It's been a full six years since Pat Metheny last released a studio recording. This, despite the guitarist who has become, in a career now in the midst of its fifth decade, one of the most famous and influential jazz guitarists of his (or, some would argue, any) generation, reportedly having enough material in the can for five or six releases.
Nor is it as if he hasn't kept busy. The guitarist, for whom live performance has always been like life's blood itself, toured for up to ten months a year, early in his career, with his flagship Pat Metheny Group. Giving his band mates a couple of months off, Metheny would then hit the road again for a couple months with one of his side projects, like the trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins responsible for 1984's Rejoicing, one of two final recordings released, that year, for his first label as a leader, Munich's ECM Records.
Life changes (marriage, children, aging—he turned 65 in August, 2019) have reduced some of Metheny's time spent on the road in more recent years. Still, he continues to clock up plenty of miles touring with his Side Eye project (featuring a revolving door of younger, up-and-coming musicians), but, even more significantly, with the extraordinary core unit behind From This Place that's been together for the past few years: pianist Gwilym Simcock; bassist Linda May Han Oh; and Antonio Sanchez, who's played on more Metheny projects than any other drummer since first joining Pat Metheny Group for Speaking of Now (Warner Bros., 2002).
Metheny's current quartet has criss-crossed the globe several times in the past several years, focusing exclusively on extant material spanning the guitarist's nearly 45-year career as leader. This represents a significant change from prior groups, dedicated to playing new music from their (then-) latest recording, in addition to some selectively chosen earlier compositions.
Instead, through exploring many of the infinite nooks and crannies of Metheny's existing repertoire over the past several years, the guitarist's current quartet has found and continues to evolve a kind of musical code—a definitive way of doing things not unlike that encouraged by trumpet legend Miles Davis with his mid-'60s quintet featuring double bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams. Metheny, also touring in recent years in an intimate duet setting with Carter, often asked the bassist about his prestigious past, including why Davis' mid-'60s quintet played so little of the material it was developing for its studio sessions when it performed live. From Metheny's own writing, in the press package for From This Place: ..."during his [Carter's] later years in the Miles Davis Quintet, arguably the most influential band of the last half of the twentieth century, while making classic records like Nefertiti, E.S.P. and so many others, why did their live concerts of that era continue mostly to be the standards that formed most of the sets the band had been playing live in previous years ("All Blues," "Joshua," "Autumn Leaves," etc.)?
Why those tunes, rather than the new music they were recording?
Mr. Carter explained to me that Miles had a philosophy that he applied to that particular line-up. He wanted the band to develop a code through playing that familiar music night after night together that could then later be applied to the creation of a new way of playing together in the studio. A common language that would combine the familiarity that the players had with each other through playing those older tunes with the freshness of what new compositions might offer in the studio, creating the best of both worlds.
A light bulb went off over my head."
Indeed. After touring a repertoire spanning his entire career, when it came to recording From This Place, Metheny, Simcock, Oh and Sánchez entered the studio to play, with no prior rehearsal, sixteen newly minted Metheny compositions, in some cases on which he'd "gathered some arranging input from Gwilym and Linda to take advantage of their particular gifts within the context of what I imagined those pieces might be suggesting." Adding Sanchez's intrinsic spontaneity, Metheny was confident "that whatever I gave Antonio would be reinvented on the spot by way of his unsurpassed musicality...(he also has the unique ability to make things happen in a recording studio that puts him in the elite group of players who can genuinely see the studio itself as an extension of their instrument)."
The result is a most welcome and ambitious release that, in addition to satisfying existing Metheny's fans' six-year jones for new music, since the release of Kin (<—>) (Nonesuch, 2014), shines yet another most focused spotlight on the guitarist as a composer, performer and musical conceptualist.
