It seems odd to call a player and composer as credentialed, respected by his peers and successful as Pat Metheny “much-maligned,” but in some ways he is. In some ways, he still needs defenders to cry “Foul!” when he is casually misunderestimated as a peddler of smooth jazz and disingenuous folk-yokel. Far too often, he is grouped at the head of the jazz-bassador class along with other “crossover” figures like Dave Brubeck, Metheny-mentor Gary Burton and (eek!) the Metheny-lambasted Kenny G.: the lite-jazz Pat Boone who soaped up, sanitized and bowdlerized America’s most dangerous and demanding indigenous music for popular consumption – and made a carpetbagger’s bundle.
Not fair. Egregiously untrue. As a rule, jazz fans and players know that Metheny is a major talent. They may or may not jibe with the delicacy and euphony of his default sound (from which he has often strayed), but they know that he is a heavy and a true original. All but the most ardent avant-gardists find a few Metheny albums to love. And for the most ardent, there is Song X with Ornette Coleman, and – if they dare, if they can find a copy – the “F.U., David Geffen” anomaly, Zero Tolerance for Silence. It is among my people, the rock people, that the Metheny misimpressions run rampant.
I’ll take this one on. The luminous early Metheny albums (especially his debut, Bright Size Life, and the first Pat Metheny Group record) were religious music of my youth. And while I confess that the chronic bossa nova undercurrent of the later PMG stuff kind of lost me, Pat has won me back again and again: the brilliant Question and Answer, a trio date with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes; his collaboration with my personal fave John Scofield, I Can See Your House from Here; his two records with the great pianist Brad Mehldau; and – almost to my surprise – his newest project, the Pat Metheny Unity Band, whose eponymous 2012 release is as lively and loose a small-ensemble jazz record as he has ever recorded.
Rock hipsters don’t actually make much time for jazz – not when there are so much Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston arcana still to champion. They just wear Coltrane tee-shirts and read books about Miles Davis, to quote Mikey Erg. They might grandfather-in Chet Baker, but only because of his prodigious drug use and the High-Euro squalor of his demise. Jazz is more myth than music. Pat never had a chance with them. He’s white and from Kansas City. He practically invented “jazz face” and played a mellow, Lexicon-reverb-drenched, round-toned guitar. He wore running shoes onstage. Game over.
To recount Metheny’s restless and eclectic career is to witness a perfect storm of moves that seemed calculated to court the contempt of hipsters. It begins with the blurry Impressionism of his early releases – and indeed, the general blurry impression of the ECM label with which Metheny started, and of which he quickly became the star. ECM produced some landmark jazz from Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Bley, Terje Rypdal and many more. Meditative and moved by “world” undercurrents, the ECM staple sound might seem to be akin to the unchallenging Windham Hill “music to be by” aesthetic; but in fact, it owes more to the sophisticated, ethereal harmony of Bill Evans and George Russell and to the genuine blurry Impressionism of Debussy and Satie. But Strike One, Pat: too “New Agey.”