Pat Metheny’s Side-Eye: A Raised Eyebrow

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Side-Eye is Pat Metheny (left), Joe Dyson and James Francies.

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

In mid-March 2020, Pat Metheny and his band flew into South America from the Asia-Pacific, just days after his latest album, From This Place (Nonesuch), landed in stores. The quartet from that record was starting the Latin American leg of its tour with two dates in Argentina, where President Alberto Fernández, an amateur musician and Metheny buff, was to meet the visiting guitarist.

But the night before that appointed meeting, Fernández canceled.

“He got up the next morning and closed Argentina,” Metheny recalled in a remote chat from his home in upstate New York. The rest of that tour — Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Cuba — was canceled, too, as COVID-19 spread throughout the world.

“The last gig I played was Auckland, New Zealand, in early March of 2020,” Metheny continued. “And since then, for me and every other musician, on all levels, there hasn’t been any work.”

But even as more than a hundred of Metheny’s subsequent gigs fell off the calendar last year, his career continued to surpass milestones. As a new release, the finely orchestrated From This Place, Metheny’s 15th record for Nonesuch, charted on Billboard’s Top 10 Albums — a first for the jazz celebrity. The record went on to win Album of the Year in the DownBeat Readers Poll in December and snagged a Grammy nomination the following March, a year after its launch.

That same month, Metheny released Road To The Sun, his debut both as a classical composer for guitar and an artist with Modern Recordings, BMG’s nascent imprint for contemporary instrumental music. The album, critically lauded, showcases five of the world’s foremost classical guitarists on interpretations of Metheny compositions. Metheny himself plays on just one track: his delicate arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina.”

His most recent album, Side-Eye NYC (V1–IV) — launched through Modern Recordings on Sept. 10 — is of a new order altogether. The album features his latest group, The Side-Eye Trio, which Metheny formed in 2016 as a platform for up-and-coming players. Even before he started building the band, he knew what it would be called.

“I had a tune called ‘Side-Eye’ that I never played, and several people said it was a great name for a band. So, I thought I’d use that,” Metheny said. “But more specifically, it’s been hard to be an American in the past few years and not have a kind of side-eye look at ourselves during this incredibly bizarre period of time. To me, the only possible way to survive it is to just raise an eyebrow.

“So, I’d come up with a name, but this time, the name has a sort of mandate behind it,” he said. “I decided to use newer, younger musicians that I think are really great. And I expect the group to change. It’s not going to be one thing, it’s going to be a lot of different things. Hence, this record is ‘V1’ — version one — to say that I’m looking to have a lot of different versions of what that group can be.”

By his own admission, Metheny doesn’t shy away from iterations with his bands, simply because each ensemble, regardless of configuration, is fundamentally the same to him. Under his aegis, he said, all of his groups function in a like manner, playing music that he’s written, with only rare exceptions.

“I’m going to find guys who are really good at what it is that I’m open to,” he said. “And then I’m going to try to set up an environment where everybody’s happy and everybody gets to do what they do — and then some. Because part of my role has been to take a group and push it to someplace beyond where it is just naturally.”

It’s only when it comes to the “titles and names” for these groups that Metheny gets tripped up a bit. In truth, all of his ensembles could be called the Pat Metheny Group, he concedes, adding that the many permutations of his singular musical vision can be “slightly confusing.” (He especially rues the lack of a distinctive name for his quartet with pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sánchez, sometimes called the “From This Place” band or the “Evening With” band. “It’s one of the best bands I’ve ever had, and it doesn’t have a name,” he said.)

The Side-Eye Trio is unlikely to confuse, however. Besides its sly name and defining mandate, what distinguishes Metheny’s newest ensemble from his previous projects is its atypical format: The trio comprises piano, guitar and drums — no bass.

In and of themselves, of course, there’s nothing unprecedented about bass-less trios. Their long history in jazz includes major contributions from such leaders Lester Young, Paul Motian and Don Byron, to name a few. In all of these cases, however, a horn replaces the bass in the usual rhythm section. With The Side-Eye Trio, Metheny would be working with two chordal instruments and no traditional harmonic foundation — tricky, at the least.