Metheny's conceptual acumen continued to reveal itself during the From This Place sessions. As the quartet was in the studio recording Metheny's new book of compositions (ten ultimately ending up on the 77-minute From This Place), the guitarist began to hear a need for "orchestration, expansion and color." Referencing some of the classic CTI recordings from the late '60s/early '70s, which have meant a great deal to the guitarist, where orchestrations were similarly layered over the improvised music after the fact, the guitarist enlisted two contemporary masters of arrangement in Alan Broadbent, and Gil Goldstein, a past Metheny collaborator, most notably on the guitarist's 1992 Grammy Award-winning classic, Secret Story (Geffen, expanded reissue by Nonesuch, 2007). From This Place's use of The Hollywood Studio Symphony, conducted by Joel McNeely, certainly bears comparison to Secret Story's similar reliance on a proper orchestra rather than the synths and/or Orchestrion that have augmented Metheny's music, in some cases for decades. An album that reflects an even more mature, sophisticated and evolved musician, with nearly three more decades of experience under his belt, it also acts as more of a career consolidation, bringing more of the Metheny that longtime fans have known and loved back into focus while, at the same time, expanding upon his use of orchestration in what he describes as ..."by far the most extensive one and, I would offer, the most organic." From This Place is also likely to satisfy those Metheny fans who've felt that his music has become, more often than not following his final studio date with Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up, increasingly impenetrable in its complexities. This, versus his earlier compositional approach (alone and together with Metheny Group pianist/keyboardist/co-composer, Lyle Mays), where the writing's irrefutable challenges were masked in a more eminently accessible musical veneer.
That's not to suggest that From This Place is any less sophisticated, only that the writing presents itself as being more readily apprehensible, despite every member of the group, including guest spots by percussionist Luis Conte, Metheny Group alum/harmonicist Gregoire Maret, and singer MeShell NdegeOcello (with whom Metheny collaborated in a stunning, revelatory after midnight performance during his By Invitation series of multiple shows and manifold musical contexts at the 2005 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal) and the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely, performing at the absolute top of their game.
Over the years, Metheny's fans have (largely) been willing to go wherever the guitarist's muse takes him. But visit some of the many forums, Facebook pages and email lists across the internet where his work is discussed and it becomes clear that, even if a reunited Pat Metheny Group seems unlikely, many of his longtime fans still pine for that band's more accessible complexion, or those of new millennium releases like his two sublime acoustic guitar solo records (One Quiet Night (Warner Bros., 2003, reissued Nonesuch, 2009) and 2011's Nonesuch follow-up, What's It All About), alongside the two albums he released with pianist Brad Mehldau (both on Nonesuch Records, the label the guitarist has called home since 2006): 2006's Metheny Mehldau, and 2007's Quartet).
Around the start of the new millennium's second decade, Metheny's writing began to migrate towards increasing compositional complexity, resulting in music whose inner workings demanded greater attention, and whose structural contexts rendered the guitarist's playing considerably more knotty and oblique.
With 2010's Orchestrion, Metheny also commenced employing the unwieldy, pneumatic and solenoid-driven titular instrument (consisting of a multitude of largely acoustic instruments, which Metheny triggers from his MIDI'd guitar), a tool that has significantly amplified his ever-expanding sonic arsenal. It's an instrument (or, better, collection of instruments) that Metheny has continued to utilize, to varying degrees, on subsequent tours and albums, including 2013's Tap—John Zorn's Book of Angels | Vol. 20, co-released, but with different artwork, on both Nonesuch and saxophonist/composer John Zorn's own Tzadik imprint.
In addition to using a smaller Orchestrion on the road in 2011 with his reunited Trio 99>00, featuring Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart and heard in a particularly special performance at Mannheim's Enjoy Jazz Festival that year, Metheny also began carrying this reduced version on the road with his newly created Unity Band (alongside Antonio Sanchez, also featuring bassist Ben Williams and the extraordinary reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter), responsible for 2012's admittedly more blow-heavy but still compositionally detailed debut, Unity Band, and the guitarist's expanded and more compositionally focused Unity Group quintet follow-up, Kin (<—>), with "utility musician" multi-instrumentalist, Giulio Carmassi, in tow.
