Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau

Pat Metheny is the most influential guitar player in jazz of the last 30 years. The only person who comes close is John Scofield. Like Sco, Metheny's sound is instantly recognizable -- no guitarist has taken so many different influences and honed them into such a personal identity. In the late 1970s, when Metheny first came on the jazz scene, he carried his Wes Montgomery-Jim Hall influences on his sleeve; what set him apart then was the gorgeous lyricism of his playing. His solos were imaginative and original; yet you could hum them as if they were a song within a song. And watching him play in his original group context with pianist Lyle Mays, drummer Danny Gottlieb and Jaco Pastorious protege Mark Egan (still his best PMG configuration, for my taste) was to witness sheer joy in improvisational music-making. In the early 1980s, Metheny's curiosity encouraged him to incorporate the Synclavier guitar into his playing with spectacular results; later in the decade, he integrated Brazilian music into his group sound. Some of the earlier results were superb. He decision to continue down that path won him many new fans and left old ones, like me, less thrilled with what I thought was a turn to blandness.

But, Metheny being Metheny, he began taking up "side projects" -- rare for a musician of his stature -- even as he cemented his status as a world-wide jazz guitar God. His fascinating experiment with Ornette Coleman in 1985, "Song X," scared me to death when I first heard it. After a few months, I got hooked into it, and the collaboration demonstrated Metheny's musical adventurousness had not abated. Projects all through the 1990s with Michael Brecker, Larry Goldings, Roy Haynes, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette kept his jazz roots fertile. And he celebrated Y2K with a tremendous recording -- his best as a leader in fifteen years -- called Trio 99-00, with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Larry Grenadier. The tour, which I saw with a friend with whom I started listening to Metheny 30 years ago in high school, saw Pat smiling and bouncing, utterly thrilled to be playing in a straight-ahead jazz trio. How many times did I think to myself, "Could you imagine how he would sound teamed up with Brad Mehldau?"

Well, wonder no more.

Last week, Metheny and Mehldau released their second recording together in the last year. The first, "Metheny Mehldau," was released last year and featured these two giants in duo form, with a couple of tracks featuring bass and drums. This newest recording, "Quartet," is mostly quartet pieces with a couple of duos as changes of pace. Larry Grenadier, Mehldau's regular bassist in his own long-standing trio, is outstanding, as is Jeff Ballard, who plays with Grenadier in Mehldau's trio, holds down the drum chair with soul, fire and imagination. These two musicians were born to play together. Although Mehldau hates the comparison, he really does reach deep into Bill Evans for his basic approach to the piano. His chords float rather than land, and his right hand is at once introspective, hopeful and full of life. Rarely do musicians make their instruments sing. Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau manage to take their deeply personal styles and combine them into a multi-layered harmony of perfectly pitched voices. Run, do not walk, to get these records.

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