Like Minds: The title of Gary Burton and Pat Metheny’s 1998 studio collaboration captured it perfectly. Here were two contemporary jazzmen whose styles were as inimitable as they come, who could balance their experimental tendencies (Burton’s four-mallet attack on the vibraphone and Metheny’s exotic, epic guitar suites) with lyrical melodicism unmatched by anyone in their field. They’re also the rare artists who actually got better as their careers entered their second and third decades, so at the time of Like Minds’ release, they were near the peak of their powers. It was complex material—mostly originals written for the album—but the two were so in sync with each other they were practically telepathic, and it made the music sound easy. Having Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes as their rhythm section (who says jazz doesn’t know what a supergroup is?) didn’t hurt either. As fresh as the day it was released, the record sits alongside Branford Marsalis’ Trio Jeepy and Joshua Redman’s Spirit of the Moment as the very best that modern jazz has to offer.
So it’s pretty disheartening to hear Metheny and Burton mail this one in. Quartet Live is a straight-ahead bop recording from their US reunion tour in 2006/2007 with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Antonio Sanchez, at Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland, CA. That night at Yoshi’s, Burton says, “Without a doubt, the level of the group was at an all-time high…. Everything just clicked.” If Quartet Live really documents the winning performance of that tour, yikes. Burton doesn’t sound entirely off base in that the musicians give the impression that they know each other’s styles and can play in something like lockstep. They’re certainly not strangers: Swallow has played bass on and off in Burton’s band since the 1960s, and Sanchez has served as the Pat Metheny Group’s regular drummer for the last decade. But maybe that’s the problem. There comes a point when complementarity kills excitement, and the group seems to lack a crucial rousing force, a player who could bust through the middling energy level and kick everyone up a notch.
That force should hypothetically come from Metheny in such a situation, and if he doesn’t manage to breathe much life into this set, he also comes through as the quartet’s most valuable player. The music is a solid two rungs below his last straight-ahead jazz record with Christian McBride, Day Trip, and doesn’t approach the singular thrill of his recent Group recordings, but as long as he’s working the electric guitar he will always sound like himself, and he will always sound good. Burton hasn’t lost his technique, per se, still giving the illusion that he’s two players and not one, but his contributions are so soporific, he makes Kenny Burrell sound like Joe Satriani. Poor Steve Swallow and Antonio Sanchez are in absentia at their own party. No, they’re not Corea/Holland/Haynes, but the leads haven’t given them any space to flex the considerable muscle they’ve shown in other projects. The group cruises through a variety of tunes—from Steve Swallow originals to early Metheny-penned folk numbers, even an 11-minute version of “Question and Answer”, the song Burton and Metheny made famous on Like Minds—as if they’re playing “One Note Samba” over and over, and Quartet Live needs its mushy mid-fi sound quality like it needs a hole in its head. A major disappointment.