Not that the guitarist ever completely deserted his predilection for more eminent melodism in his playing, especially at live shows like his 2014 Unity Group appearances in Stavanger, Norway and Ottawa, Canada, where he brought earlier material into a lengthy set list largely comprised of music from Unity Band and Kin (<—>). But, while the guitarist's playing still absolutely ventures into more challenging phrases that combine both a deep understanding of the jazz tradition and all the other music he's absorbed across his career, it's little hyperbole to suggest that, six-year gap aside, From This Place is the album Metheny fans have been waiting for.
Changes in the music industry's overall landscape (and not for the better) have impeded the release of new music by Metheny since 2014. While he has guested on albums like Pat Metheny Group alum/trumpeter/sonic sculptor Cuong Vu's Cuong Vu Meets Pat Metheny (Nonesuch, 2016) and current Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah band mate, saxophonist Logan Richardson's Shift (Blue Note, 2015), there have been no recordings of new music from Metheny as a leader, barring a second pseudo-live album, The Unity Sessions, which is conceptually akin to The Orchestrion Project, first released by Eagle Vision on Blu Ray/DVD in 2012, followed by a two-CD set with a different track order the following year (on Nonesuch). The Unity Sessions, too (released on Blu Ray and DVD by Eagle Vision in 2015; followed by another alternatively sequenced two-CD set the following year), followed the same modus operandi as The Orchestrion Project.
For both recordings, Metheny set up his Orchestrion (and/or Unity Band/Group) in a performance space, but without an audience, taking advantage of the opportunity to document a live set list with greater freedom for the multi-camera shoot (without bothering fans by resultant impeded sight lines), and an ability to shape a "live" album undeterred by the increasing proliferation (and interference) of audiences armed with a variety of handheld recording devices.
There are, indeed, changes to how Metheny is releasing From This Place. In addition to standard publicity and distribution from Nonesuch, making the album available (on CD, vinyl and streaming/downloadable audio) at virtual bricks and mortar stores like Amazon, HDTracks and ProStudioMasters, and who have certainly done the best job at getting the word out about Metheny's work since his early days with ECM, the guitarist has also adopted BandCamp, the increasingly significant online shopfront that sells both hard and soft media and, more and more, high resolution digital music alongside CD quality and lossy compression download formats like MP3 and AAC.
All of which make From This Place all the more welcome. But there are plenty of other reasons to get excited about From This Place, beyond it being Metheny's first document of his current quartet and his first album of new music in six years.
First, the core group. Pat Metheny Group always served as broader international exposure for a number of significant players, amongst them (and, in addition to Mays and Sanchez): bassists Steve Rodby and Mark Egan; drummers Danny Gottlieb and Paul Wertico; and singers/multi-instrumentalists like Cuong Vu, Pedro Aznar, Mark Ledford and David Blamires. But the quartet at the core of From This Place, while no doubt also introducing its members to a broader audience, is completed by three musical partners who, beyond their work with a number of other significant artists, are all established leaders in their own right. And with their having now toured together considerably over the past few years, they most certainly bring that code to Metheny's book of new music for From This Place.
Welsh-born pianist Gwilym Simcock came to jazz relatively late, after early training in classical music. But despite only beginning to play jazz in his early twenties, he seemed to arrive fully formed, whether it was his recordings with saxophonist Tim Garland and double bassist Malcolm Creese in the aptly named Acoustic Triangle, on albums like Resonance (Audio-B, 2005) and 3 Dimensions (Audio-B, 2008), during his relatively brief tenure in Bill Bruford's Earthworks, alongside Garland and bassist Laurence Cottle, heard most fully on the Earthworks in Santiago, Chile CD/DVD set included in the British drummer's recent 24-disc Earthworks Complete (Summerfold, 2019) box set, or a longer timespan in what became known as the Lighthouse Trio, with Garland and Israeli expat percussionist Asaf Sirkis, responsible for albums including Garland's If the Sea Replied (Sirocco, 2005) and Libra (Global Mix, 2008), as well as the collectively credited Lighthouse (ACT, 2012).
