Guitarist Joel Harrison hit on an inspired notion in 2011 when he decided to gather his favorite on-the-fringe and under-the-radar guitarists in New York to celebrate the roads less taken on the instrument. The centerpiece of his 7th annual Alternjative Guitar Summit — easily his most ambitious undertaking to date with four separate showcases in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and East Village and also in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn—was a celebration of the music of Pat Metheny on March 10 as part of the “While We’re Still Here” tribute series.
Hearing Metheny’s music performed by a variety of guitarists from Nir Felder to Camila Meza, Mike Moreno, Rez Abbasi, Liberty Ellman, Miles Okazaki, Nels Cline and Harrison himself was a reminder of the enormous range of Metheny’s oeuvre, which spans over 40 years. It also served as a powerful symbol of just how profound his impact has been on two generations of players.
Surprise guest Bill Frisell, with black Fender Telecaster in hand, opened the evening with a solo reading of Metheny’s “Sirabhorn” (from 1976’s Bright Size Life), interpreting that luminous number with a deliberate, fractured phrasing. His rendition concluded with a playful reference to “Bright Size Life,” the title track of Metheny’s first album and debut on ECM.
Next up was rising star guitarist Felder, accompanied by the interactive rhythm tandem of bassist Orlando Le Fleming and drummer Nate Smith. Felder conjured up the delicious delicacy of Metheny’s haunting ballad “Unity Village” (from Bright Size Life) and acquitted himself with fleet-fingered single-note flow and rhythmic confidence on the post-bop swinger “H&H,” (from 1990’s Question And Answer), dropping in a quote from Ornette Coleman’s “Broadway Blues,” a tune Metheny covered on Bright Size Life, in the middle of his solo.
Harrison’s String Choir, a six-piece group originally formed to play the music of Paul Motian, emphasized the folksy Americana elements inherent in Metheny’s “Last Train Home,” from 1987’s Still Life (Talking), and “Heartland,” from 1979’s American Garage, with Harrison playing slide on a dobro guitar and trading lines with second guitarist Ellman.
Cellist Hank Roberts helped define that heartland quality in the string section while violinist Christian Howes delivered an outstanding solo on “Heartland” that was at once jazzy and bluegrassy, in the tradition of Vassar Clements.
Chilean guitarist and singer Meza, in duet with pianist James Francies, doubled the ebullient line of “Have You Heard” (from 1989’s Letter From Home) on wordless vocals and guitar. And she drew a standing ovation for her passionate reading of “Dream Of The Return” (also from Letter From Home), which had her delivering Pedro Aznar’s Spanish lyrics in mellifluous fashion. “I grew up with his music, so playing this music reminds me of my teenage years,” she told the audience. “It’s a beautiful feeling that this music brings me.”
Moreno acknowledged the presence of Metheny in the audience by saying, “Playing ‘Bright Size Life’ for Pat is like playing ‘Purple Haze’ for Jimi Hendrix.” His rendition of that chops-busting anthem, with Doug Weiss on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums, was charged with its own forward momentum, while the gorgeous ballad “Always And Forever” (from 1992’s Secret Story) carried a “Skylark” kind of melancholy and showcased Moreno’s uncommon lyricism and sensitivity.
Abbasi put an Indian flavored spin on “This Is Not America” (Metheny’s 1985 collaboration with David Bowie on the soundtrack to The Falcon And The Snowman) by emulating a sitar sound with fretless acoustic guitar, backed by Ben Stiver on keyboards and Sameer Gupta on tabla.
Their version of “We Live Here” (title track of the 1995 Pat Metheny Group album) had Abbasi switching to electric guitar and unleashing a series of fusillades on that surging, high energy romp fueled by Gupta’s tabla groove.
Guitarists Ellman and Okazaki created swirling counter melodies on their lush interpretation of the hauntingly beautiful ballad “Kathelin Gray” (from 1985’s Song X), co-written by Ornette Coleman, with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Damion Reid creating the spacious rubato pulse underneath.
Reid supplied the powerfully swinging groove in three on “Question And Answer” (title track of Metheny’s 1989 trio album with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes), which had Ellman and Okazaki engaging in a flurry of interlocking single note lines.
The evening concluded with Cline joining bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Gerald Cleaver for an explosive, free-bop reading of “80/81” (title track of Metheny’s 1981 album with Dewey Redman, Michael Brecker, Charle Haden and Jack DeJohnette) and a more subdued, noirish take on “Story From A Stranger” (from Rejoicing, a 1984 trio recording with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins).
In the middle of the show, Metheny took the stage to be interviewed by Harrison and discuss the release of his new book of 150 of his compositions. His comments about the nature of his process, his narrative approach to improvisation, his genre-busting, ‘un-aligned’ stance toward music-making and his episodic concept albums like The Way Up provided rare insight into this towering figure of music, upon whose shoulders all the participants of this summit continue to stand. DB
Alternative Guitar Summit continues at National Sawdust on March 15 with the “Guitars Of Heaven, Guitars Of Hell,” featuring Steve Mackey, Dither Quartet, Joel Harrison’s Resophonic Guitar Orchestra and Steven Bernstein’s “Blue Campfire.” For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.