Pat Metheny Expands His Vision On ‘From This Place’

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Over the course of his career, Pat Metheny has edged closer to the orchestral vision reflected on his latest release, From This Place.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

During the first day of recording for From This Place, guitarist Pat Metheny’s new album on Nonesuch, the 20-time Grammy-winner heard something that wasn’t there. “It was on the second take of the first tune,” he recalled in a recent interview in midtown Manhattan. “I thought, ‘Oh, I know what to do with this.’”

What Metheny heard was strings. An orchestra. Not as mere sweetening behind a soloist, as on many “with strings” albums, but as a vital compositional element enhancing the improvisations and ensemble playing of his quartet. In the way that CTI Records used strings on LPs in the 1960s and ’70s, when arranger Don Sebesky would take a jazz instrumental riff and blow it up to symphonic proportions.

“I always thought it was a kind of avant-garde idea to get Herbie [Hancock] and Ron [Carter] and Grady [Tate] and orchestrate it,” Metheny explained. “What Sebesky did with the Herbie voicings—I thought, ‘Wow, that is such a great idea.’ And I’ve drawn on that idea many times over the years, not necessarily the way it manifested here, with a huge orchestra. But this album is overtly CTI.”

One of the elements that made the CTI approach to orchestration so innovative back in the day was the use of multiple tracks to overdub strings on recordings of the best improvisational musicians of the post-bop era. In the label’s heyday, founder Creed Taylor turned out enormously popular jazz albums showcasing the talents of greats like George Benson, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and Milt Jackson. These albums, though commercially successful, generated considerable disapproval among jazz critics who were put off by some of their frictionless sounds. It was during these years that Metheny, a teen prodigy on jazz guitar, was coming of age musically.

Metheny acknowledged the aesthetic rift over CTI and, without specifying, admitted that he has had trouble listening to some orchestrated jazz albums. Metheny is not alone here—jazz instrumentalists in general have an uneasy relationship with strings albums, a reflection, perhaps, of a traditional divide between the jazz and classical worlds. Orchestral musicians, predominantly classical in musical orientation, don’t groove or improvise, so what can they bring to a jazz record?

Over the course of his career, as he edged closer to the orchestral vision reflected on From This Place, Metheny has explored how strings might fit into a jazz setting. He worked with the London Orchestra on 1992’s Secret Story, for instance, and included synthesized string parts on Beyond The Missouri Sky (Short Stories), a duo project with bassist Charlie Haden released in 1997. There were the film soundtracks: The Falcon and the Snowman in 1985, Passaggio Per Il Paradiso in 1996 and A Map of the World in 1999. Then, in 2010 and 2012, respectively, he released Orchestrion and The Orchestrion Project (Nonesuch), experimenting with a full panoply of mechanized instruments controlled through his guitar. But none of these efforts reached the scale or complexity of the arrangements on the new release, in what Metheny describes as a culmination of several of his musical ambitions. “[This] is one of the records I’ve been waiting to make my whole life,” he wrote in the liner notes.

By the time Metheny brought his regular ensemble—drummer Antonio Sánchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Gwilym Simcock—into the studio to record the album, the four musicians had spent thousands of hours playing, talking and laughing together as they toured the world. Metheny knew them all well, both as musicians and as people: He had been working with Sánchez since 2000, Oh since 2012 and Simcock since 2016. Over time, proximity fostered perceptivity: “One of us can sneeze and the other three would find the chord in it,” Metheny joked. “We were so tuned into each other as a band.”

A pivotal conversation with famed bassist Ron Carter drove home to Metheny how valuable this kind of rapport is to a jazz ensemble. The two had been touring internationally as a duo, affording Metheny the opportunity to query the elder statesman about his time with the Miles Davis Quintet. (Carter was the legendary group’s bassist from 1964 to ’68.) One thing in particular puzzled Metheny: Why did the quintet always play standards on their live gigs rather than the revolutionary material that they were recording?

Carter’s reply changed Metheny’s view of ensemble playing—and the way he would proceed with the then-upcoming album. By playing standards night after night, Carter explained, the quintet was developing a vernacular that Davis would then apply to the original studio material. In this way, Davis would bring the best of both worlds to the recording: the implicit understanding of the familiar and the exciting freshness of the new. Hearing about Davis’ approach to recording “really was a breakthrough conceptual moment for me,” Metheny said.

Judging by the output of Metheny’s many long-standing collaborations—most notably, his four decades of work with pianist Lyle Mays—one could argue that Metheny is well-schooled in the musical synergisms that develop over time on the bandstand. But a synergistically produced strings album, if it worked, would be breaking new ground.

“That [group connection] is what the core of this album is,” Metheny said. “And to have that morph into this larger thing—I mean, I’ve certainly never done a record like that. And I can’t think of any other record like that. It’s kind of unusual.”

Sánchez, who has played in a number of Metheny’s groups, spoke of how the leader’s approach to From This Place differed from that of the previous albums they have recorded together.

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