But Simcock has also emerged as a fine leader with a multiplicity of musical foci, whether it's on early group dates like Perception (Basho, 2007) and Blues Vignette (Basho, 2009), solo piano releases like Good Days at Schloss Elmau (ACT, 2011), or duo albums like Reverie at Schloss Elmau (ACT, 2014), with bassist Yuri Goloubev. A fine pianist who has managed to become Metheny's first long-standing and featured pianist since Lyle Mays, with his own distinctly recognizable approach, Simcock's star has been on the ascendancy for nearly two decades now, but there's no doubt that his work with Metheny will further broaden his exposure on the international front, in particular in North America.
The same can be said for bassist Linda May Han Oh (often known simply as Linda Oh), though the Malaysian/Australian bassist's American cred as a far-reaching player of both double and electric basses has already been established through her work with Dave Douglas, both in projects like Brazen Heart and in the trumpeter's higher profile quintet co-led with saxophonist Joe Lovano, Sound Prints, inspired by (and, in some cases, performing new works by) octogenarian jazz legend Wayne Shorter and documented, most recently, on Scandal (Greenleaf, 2018). In addition to playing with Douglas, Oh has worked with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonists Jim Snidero and Jon Irabagon, in addition to making her first ECM Records appearance on German pianist Florian Weber's Lucent Waters (2018).
But Oh, too, has emerged as a fine composer and bandleader on a smaller but still substantial discography including Sun Pictures (Greenleaf, 2013), which also featured the criminally unknown and undervalued Australian guitarist, James Muller, and her most recent Walk Against the Wind (Biophilia, 2017).
Beyond being a tremendously in-demand drummer, Antonio Sanchez's Mexican roots have loomed large throughout his career, but no more, perhaps, than now, as the American resident has been forced to confront a president with extreme views on immigration and, despite his attempts to suggest otherwise, race. Having worked with Metheny and other high profile artists including vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, saxophonist Michael Brecker, pianist Kenny Werner and harmonicist Toots Thielemans, Sanchez has regularly worked with contemporaries like trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Scott Colley and clarinetist Anat Cohen.
But it's Sanchez's work as a leader that's rapidly emerged as his most important. His burgeoning reputation for creating largely drums-only soundtrack music to television shows like Get Shorty (2017-), while his score for the 2014 film Birdman has garnered him Golden Globe and BAFTA Award nominations, amongst others, for best film scores, with his work on Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film landing wins from the Critics Choice Movie Awards and Satellite Award.
Still, it's Sanchez's Migration band, which delivered one of the best shows of 2019 at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, that's easily become his most impressive work to date—as a performer, yes, but, more importantly, as a composer and band leader/conceptualist.
Named after his 2007 CAM Jazz debut as a leader, Migration, it was 2013's subsequent studio release, New Life (following the double-disc, 2010 live set, Live in New York at Jazz Standard), which set the stage for a group that has also become, in recent years, increasingly political, most notably on the quintet's recent Lines in the Sand (2018), with its dramatic cover image depicting a small, red-coated woman standing alongside a tall, steel slat wall, which runs from a sandy beach into the ocean.
While Sanchez's political leanings are clear from his music, they're not rendered in an overt, didactic fashion; they just are.
The same can be said for Metheny and From This Place. Following the American presidential election in November, 2016, Metheny writes that From This Place's title track, with words sung by MeShell NdegeOcello and written by the well-known bassist/singer/bandleader's partner, Alison Riley, was composed by the guitarist ..."in the early morning hours the next day, as the results of the election became sadly evident...[Riley's words] captured exactly the feeling of that tragic moment while reaffirming the hope of better days ahead."