His thinking on this configuration harkens back to a chance meeting at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, where he was headlining with what would become the “From This Place” quartet. Pianist James Francies, then a rising star (he would make his Blue Note Records debut two years later), was playing small sets on different stages. Coincidentally, Francies ended up on the same flight back as Metheny.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Hi, my name’s James, and I’m a huge fan,’” Francies said in a recent phone interview with DownBeat. “And Pat said, ‘Oh, I know who you are. Do you want to come by my house next weekend and play?’”

In fact, Metheny had been following Francies’ career ever since the precocious pianist attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston — Metheny had been hearing about Francies’ talent from drummer and fellow HSPVA alum Eric Harland. Harland, a wildly in-demand sideman, has collaborated with Francies as a duo and in a trio with saxophonist Chris Potter.

“James was on my radar, anyway, and I invited him to come over [to play],” Metheny said. “Then Eric sent word, asking to come over, too. I said, ‘Definitely — I’ll get a bass player.’ But he wrote back, ‘Don’t get a bass player. Just trust me.’ Once I played with James, I understood exactly what Eric was talking about.”

Francies, preternaturally gifted at the keyboard, was able to fill in on bass lines, segueing easily to comp or solo as needed. These skills informed Metheny’s growing notion for the new ensemble — and ultimately laid the bedrock for the group’s eventual organ trio sound.

“In a lot of ways, James is an unprecedented ensemble musician,” Metheny said. “What he’s capable of doing naturally, I can’t think of anybody who’s had quite that kind of conception before. The obvious relationship is to the organ trio, which is a setting that I played in quite a bit when I was really young, where the organ player is going to play the bass, mostly with the left hand. James does that, but with a level of complexity that is really unlikely for somebody to get to.

“On top of that, his general soloing is very difficult to place on a spectrum. You can find a lot of people to compare [musicians] to — Max Roach or Art Tatum or Wes Montgomery. With James, it’s really hard to do that. And I like that. He’s a very unique kind of musician, and I probably wouldn’t have a band like this if it wasn’t with him. But that’s true of almost every good band I’ve had. I have a sense of the kind of music I want to present during a particular time, then I find super-talented people and mold that idea around what their strengths are. This [band] is continuing with that.”

For Francies, too, the rapport with Metheny happened easily. “I’ve been using my left hand as an actual bass player since high school,” he said. “Bass players were hard to find, but I still wanted to play, so [left-handed bass] became second nature for me. I was already doing it with Chris Potter, and with Pat, it just worked out perfectly.”

With Francies on board, Metheny next sought to fill the open drum chair. He found this particular decision-making process to be both a revelation and a challenge: There was no shortage of good prospects to choose from.

“We’re in such an incredible era for drummers,” Metheny reported. “More than anything, I’m still just a fan of the music, so I stay up on who’s new, who’s playing what. And I got to the point where there were five drummers I would have been quite happy hiring. I’ve never had anything like that before. So, it’s really exciting in the drum room right now.”

Wanting to make the most of this profusion of talent, Metheny turned to Anwar Marshall (“one of the best new Philly guys around”) for the group’s initial gigs. Then, in early 2019, Nate Smith, fresh off of a double Grammy nomination, toured Japan with the trio. Next, Metheny tapped Marcus Gilmore, grandson of legendary drummer Roy Haynes, to play the U.S. tour in September 2019. It was from this tour that Metheny collected the tracks for the group’s inaugural release.

For the tour and related live album, Metheny had composed new material specifically with the trio in mind, offsetting these selections with existing tunes from his massive canon. Two of the three new tunes, longer and more complex than the Metheny standards interspersed throughout, serve as bookends to the album’s eight tracks.

The first, “It Starts When We Disappear,” unwinds across nearly 14 minutes in an epic musical narrative, at once forceful and restrained; it serves as a fitting companion piece to the final track, “Zenith Blues,” an ever-spiraling concoction of electronic melody, fluttering cymbals and relentlessly flowing changes. On these, the trio shape-shifts in unison, like birds in murmuration.

