Metheny Expands Palette with Chamber-Jazz Suite for LAGQ

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Matthew Greif (left), Scott Tennant, William Kanengiser and John Dearman are the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

For more than 30 years now, the illustrious and versatile Los Angeles Guitar Quartet has earned its bragging rights as one of the great groups in its idiom, and traversed the world—both literally and idiomatically, from Baroque to Brazilian music, Spanish roots and jazz moments, alongside other stylistic turns.

LAGQ’s jazz cred just nudged up by a considerable degree, with the premiere of an ambitious new suite-like work composed for them by Pat Metheny, Road To The Sun, which premiered at the University of Denver two weeks ago, had its West Coast Premiere at the glorious Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California, on Oct. 28. A recording will eventually happen some.

As heard at the Lobero, the work is a triumphant achievement for all parties involved, and a guitar culture, in general. LAGQ—Bill Kanengiser, Scott Tenant, John Dearman and Matt Greif—brought to the score its precision-geared and empathic ensemble playing. It was the kind of unified-yet-multi-voiced mastery on nylon-stringed guitar, long a point of fascination and signature expertise for Metheny.

From another angle, Road To the Sun, which spans nearly 30 minutes and weaves through six varied parts, represents a major development for the guitar hero/composer, steering his grander compositional instincts (heard in various ways in his Group music and elsewhere) into something akin to the dimensions and language of chamber music and classical manners.

Adding to the significance of this new development in the evolution of Metheny’s writing and the venturesome reach of the group was the very venue they played in. If the LAGQ is currently a crown jewel in the now greatly-expanded realm of the classical guitar quartet medium, they were protégés of the medium’s pioneers, the Romeros, who first performed in quartet form at the Lobero Theatre as an encore for a concert by their legendary father Celedonio back in 1958.

A few days before the work’s premiere in Denver, founding guitarist Bill Kanengiser spoke about the piece and its route to final fruition, a long process which began with Metheny informing the group he was interested in writing them a piece, originally planned as a short piece, but which grew as he dove into the project. Kanengiser enthused that “we are pinching ourselves” that the connection was made and has come to this point.

“Now I’m really getting to know the piece,” he said, “I keep going back to the analogy that I feel like it’s symphonic in its scope. It’s like a six-movement tone poem, because there is a lot of thematic unity to it. The motives recur over different movements. It begins and ends with the same ruminative theme. When it gets rocking out or jazzy, it still has the melodic contours of that original material. So it’s thematically very well organized.

“There’s definitely a sense of harmonic recapitulation. But it also has lots of different textures and grooves, some really overt Metheny-esque moments, with all of us strumming away. And there are some moments that are pretty harmonically out there, that’s pretty dissonant and atmospheric. There’s one spot where the piece kind of devolves into pure sound effects, these scraping, tapping, squeaking noises, and it goes somewhere else. It’s pretty cool and really ambitious.”

By way of setting the stage for the Lobero concert (which, Kanengiser explained with a laugh, was the first time the group had been booked on a jazz series), the group impressed from the outset with music of mostly jazz and Brazilian fare, with Bulgarian Atanas Ourkouzouvov’s new “Motus Bulgaricus” nudging the harmonic/rhythmic syntax into Eastern Europe. The Brazilian component included short works by Hermeto Pascual, Villa-Lobos and Baden Powell. Included in a trio of tunes from their dazzling 2004 “Guitar Heroes” album were Ralph Towner’s “Icarus,” Chet Atkins’ Blue Ocean Echo/Country Gentleman” and Mark Small’s gorgeous 4-voice arrangement of Metheny’s ballad “Letter From Home.” It was Metheny’s exposure to that recording, in fact, which first sparked his growing fandom and eventual customized compositional thinking for the quartet.

Opening the second set, the jazz pulse continued, with a contrapuntal “Blue In Green” and a lush-leaning take on “Giant Steps,” both smartly arranged by the group’s Matt Greif, acknowledged as the one genuine “jazz player” in the group, fluent with soloing and the fine/rough points of swing phrasing.

Reportedly inspired by a legendary mountain road in Glacier National Park, Road To The Sun teems with the kinds of musical characteristics and underlying optimism of much of Metheny’s music, especially on some of his more epic Metheny Group projects. In a way, the work tells the story of Metheny’s musical voice, going back to the blueprint of his great debut album Bright Size Life, but made fresh via the unique timbre of this taut and sensitive, score-hugging but deeply musical quartet. Just as Metheny himself keeps experimenting with new incarnations of guitaristic sounds–on his mutant Pikasso guitar, fretless classical model, synth sonics and his “Orchestrion” adventure—his writing for LAGQ takes great expressive advantage of the group as 24-string, four-brained mega-guitar instrument.

Overall, with this piece, Metheny wisely plays to the group’s strengths. For instance, he doesn’t ask for improvisation, instead writing in brief “soloistic” parts for each player. The piece opens in a gentle, lyrical mode with recognizable harmonic palette, and segues seamlessly into a Brazilian-esque rhythmic assertion before landing in a zone where propulsive, precise strumming rules. A legato, melancholic passage, in the warm-toned texture attained by playing near the top of the sound hole, slips into a medium-tempo 5/4 groove, and the aforementioned “abstract” section triggers echoes of the “outside” elements Metheny has had as part of his vocabulary for decades, contrasting the energetic strum-manic flourish in its wake. A touching coda section gleams with balladic charm and a gently questioning spirit.

For a quick encore, a kind of “return to regular programming” in repertoire terms, LAGQ embraced the classic guitar flavor and motherlode of music from the Spanish diaspora, in the form of “Last Fiesta De La Tirana,” shifting from simmering muted strings to a strum-and-scrape- effected festive finale.

Clearly, though, the spotlight of this concert was all about Metheny and his symbiotic encounter with the group. It’s great to hear Metheny’s compositional thinking manifested in such a lovingly precise and pristine way. Could this be a harbinger of a new phase for Metheny, just as Wayne Shorter has been recently seizing opportunities to explore writing in and for a “chamber” sensibility?

Whatever the future of his writing instincts and projects, Road To The Sun is an artistic road well taken, and a highlight of the year in the realm of guitar happenings. DB




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May 2019
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