The album's shortest track at just under five minutes, "From This Place" ranks alongside Metheny's best ballads, like "Farmer's Trust," from Travels (ECM, 1983), and both the orchestrated title track to Letter From Home (Geffen, 1989) and "Tell Her You Saw Me," Secret Story's penultimate song. NdegeoCello's singing is suitably understated. Vulnerable and fragile yet, at the same time, imbued with a quiet strength, her ideal choices reflect the song's mix of sadness and hope. Opening with some of the album's most poignant orchestration, alongside a sparely lyrical nylon string acoustic guitar solo that emerges later in the song, for all of Metheny's undisputed sophistication and chops, sometimes his best music is the (seemingly) simplest.
The album is also defined by its decidedly cinematic bent, a long-standing aesthetic in Metheny's work that contributes significantly to From This Place's many success. But, as with Secret Story and soundtracks to actual films, like his scores to 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman and 1999's Map of the World, it seems that Metheny's music for films real and imagined are at their absolute best when he has the broadest possible palette from which to work, whether it's the Orchestrion, synths like the Synclavier that he utilized in the '80s, or a proper symphony orchestra.
Still, if some might think of From This Place as Secret Story, Part Two, that would be an unfairly simplistic comparison. Metheny's compositional acumen and vision have grown so much in the ensuing two decades, as his seamless integration of improv-driven music and broader orchestrations reach a new level of organic sangam on From This Place.
Metheny's use of orchestration is a particularly effective underscoring for his spacious electric theme to "Sixty-Six," the album's simmering penultimate track, as well as Oh's own approach to lyricism during her double bass solo later in the same song. Oh assumes the lead role a second time, later in the piece, as she delivers one of its themes with delicate elegance, leading to another solo from Metheny that builds to a musical zenith driven by Sanchez's increasingly frenetic kit work, as the composition seamlessly finds its way to a scored coda that brings the nine minute track to a firm conclusion.
Metheny's career has been notable for its nearly countless awards, including 36 Grammy Award nominations in 13 categories and 20 wins in 10, making him the only artist to win in so many different ones. Honorary Doctorates, Lifetime Achievement awards, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, numerous best release of the year nods, readers' and critics' poll awards in various publications...it's a marvel that Metheny remains as grateful as he appears to be, for the opportunity to continue doing what he does as he does it ... and without compromise. From This Place may represent Metheny's most eminently accessible group record in well over a decade, but there's absolutely zero compromise or musical pandering. This is, quite simply, Metheny bringing together a multitude of specific threads from across his career into an album whose expansive orchestral vistas do nothing to detract from the spontaneity of his core group. Simcock solos with brief but unmistakable authority on the fiery, eight-minute "Wide and Far," driven by Sanchez's frenzied but never excessive polyrhythms, while the episodic and more decidedly challenging "Pathmaker," with its numerous start/stop thematic twists and turns, ultimately evolves into a remarkable context for some of Sanchez's most impressive playing of the set, leading to a gorgeously orchestrated outro that concludes one of From This Place's most commanding compositions.
The visceral groove of "Same River," bolstered by Oh's deep-in-the-gut double bass, supports a lengthier, compositionally focused solo from Simcock, and a similarly concentrated guitar synth solo from Metheny, its horn-like complexion a longtime Metheny color first introduced on Offramp (ECM, 1982), in particular on the anthemic "Are You Going With Me?,"which became a regular staple for Pat Metheny Group and beyond. While that song appears to have been largely dropped from this quartet's more recent set list in favor of deeper album tracks from across the guitarist's roughly 45-fold discography, with such a large repertoire, it's a sure bet that it will show up again in some future Metheny performances.
In the meantime, it will be intriguing to hear From This Place performed live, without the orchestrations, though with Simcock augmenting his grand piano with additional keyboard(s), there's little doubt that some of the album's more expansive textures will find their way onto the concert stage.
