptop only being outdone by Lyle Mays’ guru-level, frizzy moptop in the background, barely visible over his talon-like fingers, pulling perfect analog melody out of the ARP and Oberheim synthesizers. Back to the tune…
As the last harmonics of the lead melody ring out of the Guild, Pat steps back from the free-standing acoustic rig, slings his Gibson from over his shoulder and launches into his opening solo. Manna from Heaven. That sound. That guitar. I would estimate that I have heard over fifty versions of this song played live, and within the first two bars of his solo, he is going in a new, and fresh direction. He has some lines and fills that he relies on throughout the course of the solo, but there is always something new. Always something that could only happen at that moment, in that room. I guess that is part of the reason why he could pour the passion into this tune night after night.
His solo works towards the sky, with a definitive build coming with the aid of a climbing line from Lyle’s Oberheim synthesizer. Some typical fireworks include extended fretwork blasts and whirlwinds that easily enter Shredder category. After the final exhale of Pat’s chorus, Pat and Lyle state the theme in unison (classic PMG move!), and Lyle grabs the dynamic for his stellar solo. Sticking to the acoustic piano, the signature Mays spider fingers, “will he make it to the bar line” beauty ensues. This is one of the many moments where I am in awe of the respect that these two have for one another. This isn’t a cutting contest, or aimless noodling. This is an exercise in listening and connecting.
The tune takes a shift to what I always interpreted as the ‘phase’ portion, following the solos. The head/theme is restated, but then it starts to move. Pat directs the repeating guitar figure up and down the Nashville-tuned neck, complete with some heavy dynamics and an all out kill by the whole band. Is it over? Sans tempo, the repeating picking line slowly comes back to life, modulating a few more times, until finally Danny Gottlieb grabs the beat and builds it up for the triumphant outro vamp (more Classic PMG!). Lyle’s Oberheim cranked to the edge of distorting, all four players building and building for the final cycle; culminating with a single ringing note and crashing cymbals. Welcome to the show.
Following a relatively brief retirement during the 90′s, ‘Phase Dance’ did return to the setlist for 2002′s ‘Speaking of Now’ tour, which I had the distinct honor of seeing from a 3rd row seat at a beautiful venue in my hometown. It was bordering on an out of body experience for me, and made my Bucket List just a bit shorter.