by Ian Mann
March 26, 2021
Metheny’s status as a musical legend is assured, but he’s not an artist content to rest on his laurels. This album finds him still looking forward & developing a true synthesis between musical genres.
“Road To The Sun”
(Modern Recordings 538639322)
Pat Metheny – 42 String Pikasso Guitar
Justin Vieaux – Classical Guitar
The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (John Dearman – 7 String Guitar, Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant – Classical Guitars)
After a lengthy tenure with Nonesuch Records the celebrated guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has switched labels and signed a new deal with BMG’s Modern Recordings imprint.
Metheny’s first release for his new label comes as something of a surprise. It features two major new works, “Four Paths Of Light” and “Road To The Sun”, both composed by Metheny but actually performed by others.
The movements of the solo guitar suite “Four Paths Of Light” are performed by the leading classical guitarist Justin Vieaux, while the six part “Road To The Sun” is played by the members of The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
Metheny himself only fully appears on one track, and even this is presented as a “bonus” offering. He is featured playing his custom made 42 string Pikasso guitar on an arrangement of the Arvo Part composition “Fur Alina”.
For a first release on a new label the album represents a pretty radical step. In terms of sheer boldness it ranks right up there with “Song X”, Metheny’s decidedly challenging collaboration with Ornette Coleman that marked his 1985 début for Geffen following his switch from ECM.
It’s tempting to think of “Road To The Sun” as something of a ‘side project’, rather like the 2013 album “Tap; John Zorn’s Book Of Angels Vol. 20”. This saw Metheny challenging himself on a series of interpretations of John Zorn compositions. Essentially this was a solo recording with Metheny playing all the instruments himself, with the exception of the drums, played by the faithful Antonio Sanchez. It was the first Metheny album in years that had genuinely surprised me - and it was all the better for it.
The Zorn album was well received by many critics but remains something of a backwater in the Metheny canon, I suspect that even some of the guitarist’s most ardent fans remain largely unaware of it. It’s not even available via Metheny’s own website. Like the Coleman release it’s a challenging, but hugely rewarding piece of work.
However a similar fate is unlikely to befall “Road To The Sun”, which has the full weight of the Metheny promotional machine behind it, together with a multi-format release and associated merchandise. In the UK Metheny has been interviewed about the new album on both Radio 3 and Radio 4. As befits a first album for a new label “Road To The Sun” is being treated as a pretty big deal.
It’s a recording that represents a significant departure for Metheny. Although composition and arrangement has long been a core component of much of his output this represents the first album under his name where ALL the music is fully notated and where there is no improvised content whatsoever.
“I have followed the classical guitar world with interest and from the first moment I heard Jason, he has been one of my favourite musicians. He excels at playing passages that border on being technically impossible on the instrument, he also has the rare ability to make things that are simple have real meaning. His playing inspired me to write a piece that would hopefully challenge and inspire him in return.”
For his part Vieaux replies
“It was a kind of dream of mine to work with Pat. Even though I know many of his improvised solos by heart, the compositional aspect of his music was always the biggest factor. Whenever an artist of Pat’s significance writes not only a substantial work but a piece that requires real virtuosity to perform it, with his musical imprint all over it, it’s a big moment for classical guitar. I think this work really has a long life in the repertoire.”
Vieaux and Metheny go back a long way. The Grammy Award winning classical guitarist recorded a solo guitar album of Metheny tunes in 2005. Released on the Azica record label “Images of Metheny” won praise from both classical and Metheny fans alike as Vieaux interpreted many of Metheny’s most popular melodies in the classical guitar format. A highly adventurous musician Vieaux has also explored the Argentinian tango tradition, notably the music of Astor Piazzolla, in addition to performing classical music both ancient, notably J.S. Bach, and modern.
It’s remarkable to think that even a virtuoso guitarist like Metheny didn’t feel that he had the technical ability to perform “Four Paths Of Light” himself. It’s this work that begins the album with Vieaux performing the four movements with great assurance and a truly remarkable technical facility. Jazz listeners may be reminded of the playing of Ralph Towner, and fans of this artist, once Metheny’s label mate at ECM, are among those likely to enjoy this recording.
As a composer both this suite and the following “Road To The Sun” exhibit Metheny’s ongoing gift for melody, a gift that has distinguished a highly successful career encompassing many aspects of music – jazz, rock, pop, country, world and now classical.
Metheny himself is wary of such genre distinctions - “music is one big, singular thing for me”, he declares, “that exists in a realm that has no borders”. Despite his reputation as a brilliant improviser he has the utmost respect for virtuoso classical performers such as Vieaux and the LAGQ, musicians whose skills find expression in the interpretation of complex notated material.
Metheny has spoken of his satisfaction in writing for such musicians; “There is a unique pleasure in knowing that what is on the page can stand as a complete set of instructions to get to that musical result, not just for these performers but eventually by other players in the future”.
If “Part 1” of “Four Paths Of Light” represents something of a technical tour de force for Vieaux then the second, with its delightful melody, represents pure Pat Metheny. Indeed, regardless of the musical context and the identities of the performers there is a consistent sense throughout the album that this is first and foremost “Metheny Music”. This quality continues to shine through the classical flourishes of “Part 3”, the movement that most closely resembles a conventional guitar concerto. The suite concludes with “Part 4”, which sees a sparse but elegant melody subtly embellished by flamenco inspired ornamentations.
