by Ian Mann
January 02, 2021
There is some excellent writing and some exceptional playing here, and it's particularly satisfying to see Gwilym Simcock representing the UK on the world jazz stage.
“From This Place”
Pat Metheny – guitar, synclavier, Gwilym Simcock – piano, Linda May Han Oh – bass, Antonio Sanchez – drums
with; Luis Conte – percussion, Gregoire Maret – harmonica, Meshell Ndegeocello – vocals
Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Joel McNeely
Here’s an extremely belated look at what, at the time of writing, is still the most recent album release by the celebrated American guitarist, composer, arranger and bandleader Pat Metheny.
First released in February 2020 “From This Place” is arguably Metheny’s most ambitious recording to date, which is saying quite something in the light of his long and distinguished career. It’s a release that has made the 2020 “Album of the Year” lists in a number of print and online publications and the press reaction has been largely favourable, with many commentators citing the album as a milestone recording in the extensive Metheny canon.
A recording of Metheny’s latest project, “Road To The Sun”, will be released on March 5th 2021 and I will be taking a look at that in due course. Having been approached to review this new project I enquired as to the possibility of also covering “From This Place”, and I’m grateful to Katie Havelock of Nonesuch Records for allowing me to access the audio files of this much acclaimed album.
The core personnel on “From This Place” features the quartet that Metheny has been leading since 2016. The group features his long term drummer Antonio Sanchez, Australian born, US based bassist Linda May Han Oh and the British pianist Gwilym Simcock. This is a band that has played more than three hundred concerts since its formation, many of them on an extensive world tour that took place in 2017. The tour visited the UK and I was fortunate enough to witness (as a punter) a superb performance by the quartet at The Barbican as part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. At this stage the group were playing freshly arranged versions of Metheny’s ‘greatest hits’, a package that was gleefully devoured by Metheny’s legions of adoring fans and which made comparative superstars of Simcock and Oh. Having followed and championed Simcock’s career from the beginning it was personally hugely satisfying to see him receiving such international recognition.
When the time came for Metheny to record the quartet he deliberately presented them with a raft of new material as they arrived at the studio, intentionally seeking to spark their individual and collective creativity. As the quartet worked on the new pieces it became clear to Metheny that the compositions also required a degree of orchestration, a process that has always fascinated him and which has been a part of his music since the late 1970s, when the various keyboards played by the late, great Lyle Mays (1953-2020) began to perform an important role in terms of both colour and texture.
Metheny and Mays frequently composed together, developing an increasingly “orchestral” style of writing that became more layered and complex as the Pat Metheny Group took full advantage of advances in musical technology and bigger recording budgets, the latter a direct result of the PMG’s remarkable commercial success, with Mays adding to his arsenal of keyboards and Metheny utilising the very latest guitar technology. The use of wordless vocals and exotic percussion also became a major part of the Group’s music as they sought an increasingly ‘widescreen’ sound.
One can trace the development of the Group’s approach via its albums; all the way from 1978’s “Pat Metheny Group”, recorded for ECM, to 2005’s “The Way Up”, a single sixty eight minute composition that marked the culmination of everything Metheny and Mays had set out to achieve, and which proved to be their final collaboration. By this time Metheny had moved to Nonesuch, following substantial tenures with both Geffen and Warners, but “First Circle” (1984), his last album for ECM remains a key recording (and one of my personal favourites) and the one that pointed the way for what was to follow.
Metheny has always written episodically, emphasising the importance of “compositional development” and of colour, texture and rhythm. His compositions take the listener on a journey, combining a strong narrative arc with memorable melodies and an acute sense of place, often inspired by the big, open skies of his native Mid West. It’s something that he has called the “trip factor”, and listeners across the globe have been more than happy to come along for the ride.
With Simcock specialising on acoustic piano throughout Metheny’s thoughts for the orchestration on “From This Place” turned towards an actual orchestra. He had worked with strings and brass before on his 1993 album “Secret Story”, a Geffen release that was credited to him alone rather then the Pat Metheny Group. The album represented something of a “mixed bag”, with the orchestration sometimes overwhelming some very good compositions and rendering the final product just a little too saccharine. The reaction, from fans and critics alike, was similarly mixed. I recall seeing this music played live by a touring band assembled specifically for the project, and on the whole the compositions worked much better in this pared down, but by no means sparse, format.
In general the orchestration on “From This Place” is more discrete and less bombastic than it was on “Secret Story”. For this latest recording Metheny delegated the majority of the orchestral arrangements to Alan Broadbent and Gil Goldstein, dividing the pieces roughly equally between them and keeping back just one piece for himself. Both Broadbent and Goldstein are also talented pianists with their own solo careers. Goldstein had also been part of the “Secret Story” project and was one of two keyboard players (alongside Jim Beard) in the 1993 touring band.
The orchestral parts are played by members of the Hollywood Studio Symphony under the baton of conductor Joel McNeely
Metheny’s decision to use an orchestra was in part informed by the CTI records of the 1970s. Producer Creed Taylor encouraged experienced arrangers, such as the prolific and influential Don Sebesky, to write string arrangements around previously recorded improvisations by jazz soloists such as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. Metheny toured in a duo format with Carter in 2018 and it was partly through his conversations with the veteran bassist that he decided to apply this approach to the music of the Simcock/Oh/Sanchez quartet.
Like Metheny’s own “Secret Story” the CTI ‘with strings’ recordings divided critical and public opinion, with their detractors describing them as “bland” or “sugary”. However their stock seems to have risen again in recent years, with Metheny enthusing about the way arrangers such as Sebesky would “weave” their orchestrations around the already existent improvised material.
Given Metheny’s enthusiasm for the “trip factor” and the often cinematic or ‘visual’ nature of his writing it’s perhaps not too surprising that the American cinema industry and its accompanying soundtracks and film scores also represent a considerable influence on his music.
Although Metheny was tempted to go to Europe to record the orchestral parts for the album the overwhelmingly ‘American’ nature of the music persuaded him to remain in the U.S. With with the movie industry representing such a significant influence it made sense to use Los Angeles based musicians, and specifically the members of the Hollywood Studio Symphony.
It’s quite strange for me to be reviewing this album in a “Post Trump” environment, for in many senses “From This Place” represents a musical (and occasionally verbal, more on that later) protest against the Trump administration. It represents a musical depiction of America both as it is, and how it should be.
So, having put this album firmly into context it’s at last time to take a look at the music itself.
The thirteen minute opener “America Undefined” takes its title from a phrase used in an essay by the late American author and activist James Baldwin (1924-87). Epic in scope the piece commences with an atmospheric introduction featuring the cello heavy sounds of the orchestra, before striking out into more obvious jazz, and specifically Metheny, territory, as characterised by the leader’s trademark guitar sound. The first solo goes to the consistently inventive Simcock, with an expansive excursion on acoustic piano. He’s followed by the leader’s effortlessly fluent guitar, before the music takes a darker, more ominous turn as the strings return. The music conjures up images of the vast rolling plains of the Mid West, something encouraged by the sounds of sampled voices and railway crossing bells, shades here of Metheny and Mays’ 1980 duo collaboration “As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls”. With the orchestra back on board the closing section exhibits a truly epic grandeur as the music builds towards its inevitable climax, the swirling orchestral cadences representing an aural equivalent of the tornado depicted on the album cover. A big opening trip, for sure.
“Wide And Far” is classic Pat Metheny, with the leader again demonstrating his signature guitar sound on a joyously expansive solo, followed by a more concise outing from Simcock at the piano. Oh’s bass is featured towards the close, her playing agile and melodic, but simultaneously deeply resonant.
“You Are” builds from Simcock’s unaccompanied piano introduction, the sound now gently brooding and delicately suspenseful. The piece gradually grows in intensity, centred around a recurring eight note cycle, with vocal effects adding to a grandeur that just manages to stay the right side of bombastic. Eventually the music subsides once more, leaving the listener drained but exhilarated.
Oh’s unaccompanied bass introduces “Same River”, eventually joined by the rustle of percussion before Simcock takes over to deliver another hugely imaginative piano solo. Meanwhile Metheny unleashes his patented synclavier guitar sound, a device that he first introduced on his 1982 “Offramp” album for ECM, most notably on the perennial stage favourite “Are You Going With Me?”. It’s a sound that is undeniably stirring and dramatic, and one that he has regularly revisited on a number of albums over the years. Here it is augmented by the grandiose sound of sweeping strings as Metheny pays homage to Hollywood. It’s as if the “Big Country” theme has been embellished with a technological makeover.
Metheny and Simcock introduce “Pathfinder” with a guitar / piano duet, the piece subsequently acquiring a rhythmic complexity that contrasts well with the relative simplicity of the accompanying orchestral textures. Metheny and Simcock both stretch out at length, with Simcock’s piano playing sometimes reminiscent of his work with the Anglo-American group The Impossible Gentlemen, an ensemble that has featured the talents of two long term Metheny collaborators, bassists Steve Swallow and Steve Rodby. Finally, as befits such a rhythmically dynamic and complex piece, we get to enjoy a feature from the remarkable Mexican-American drummer Antonio Sanchez, Metheny’s sticksman of choice since 2002 and who has appeared on the guitarist’s last nine albums.
