From This Place
This is another impressive Pat Metheny album. It’s graceful. And its concept seems to focus on an homage to the small town Midwest, harkening perhaps to Metheny’s roots.
The first track, “America Undefined,” seems like a tribute to small town America and the soundtrack for an approaching tornado, like the twister funnel artistically depicted in stark, high contrast black and white on the album’s cover. The 13-minute song features a slow, dramatic build and a string orchestra that mimics a building south-westerly wind. The track also includes the sound of a train whistling and dinging, coming and going, rattling by. If we don’t hear this song soon in an indie movie or documentary featuring the great plains, we probably should. Metheny wrote all of the songs on this album and co-arranged this one with Gwilym Simcock. The song is an emotional, gargantuan start to a cohesive album, but an album with wide variety—from the orchestral sound on this first track to latin pieces and Metheny’s brand of contemporary combo jazz. Used sparingly and judiciously, the 36-member string orchestra helps augment a larger emotional pallet, stretching beyond the scope and sounds the smaller Pat Metheny Group can make. This is no “Bird with Strings,” though, with a commercial, disconnected program; instead Metheny’s strings are used sparingly and with unity to Metheny’s characteristic repertoire and universal sound, but in this case with additional emotional reach. Those strings can make a big wind.
Uncharacteristically, at least for Metheny’s most recent albums, the album’s title track includes lyrics and singing. In this case, the poetic song seems to be a kind of dirge-like homage and reflection. The song appears to be reflecting on Metheny’s humble Midwestern roots (Lee’s Summit, MO), and in the CD’s packaging, accompanying the printed lyrics, is a scene of the great plains along with a big sky; three fourths of the image is a mountainous cloud. There are no people in the photo and no houses. Only a hint of civilization can be observed in a stretch of powerlines, the poles like thin crosses at the photo’s edge. The voices are soft, lullaby-like, but mournful: “From here, I say I cannot breathe / Fear and hurt / Again we bleed….From this place, I must proceed / Trust in love…Until hearts are truly free.” The song appears to comment on a nation divided, and attempts to trade love for hate, an attempt to unify and not divide, and works against narrow stereotypes of Midwesterners.
Like one of his predecessors, Paul Wertico, drummer Antonio Sanchez favors the cymbals on this album, and employs an impressive array of them, bringing a special kind of brightness to the album, and Sanchez’s rolls across his cymbals are sensitive and hypnotic, blending chops and touch in a stunning melodic array. Sanchez is joined by Luis Conte on percussion, whose vibes work on “America Undefined” haunts in the way the mallet work on “Dead Already,” the theme song of the film “American Beauty,” does—with a kind of simplistic, minimalistic build. Elsewhere in the album, Sanchez trades some 2s and 4s, and, instead of feeling like a bombastic drum feature, it feels like a natural conversation in the song, like the drummer rising during a hot topic, having something passionate to say in starts and bits, then returning to the natural dialogue, his piece finally said.
Track 7, “Everything Explained,” a latin piece, features Metheny’s soloistic virtuosity. After a brief introduction, Metheny plays in nearly every bar (except during others’ solos), leading this upbeat, dance-like tune. It is the side of Metheny many might recognize across every album, often playing break-neck, but ever-relaxed.
Track 3, “You Are,” begins and ends in a truly understated way, the piano playing only one or two notes a bar, and fairly alone. (These folks really know how to switch gears and break up an album.)
As I noted, the album is full of shifts and surprises. Although unified in concept and approach, there’s an impressive range of styles, moods, and orchestration in this album. It’s not every day one tune is a small combo, and the next includes a full orchestra with strings.