Pat Metheny – 80/81 (1980): Track by track through a classic

I have to admit that intellectually, I was not prepared for Pat Metheny’s 80/81 when it arrived in December 1980. I had not yet listened to enough jazz music.

American Garage, First Circle, Kind of Blue and Weather Report’s 8:30 rounded out nearly my entire listening discography. It just wasn’t enough. And even when I finally took the deep dive, the enormity of this body of music was difficult to process. You have to admit that the lineup was intimidating: Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Dewey Redman? Are you kidding me?

The cool thing is that “Two Folk Songs,” even though it clocks in at over 20 minutes, comes across as anything but intimidating. Supported by Metheny’s “furious strumming” technique (that he would later bring to “The First Circle”), we have Brecker switching back and forth between the melody and some joyous emoting. What truly drives things forward are the typically spectacular drums of Jack DeJohnette. Jack is one of the jazz world’s most sensitive and melodic drummers, but when the velocity is increased, it can sound like he’s coming from several directions at once.

And if anybody wants to understand what Pat Metheny means when he mentions the uniqueness of Charlie Haden, they should give a close listen to the Charlie’s featured passages in the latter half of this composition. It’s musical beauty and simplicity distilled.

Even though Bright Size Life contains a lot of elements of traditional jazz, it wasn’t until Metheny brought saxophones to the mix that it felt as though his version of the tradition was being presented. All of these years later, the presence of that particular instrument on a Metheny album continues to be a rare thing.

With the title track, we have Pat and Dewey Redman playing the head in unison before Pat takes off into his solo space. Somehow, he manages to both completely fill that space while leaving room to breathe. Pushed forward by Jack DeJohnette’s seemingly infinite variations at the kit, Metheny takes on the changes from many different angles and with increasing levels of intensity. Redman comes in just past the midway point and runs with Pat’s energy.

Pat Metheny has often spoken of how special the 80/81 sessions were (and that most of this material was recorded in a single day — yikes!). The chemistry here is quite evident. Credit Pat with getting DeJohnette and Haden together for the first time.

A fairly traditional jazz ballad, “The Bat” tells its tale in a slightly unconventional way. Instead of the usual sequence of head/solos/head, we have the theme presented in sax/guitar unison, to be followed by a long guitar solo, a bass passage, and finally a sax/guitar reprise.

What elevates this composition is the presence of Jack DeJohnette. Pat’s guitar solo is incredibly expressive, but wouldn’t be the same without Jack’s highly emotive cymbal work. This applies equally to Charlie’s segment. People can crack wise about bass solos, but Mr. Haden’s talent for simple beauty is unmatched.

With DeJohnette’s sensitive accents, this isn’t just a solo: it’s a story within a story.

Like a lot of young guys growing up in the ’70s, I fell in love with the electric guitar. I didn’t get my first instrument until my late teens and really didn’t start playing in earnest until my early 20s. The problem is that the process of learning how to play has a funny, almost drug-like quality to it. Early on, a minimal amount of effort and concentration can yield startlingly cool results. I don’t want to say that it’s easy (because it’s not), but there you’ve got this chunk of wood and strings and out comes a lopsided version of some riff you’ve been hearing on the radio since you were 15 and boom — let me try that again!

So, over a decade after I’d made why way past Rolling Stones tunes and had played some more complex material with my friends, I came upon the 80/81 version of Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround.” It’s one of those tunes that immediately resonated with me, so much so that an instant desire to play the song formed. The problem was that I just didn’t have to chops to do it. Hell, I didn’t even really know what Pat Metheny was doing on those choruses. I was sure that it was more or less a three-chord blues, but my ability to play over simple blues progressions didn’t seem to transfer into this context. At all.

My frustration lead me to study jazz guitar for several years. It sure gave me an appreciation for the insane level of complexity that Metheny and his cohorts are so comfortable with. And yes, I did learn how to play “Turnaround,” though not nearly as well as Pat. No surprise there.

Oh, and for years I thought that it was Metheny yelling out “Wooooooo! Jack DeJohnette, man!” at the end of this track. It was actually Charlie Haden, bubbling over with joy after witnessing — somehow, for the very first time together in a studio — Jack DeJohnette’s particular brilliance.

There are many reasons to look wistfully back at this ensemble, thinking of how great it would have been to see them perform live. That list is tops out with “Open.”

It begins with a long and intense Pat Metheny / Jack DeJohnette duet passage that has Pat flying through crazed shifting arpeggios and chromatic runs. Then Pat drops back and Dewey Redman takes over. Not long after that Charlie Haden arrives and before long Dewey steps back and we have what is essentially a Haden solo, with DeJohnette providing quiet support with light snare and cymbal work. Charlie’s solo is my favorite part of “Open.” Folks can make all the jokes they’d like about “Oh no, the bass solo!” but Haden is and always has been a one man melodic idea machine.

The group takes things a step higher as Brecker comes in, playing cat and mouse with Haden’s bass phrasing, with accents tossed in here and there by Metheny. Finally, we have the full group driving through a series of descending, slurring passages — only to reverse direction and take everything back up.

What’s very exciting about this is that it’s not easy to determine which passages are fully improvised and which are written. More important: it’s so exhilarating that you just don’t care!

Sometimes, it’s all about Ornette.

On the whole, 80/81 comfortably visits “out” material and more straight ahead jazz, with a healthy introduction to Pat’s idea of “folk jazz.” Some of the glue that holds all of this together is the influence of Ornette Coleman. “Turnaround” was written by Ornette, but the Pat Metheny-penned “Pretty Scattered” seems like the other side of that coin.

The opening motif, it’s angularity and energy — especially when the entire ensemble lurches upwards to reach for (and stop on) that one high note — reminds my ear of the gorgeous melodies that Ornette produced in his early years. Clearly Mr. Haden knew a thing or two about that!

Of course, a few years down the road Pat and Charlie would be back with Billy Higgins to engage in even more Ornette-isms with Rejoicing.

A definite 80/81 standout track, “Every Day (I Thank You)” features Michael Brecker at his most expressive. There are many interviews out there where Pat Metheny runs out of superlatives when talking about Brecker’s work on this song. It’s not hard to see why. Brecker takes that melody line and lifts it by imparting intense and freely given emotion. It’s definitely some of his best work. A bold statement to make given Brecker’s impossibly huge and impressive resume.

This particular composition is one in a long line of Metheny works in which a several parts are connected. Pat’s never been one to stick to straight jazz forms. So, here we do have an introduction, but that’s followed by a very long segment that highlights Mr. Brecker’s development of the theme. Pat switches between unison play and comping all along, but then takes over after Brecker steps away. Metheny’s delicate response does redevelop the melody, but seems more like a response to the amazing nature of what has just transpired.

I read somewhere that this track was done in only one or two takes. Wow. No wonder Pat was so impressed.

80/81 concludes with Pat Metheny bringing it all together with acoustic guitars. For all of the different aspects of jazz (and “jazz folk”) on display on this record, there’s something about Metheny’s final song that really does feel like a true, integrated conclusion. Certainly all of these years of listening have imparted some of that feel, but it seemed this way on first listen as well.

Extending that feeling, “Goin’ Ahead” also feels like it’s giving a little bit of an introduction to the vastly open sound soon to surface on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Sure, I don’t really know the composition/recording dates, so clearly this is just my perception. But it does fit into what Metheny has said about the individual parts of his discography being parts of one long song.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski