Nov. 5—In 1982, the Pat Metheny Group released an astonishing album called "Offramp." Based on the music therein — a buffet of thoughtful, creative and forward-thinking jazz/fusion/world music twined together by the power and personality of the players — the title "Offramp" might seem to suggest a departure from the established highway of fusion artists like Return to Forever or Weather Report.
Now, almost four decades later, the joke's on us — and possibly Metheny himself. When it comes to his career and music, the guitarist has realized there IS no offramp. A Kansas City native who was playing professionally at 14, Metheny early on worked with Roy Haynes — with whom Metheny still occasionally plays even though his mentor is in his 90s — and, over time, varied stylists like Ornette Coleman, Gary Burton, Charlie Haden and Sonny Rollins.
Mostly, though, his focus has centered around the Pat Metheny Group along with various solo recordings, duets and collaboration. Lately, he's started a series of projects called Side-Eye, where the plan is to work with younger musicians who've caught his ear.
All told, the ongoing Metheny legacy contains about 50 albums, 20 Grammy awards in 10 categories, and dozens of tours — and it's ALL part of a perpetual musical statement where there are no boundaries or starts and stops, only an ongoing flow.
It never stops
"To me, all the music I have made is all one continuous thing that is very personal," Metheny writes in an email prior to his appearance with Side-Eye Saturday in the Great Cedar Showroom at Foxwoods. "I don't make a distinction between this period or that period, this band or that band or this project or that one. I don't see the end of anything, only beginnings and expansions."
Joining him tonight in Side-Eye are pianist/organist/keyboardist James Francies and drummer Joe Dyson. The trio is on the road behind the "Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)" album, a live recording that ably captures the excitement, improvisation and interplay between Metheny's collective wisdom and the hunger and chops of the younger mentees. The theory behind the old/young lineup reflects Metheny's own invaluable experiences when he was the wunderkind getting to work with seasoned players.
An instantly infectious album of joyous workouts, "Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)" features plenty of new material to go with a few interpretations from days of yore. Among the recently composed songs are the joyous lava-flow workout of "It Starts When We Disappear," the melodically introspective "Better Days Ahead" and "Zenith Blue," and the Jeff Beck-says-hi-to-Roy Buchanan guitar Valentine called "The Lodger." The threesome also explores the title track and "Sirabhorn" from his groundbreaking debut, "Bright Size Life," and a post-bop negotiation of Coleman's "Turnaround."
In short, "Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)" instantly captures the processional nature Metheny describes. But that aesthetic long-view perhaps runs counter to the way a layperson forms relationships with certain of an artist's work: That while different albums (and songs on each album) exist to document progress for the musicians, those same works provide a sort of cartography of latitude and longitude to which a fan clings to in a different context — and returns to time and again as stand-alone statements. Such things are integral to the dialogue between an artist and the public.
This journalist, for example, is particularly fond of certain Metheny-related albums and songs that imprinted his life in an almost soundtrack-like way. Metheny understands and appreciates that, but it has little practical application to his creative core and ongoing mission.
"Thanks for listening all these years," he writes. "It's always interesting and gratifying to me when folks want to talk about a relationship that they have had with the music I have been associated with. It's pretty easy to tell, from what they mention, how old they are by which (albums or songs) came into view for them — usually sometime in their relative youth." He parenthetically adds, with the skill of a Fool the Guesser act on a carnival midway, "I would have known right away you were about 66 by your questions."
Fair enough. But Metheny lives and creates bey
ond the separate experiences of his fanbase.
"I don't have any kind of nostalgic relationship with any of (the music) because it is all still ongoing, and I am still right in the middle of it ... each of the playing environments I have set up over the years are all different versions of my sense of what music can be; what a band can be," Metheny explains. "When I have a group and I have hired certain musicians to be in it, it's because I feel like they are the best guys to help me realize a certain sound that I have and almost primal need to get out.
"And for the most part I feel like each of those areas of interest are still worthwhile. I don't feel like anything I ever started had ever ended. Everything is still ongoing. I could happily play all the music from (breakthrough and definitive album) 'Bright Size Life' right now. It still seems viable — the arguments there still seem valid and worth thinking about. And I could say that about just about everything else going forward."
Metheny is well known as an interpreter and for his spontaneity on the bandstand, but also and in particular for his work as a composer. It's a combination which is somewhat distinctive in jazz, where a rich trove of pre-written "standards" often comprises the launching pad for individual and ensemble improvisations.
Harmony, rhythm and melody
"Originally, I came to composing as a way of expanding my reach as an improviser," Metheny says. "It was a way to set up environments for myself to hopefully get to the kinds of playing that I was hearing and that had been eluding me while playing standards or blues forms or the music of other composers."
Metheny describes the acts of improvisation and composition as related but dissimilar best described in meteorological terms.
"Improvising on stage night after night with great musicians is about as hot an environment as there is in music, while sitting alone in a room pondering the merits of B-flat over A-flat for a week can represent an almost glacial pace of musical decision making," Metheny says. "But at the same time, ideally the kinds of things that I love as a listener and music lover are what I aspire to represent, regardless of how they come to be."
In this context, Metheny does directly discuss a song the journalist has asked about, the unbearably lovely and autumnal ballad "Farmer's Trust." The song, which he co-wrote with longtime friend and keyboardist Lyle Mays, who passed away last year, appeared on the live 1983 Pat Metheny Group "Travels" — but Metheny addresses it mostly as it applies to the abstract quality of melody.
"For me," he says, "melody is the most mysterious aspect of music and the tune you mentioned, 'Farmer's Trust,' is an example of a certain kind of melodic writing that comes up for me sometimes,
"While we can slice and dice and define and quantify harmony and rhythm in almost endless ways, melody is nearly impervious to that same kind of analysis. Somehow, my perception of what melody is stands as a kind of invisible glue that holds music together, often in less than obvious ways. The elements that need to be there to make something really work melodically are often elusive and rare ... But in whatever form it takes, I have found that there must be an idea at the core of piece that has a kind of inevitable quality for me — something that could not be anything other than what it is. 'Farmer's Trust' fits that bill; you can't really change a note of it and still have it be what it is."
Will "Farmer's Trust" make it into tonight's Side-Eye set list? Who knows? There's a lot — a LOT— of material that Metheny, Francies and Dyson can and might explore. And any and all of it excites Metheny.
"Regarding the chronology aspect of things," he says, "looking back on almost 50 years of this now, I would be happy to play anything and everything from any point along the way — with anyone and everyone I have ever had in any of my bands. Again, it all seems like one big thing to me and I'm glad to be a part of all of it and to have been able to really live inside of music for such a long time."