“Road To The Sun” then introduces the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, who deploy three conventional six string classical guitars alongside a seven string instrument with an additional bass range, the latter played by John Dearman. The regular guitars are played by Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser and Scott Tennant.
Like Vieaux, and Metheny himself, the LAGQ are Grammy Award winners. Although primarily a classical ensemble the group have explored a variety of other musics, ranging from gamelan to rock. Their 2004 Grammy winning album “Guitar Heroes” included interpretations of material by Metheny, Towner, Chet Atkins, Steve Howe and others.
Metheny has described the LAGQ as “one of the best bands in the world” and has spoken of “their amazing individual and collective talents”.
Regarding the composition of “Road To The Sun” he declares “Before I knew it, I was in the midst of a nearly 30-minute, six-movement treatise on what might be possible in a multi-guitar format. I found myself completely immersed in this incredible opportunity to imagine what these four exceptional guitarists could sound like addressing these notes.”
William Kanengiser describes the composition this way: “Road To The Sun is one of the most important new works in the guitar quartet repertoire. Its sheer dimensions are impressive, with an almost symphonic use of colour, mood contrast and thematic unity. But it also captures a very personal emotional expression from Pat, running the gamut from haunting atmospheric harmonies to luscious melodies. The formal architecture and intricate melodic development give it the structural integrity of serious classical composition, almost a modern equivalent of a Strauss tone-poem. But the language is vintage Pat Metheny. It’s one of the most ambitious and powerful pieces that we’ve ever played in our 40 years together.”
Metheny himself is credited with “guest strumming” on Parts 2 and 5 of the suite, the two pieces that arguably sound most similar to his regular jazz infused output. Nevertheless the other movements are still readily recognisable as Metheny compositions, beginning with the gentle baroque flavourings of “Part 1”, which also recalls LAGQ’s own interpretations of renaissance music.
The pieces flow into each other more seamlessly than on the earlier solo guitar suite. “Part 2” includes flamenco flourishes and the fleeting use of the bodies of the guitars as a percussive effect. Some of the melodies are pure Metheny and there are moments when the music sounds as if it could have come from “New Chatauqua”, the solo album of multi-tracked guitar pieces that Metheny released on ECM back in 1979.
“Part 3” is shadowy and mysterious, but still inherently beautiful, the mood continuing into “Part 4”, which concludes with a series of glissando and percussive effects as the members of the LAGQ push their classical guitars into a realm of extended techniques more associated with the world of avant garde jazz. Perhaps Metheny was remembering his collaboration with the late, great Derek Bailey.
“Part 5” features pretty melodies and Metheny’s own strumming, alongside a rich seam of colours and textures, dynamic contrasts and the use of percussive effects. Superficially beautiful there’s a lot going on here, melodically, rhythmically and harmonically.
“Part 6” represents a gentle, almost melancholic coda, again distinguished by a beautiful melody and by the sensitive performance of it by the members of the quartet.
The album concludes with the ‘bonus track’, Metheny’s performance of Arvo Pärt’s composition “Für Alina” originally written as a solo piano piece.
“I love his music”, says Metheny, before adding; “I am actually not sure I can explain how or why I came to think of including his piece in this set, it just fit to me somehow. After all of the structural complexities and all the modulations and key changes of the two suites, there is something about the simple and haunting diatonic quality of this work that puts it in stark contrast with the rest of the program. It made it feel like a good place to conclude the recording.”
Metheny performs “Fur Alina” on the 42 string Pikasso guitar specially constructed for him by the luthier Linda Manzer. It’s an instrument that he has often deployed with his regular working group, and one that has found its way onto previous group recordings. The other worldly timbres of the Pikasso, with its remarkable dynamic range is perfectly suited to Pärt’s music and conveys something of the exquisite melancholy of the original. This is a performance that the vast legion of Pat Metheny Group admirers will undoubtedly want to hear.
The “Road To The Sun” album has been well received by the critics, even receiving a glowing review from Brian Morton in the March 2021 edition of Wire Magazine. Despite Pat’s limited input as a performer it still sounds unmistakably like a Metheny album and despite the unusual nature of the project it also seems to have found favour with Metheny’s regular fans, certainly if the comment from Mark Albini, reproduced below, is anything to go by.
It may ostensibly be a “classical guitar album” but it still has Metheny’s finger prints all over it and it’s good to see him still pushing the envelope at this stage of his career and after more than forty years in the music business. It follows on from his experimentations with an orchestra on “From This Place” (2020), his recent and most ambitious group recording to date and his final album for Nonesuch. Review here;
Metheny’s status as a musical legend is assured, but he’s not an artist content to rest on his laurels. Both “From This Place” and “Road To The Sun” find him still looking forward and developing a true synthesis between varying musical genres.
From Mark Albini via email;
Absolutely loving the new Metheny album Road to the Sun - sublime playing. Shows he’s constantly evolving and actually barely plays on these pieces he’s composed.
From Chris Weavers via email;
Read your review of this CD.I have nearly all Pat Metheny’s CD’s and seen him in concert a number of times.
I am writing to express my disappointment that the cover shows PM’s name in large type, despite that fact that he only plays on the “bonus track” and “strums” on a couple of the others. I did know this when I bought it, others may not.
I appreciate that they are his compositions but feel a bit of marketing at work here to maximise sales. Dishonest I would say, should have been titled “Jason Vieaux and the LA Guitar Quartet play Pat Metheny”
Did enjoy the CD though !