Following the rhythmic vibrancy of “Pathfinder” a contrast. “The Past Is Us” exhibits a more lyrical side of Metheny’s writing, ushered in by an introductory passage featuring piano and orchestra. Perhaps the closest piece in feel to the “Secret Story” album the track also features the distinctive jazz harmonica sound of guest soloist Gregoire Maret. Metheny has always been drawn to the sound of the harmonica, with Mays first replicating the sound of the instrument via his keyboards. Metheny has subsequently deployed the late Toots Thielemans, on “Secret Story”, and Maret on “The Way Up”. The Swiss born Maret was also part of the “Way Up” touring band that delivered a truly brilliant performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2005. Here Maret is featured twice, his solos punctuated by the leader’s own excursion on guitar.
“Everything Explained” represents the only piece for which Metheny wrote the orchestral arrangement himself. He deliberately keeps this simple as the core quartet explore the complex but joyously vibrant rhythms of a composition that revisits the Latin and Brazilian leanings of the old Pat Metheny Group, with sparkling solos coming from the leader on guitar and Simcock at the piano.
The title track actually represents the shortest track on the album. However it is distinctive for being one of the few Metheny recordings to feature a lyric, the words here delivered by guest vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello. The orchestral introduction instils an air of solemnity before Ndegeocello sings the lyrics written by her partner Alison Riley. Ndegeocello’s voice is sometimes double tracked and she sometimes seems to be duetting with herself, answering her own questions and completing her own phrases. The line “I Can’t Breathe” now sounds particularly prescient. The words express a dissatisfaction with Trump’s America, but also express hope for a better future, something that may actually happen now that he has gone. The vocals are complemented by Metheny’s delicate acoustic guitar solo and Sanchez’s softly brushed drums.
“Sixty-Six” is another composition that epitomises the “trip factor”, a nine and a half minute journey hurried along by Sanchez’s rapidly brushed drums, reminiscent of the ‘locomotive’ rhythms deployed on the tune “Last Train Home” from the 1987 PMG album “Still Life (Talking)”.
These are coupled to the sounds of soaring strings to conjure up visions of a train trip across the Mid Western plains, the journey enlivened by solos from Metheny and Oh, the latter’s melodic playing occasionally reminiscent of former Metheny collaborator Eberhard Weber. The presence of the orchestra ensures that the music becomes increasingly epic as the journey progresses, another “big trip” to close the regular programme and bring the album full circle.
“Love May Take A While” is presented as a ‘bonus’ track and features Metheny’s warm toned guitar soloing accompanied by understated double bass and brushed drums plus a lush, string laden orchestral backdrop. It’s the piece that most resembles a movie theme and represents the musical equivalent of Pat riding off into the sunset.
As mentioned previously the critical reaction to the “From This Place” album has been largely positive, and rightly so. There is some excellent writing and some exceptional playing here, and it’s particularly good to see Simcock representing the UK on the world jazz stage. That the core quartet is a truly world class group is undisputed.
Instead it’s the deployment of the orchestration that has divided opinion. For me the orchestration is less intrusive and more effective than it was on “Secret Story”, and on compositions like “America Undefined”, “Same River” and “Sixty-Six” it’s an integral part of the music, adding colour, grandeur and a truly epic feel to the music. It’s an essential part of “Love May Take A While” too, although here the effect is more ‘conventionally sweet’.
The above tracks represent the ‘movie score’ element of the orchestration. The CTI aspect is explored more discretely and subtly and it will be up to individual listeners to decide if it really works. Certainly the orchestration here is less intrusive and cloying than it was on “Secret Story” but many of the pieces would stand perfectly well on their own if they were just performed by the quartet. But at least the orchestration doesn’t grate too much, or ultimately mar the performances.
All in all it’s a thumbs up from me for the album as a whole, but I’d still be keen to hear a recording by the core quartet. Given that Simcock, Oh and Sanchez very much stamped their own identity on Pat’s old material during the extensive “An Evening With Pat Metheny” tour I’m surprised that a live recording featuring the quartet hasn’t been issued. I’m sure that most of the Metheny fan-base, and particularly those who saw that tour, would love to hear that.
Meanwhile the next release under Metheny’s name will be “Road To The Sun”, which will be released on March 21st 2020 on BMG Records’ Modern Recordings imprint. It will feature two major new works written by Metheny and performed by Jason Vieaux and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
This represents an intriguing proposition. Some of Metheny’s ‘side projects’ have been among his most interesting recordings, a fairly recent example being “Tap; John Zorn’s Book Of Angels Vol. 20”, which saw the guitarist challenging himself by tackling a series of John Zorn compositions, with only the faithful Sanchez for company.
I will be taking a look at “Road To The Sun” nearer to the official release date. In the meantime there is still the music of “From This Place” to enjoy.
From Chris Weavers via email;
I was interested to read your review of this CD, particularly with reference to 1993 Secret Story London concert as I was there !
I believe the concert was at the Hammersmith Odeon on April 16th. If I remember correctly the venue was by no means full and it was disappointing that Lyle Mays was not on the tour.
Regarding From this Place, yes good tunes and of course first class players. Similar to Secret Story in being a little to “cinematic” for me. Still 9/10 though!
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