|~John Kelman, allaboutjazz.com:
Like him or not, the one thing you cannot accuse guitar icon Pat Metheny of is complacency. Over the course of his thirty-year career he has tackled everything from the Midwestern folk sensibility of New Chautauqua to the free-spirited interplay of his collaboration with Ornette Coleman, Song X. But as significant and diverse as his solo efforts have been, the project that has been most near and dear to his heart has been Pat Metheny Group, now in its 27th year. While there have been numerous personnel changes over the years, the core group of Metheny, pianist/keyboardist/co-composer/co-producer Lyle Mays and bassist/co-producer Steve Rodby has been in place since '81. Over the course of a dozen recordings the group has evolved into a tightly-knit unit that manages to combine the excitement and unpredictability of jazz improvisation with an almost microscopically-detailed approach to composition that is remarkable for its ability to deceive the listener into thinking that the compositions of Metheny and Mays are less complex, more straightforward, than they really are. But take the time to really explore their writing and the performances, and it becomes obvious that what the group does is truly multifaceted and multi-layered, sometimes seemingly infinitely so.
Nowhere is this more evident than on their latest release, The Way Up, which surely ranks among albums including Imaginary Day and The First Circle in terms of overall ambition. But whereas previous Metheny Group records have been a collection of discrete compositions that still manage to tell a complete story, The Way Up goes a step further, being a single 68-minute composition that is as compelling to listen to as it is complex and challenging to assess.
What makes The Way Up so remarkable is its sense of drama, and a keen visual sense that makes the entire piece, divided into four tracks for the purpose of navigation only, truly feel like a single composition rather than a series of interconnected segments. Themes are introduced and reiterated throughout the course of the piece; sometimes overtly, other times so subtly that they are only revealed after repeated listening.
Musically, while arguably the broadest in reach of any Metheny Group record, it still exhibits all their signature characteristics: cinematic scope, evocative melodies, telepathic improvisational interplay and the broadest of sonics. Metheny, always one to use a wide array of guitars, outdoes himself this time with, quite possibly, more layered instruments than on any previous recording. From acoustic guitars to guitar synthesizer to warm electric tones, overdriven rock-inflections and even slide guitar, Metheny creates a virtual guitar orchestra; and yet, as thick as the layers become, every instrument has its place and nothing is superfluous. As always, Mays also layers a variety of keyboard textures, and this time around, in addition to acoustic and electric basses, Rodby adds celli to the sonic mix. The real question, after hearing the disk, is how they'll be able to recreate the rich audioscape of the piece in concert, even with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Nando Lauria to the touring band that hits the road in February of this year.
Back from Speaking of Now, the group's last disk, are trumpeter/vocalist Cuong Vu and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Sanchez, who Metheny has called the greatest drummer of his generation, is an even stronger force this time around, and yet for all his power and vitality, he is capable of extreme subtlety during the more subdued passages. Vu's role is greater this time; his extended techniques on trumpet adding even more textural layers to the mix. And when he is given solo space it becomes clear that he is a strong emergent voice on the instrument, with one foot in past traditions and the other firmly stepping forward to the future. One never knows how long a given incarnation of the group will last, but Vu will clearly go on to greater heights as a result of the experience.
Newcomer/harmonicist Gregoire Maret, who has played with artists including Charlie Hunter, Cassandra Wilson and Steve Coleman, brings a new timbre to the band. Each project he has been involved in leading to this point has stretched the boundaries of his instrument, and his playing on The Way Up continues to push the envelope even further. Deeply melodic yet surprisingly unconventional in the way he develops his ideas; Maret is another star on the rise.
A notable change with The Way Up is the reduced role of vocals. While albums since The First Circle have featured vocals prominently, with earlier albums like Offramp utilizing them to a lesser extent, there is only one segment of the new record that features Vu and guest Richard Bona's wordless vocalizing. Some may miss this signature characteristic of Metheny Group's sound, but it really only points to the fact that Metheny aspires to developing an ever-widening palette of musical colours, often using them to greater excess in the early stages and then, ultimately, integrating them into the larger whole. His signature Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer tone, for example, while figuring prominently on early albums including the live recording Travels, is used on the current disk, but is now far from a primary texture.
With the ambitious idea of one continuous piece, The Way Up could easily fall into traps of bombast and melodrama, but it's to the credit of Metheny and Mays as composers, and to the group as interpreters, that nothing ever seems overblown or excessive. The piece even ends with an extended coda of gentle beauty rather than a thundering finale, one that serves as a delicate end to a voyage that is almost circuitous in bringing one back to the start of the piece, making the question of The Way Up truly ambiguous and, consequently, something of an enigma that will undoubtably leave listeners with more questions than answers.