Still, tracks like "Everything Explained," with minimal orchestration and a singable, unmistakably Metheny-esque theme, will no doubt be more faithfully translated from studio to stage, its intrinsically open-ended chart likely to turn the increasingly fiery track into a live show-stopper. With an indelible theme supported by song-like changes that render it one of the album's most readily memorable, "Everything Explained" provides ample space for a lengthy, warm-toned hollow body electric guitar solo that builds to a fitting climax where, with the band coming to a standstill, Simcock takes over. The pianist's fugue-inspired, Latin-esque work is supported, initially, by Sanchez alone, the pair's ineffable spontaneity and clear connection building to the inevitable return of Oh, as Metheny sits out to give the trio all the room it needs to expound upon the guitarist's portent-filled writing until he returns, once again, for a closing reiteration of its main theme.
As ever, Metheny manages to fit a lot of music into shorter durations, with the seven-minute "Everything Explained" brimming with ideas despite never feeling like they've been shoe-horned in.
If any track on From This Place references the more overt complexities of relatively recent albums like Orchestrion and Kin (<—>), it's the thirteen minute album opener, "America Undefined." A multi-part piece that once again references Metheny's dismay at the events following November 8, 2016, amongst it's defining motifs is the contrapuntal theme, following a rubato introduction where the individual parts are implied with a variety of ways and instruments, only to become more firmly rendered once a proper pulse emerges, as Oh's rapid lines run against Simcock and Metheny's parts, with delicate orchestrations acting in concert. Simcock takes the first solo, its inherent freedom boldly supported by Sanchez and Oh with the kind of remarkable synchronicity that references the very code to which Metheny has referred.
It's a stellar solo, demonstrative of the very best kind of motivic improvisation, as Simcock builds to a potent conclusion, filled with a kind of stunning virtuosity that, like his quartet mates, is never superfluous and leads, with utter perfection, into Metheny's first feature of the set.
Metheny's solo is equally impressive, its combination of gradually building lines and repetitive motifs finally dropping away, almost like rainfall, into a brief section dominated by Oh's arco bass before returning to the composition's contrapuntal theme, but this time building ever further as it leads to an even more dramatic climax, with everything coming largely to a stop, followed by a major dynamic drop that morphs into a section where the only pulse is Oh's repetitive ostinato. With sampled sounds ranging from people talking in a foreign language to the sound of a train on tracks, the piece gradually builds to a sonic apogee, a half-time pulse and suggested backbeat supporting gradually building orchestrations and, finally, a multiplicity of sonics that bring the composition to an epic conclusion.
As Metheny has done more than once in his career, he ends From This Place with a gentle track that acts like a coda to all that's come before. And make no mistake: while everyone may have their favorite track or three amongst the album's ten compositions and 77-minute runtime, From This Place is still a work best digested as a whole, with its multitude of emotions ultimately creating a dramatic narrative that's the confluence of extraordinarily attractive writing, deeply felt spontaneity amongst the core band mates, and a track sequence that simply could not have been improved upon.
Metheny has long been an artist who, despite certain (perhaps failed) experiments like Zero Tolerance for Silence (Geffen, 1994) not appealing to his broader fan base, has never released an album without purpose or which represents some kind of way forward for the guitarist's life's work.
Still, every now and then he releases an album that consolidates past successes while, at the same time, positing new directions ahead ... and, even, just around the corner. From This Place may have been inspired, in part, by less-than-ideal world circumstances, but it's nevertheless a largely joyous record that suggests that these turbulent times need not define us, nor should theyin particular, of the new millennium be seen as a definitive future. Wonderfully conceived, impeccably executed and perfectly structured/sequenced, From This Place will, no doubt, ultimately stand as one of Metheny's finest records of both the new millennium and, for that matter, his entire career.
Track Listing: America Undefined; Wide and Far; You Are; Same River; Pathmaker; The Past in Us; Everything Explained; From This Place; Sixty-Six; Love May Take Awhile.
Personnel: The Hollywood Studio Symphony, Joel McNeely: conductor.