“The opening tune and the final tune combined make up half the record — they both could be three tunes in one,” Metheny observed of these richly crafted compositions. “And you could definitely trace a line through the compositional approach to a lot of my band stuff over the years, where the material isn’t about just playing something, then improvising, then taking it out. The material develops, with lots of opportunities for different things to happen that are based on the material, rather than just a recapitulation of it.”

The third new original, “Lodger” — a tribute to guitarist Adam Rogers, one of Metheny’s musical heroes — exemplifies this approach to compositional development. What starts as a simple groove and a declarative melodic statement builds by mid-tune into a resounding rock anthem, with Metheny’s fretwork, unleashed, riding on Francies’ pulsing organ chords and the rhythmic substrata of Gilmore’s drumming.

The shorter pieces on the album balance out all of this intensity. Metheny pulls two tunes from his first album, Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976): the alternately elegiac and emphatic “Sirabhorn,” driven by Gilmore’s sweeping drum rolls and percussive accents, and the cheery title cut, with the prominent bass line (originally played by Jaco Pastorius) woven into Francies’ ambidextrous comping.

From his 1989 Grammy-winning album Letter From Home (Geffen), Metheny borrows the beloved “Better Days Ahead,” originally written 10 years earlier in 1979; it’s a subdued and streamlined version here. Minus the Latin percussion of the original, the underlying harmonic tension lays more exposed, lending itself to thoughtful soloing from Metheny and Francies. The record’s two straightahead blues tunes, too, leave plenty of space for creative musical dialogue: Francies turns out cleverly intricate organ runs on “Timeline,” Metheny’s contribution to Michael Brecker’s Time Is Of The Essence (Verve), and all three trade and solo intuitively on the Ornette Coleman classic “Turnaround,” from Metheny’s 80/81 (ECM). Taken in sum, the sheer scope of musical knowledge that the trio reveals in the brief, passing moments on these tracks is stunning.

“Pat has so many [existing] songs to choose from. Then, the new material is longer form, reminiscent of the Pat Metheny Group, but configured for a trio. And we also have the Orchestrion stuff,” Francies said, this last referring to Metheny’s compositions for orchestrionic instruments. “It’s a massive operation that we’re pulling off. There’s so much music, so many different sonic textures — it’s a complete body of work. I think that everybody will think, ‘Wow, this is different, but it’s still Pat.’”

With the new record launched, effectively introducing the Side-Eye Trio to the world, Metheny will spend the rest of 2021 and much of 2022 reclaiming the 100-plus tour dates from last year. He’ll return to Latin America with the “From This Place” band to fulfill their concert obligations there, then tour Europe and the U.S. with the Side-Eye Trio. Drummer Joe Dyson will be behind the kit for this iteration of the trio, Metheny says, as the next of the “golden era” drummers to help actualize his evolving ideas about the trio format.

“I had a tough decision, because there were three guys that I really liked and they were all quite different from each other, suggesting three different paths [for the trio],” Metheny said. “But I ended up going with Joe. First, he’s got the New Orleans thing that I love, like Herlin Riley. Also, he can play anything. And everything he plays feels great.”

Metheny has written several new compositions expressly for this edition of the trio with Dyson. And when the 2021–’22 tour is over, he expects to record another Side-Eye Trio album, this time in a studio. The material is “always so much better at the end of the tour,” he said. “You never really know what’s happening with a tune until you play it a bunch of times in front of an audience.”

After 18 months without any live gigs, Metheny will doubtless appreciate getting before an audience again to try out this new work. But he hopes, too, that during the pandemic, audiences have come to appreciate musicians a little more. Because it’s a hard thing, he said, to assemble a band, learn the music and take to the stage each night. A hard thing, but a vital one.

“Of course, we’re all still feeling the incredible loss of Chick Corea,” he said, by way of example. “He left all of this music, all of these recordings. But they’re nothing compared to what it was to hear Chick live. And we won’t ever see that again. A record wasn’t it. What it was, was the gig. The gig, for me, has always been the thing.” DB