The Pat Metheny Group
This Way Up
PMG Listener Network
The Pat Metheny Group has been a working unit since 1978, with shifting personnel and corresponding changes in sonic texture yet still retaining an instantly identifiable sound. Their new release, The Way Up is a perplexing, fascinating example of tight ensemble playing, clever production and shows what this group is capable of; providing a more commercial sound for their rabid fan base while taking risks that catch the ears of jazz aficionados.
The album consists of one 68-minute composition divided into four parts, each stating an easily accessible theme and then flying off into the nether regions of amazing improvisations. Those who have been dissatisfied with the Group’s output for the last decade or so will find much to like here.
The compositional partnership of Pat Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays reaches its collaborative zenith here as the pair paints musical landscapes with a wonderful balance of discipline and recklessness. Most notable on The Way Up are the difficult, syncopated sections more commonly associated with lesser artists in the genre of “fusion”—an aspect of electrified jazz they have seemingly worked hard to avoid. Such complex workouts rarely distract from the overall intention and effect.
The “Overture” sets the tone for the album, giving clues to the listener that these themes presented are going to take a little while. “Part 1” has, to its credit, a gorgeous, aching melodic theme and the perfect blend of tension and release to make this music a true thrill ride. As the tension increases, the group finds itself pushing the envelope of rhythmic complexity and spills out the other end with flat out swinging, bringing Metheny’s ever-innovative, blistering lead guitar to the forefront. Lyle Mays delivers a fine piano solo followed by trumpeter Cuong Vu, who, in addition to punctuating the melodic lines throughout the album, delivers a modest but effective solo. The group then rides out the melodic theme in grand style, ending with a beautiful restatement of the original theme by Metheny. The section is then punctuated by more rhythmic craziness and suddenly you’re out of breath. Check your watch—you’ve been listening for over 30 minutes!
“Part 2” opens with a lovely, haunting statement of melody by bassist Steve Rodby, followed by a quiet, contemplative interlude by Mays. Pretty soon, all hell breaks loose with the band playing at full volume in what is the album’s only moment that comes perilously close to overkill. The section ends with a percussive groove of repeated figures that echoes Metheny’s work with minimalist composer Steve Reich, except with a hell of a lot more key changes.
“Part 3” returns to rhythmic intensity that’s a little more coherent and melodically oriented, including another fine solo from Mays, bringing earlier themes into context and ending with a gorgeous fade out. In fact, “Part 3” is a symphony within itself, wrapping the album together with multiple textures, moods and motifs that offer the thrill of a roller coaster ride. Challenging listening is usually the most rewarding. Those who seek aural wallpaper to enhance their lifestyles should look elsewhere. Those who still believe that the medium of recording can still transfix, transform and transcend, come hither. If you don’t get it the first time, don’t put it up for sale on E-Bay—it grows on you.
First of all, this is an album, folks—a work of art meant to be listened to in one sitting with the listener’s full attention. Thus, it is an anomaly. Those with 68 minutes to kill will be greatly rewarded with some startling, ambitious music. It’s nice to know that there are people out there who don’t underestimate the intelligence of their audience and have the wherewithal to take risks. The Way Up is just such an album. You’ll hear something different every time you give it a spin. Well worth the effort. It delivers beautifully executed, thoughtful, uplifting, foreboding music that celebrates life and challenges the senses and sensibilities. This is great music played by a skilled ensemble who have painstakingly put together a piece of work in earnest.
Read NT's review of Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman's Song X: Twentieth Anniversary