If you grew up in the 1960s listening to pop music, then you know there was a melodic feast for the ears. Sure, rock’s joyous rumble was rising and becoming the soundtrack of an era, but there were just as many—actually more—hit songs that were rich in complex harmony and arcing melody. The Tin Pan Alley greats had nothing on Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon, Carole King and the like.
Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny was a kid amidst all that music, and his latest disc is a solo recital of these songs, mostly played on an acoustic baritone guitar with a unique tuning. What’s It All About displays Metheny at his gentlest, perhaps, but it is also daring for any popular artist to get this naked. Typically heard on electric guitar surrounded by the driving rhythms of one of his bands, Metheny plays these modern standards with no amplifier, no support and no overdubbing.
The result is beautiful.
The most spare and surprising interpretation here is Metheny’s rethinking of Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”. If you are like me, then you have heard this bossa nova chestnut played in countless piano bars, usually with an insulting anonymity. Metheny conceives it as a minimal exercise, using just a fragment of the melody and emphasizing a series of new harmonies that allow him to explore the texture and resonance of his instrument. If you release your expectations, then your ear will hang on every note and every fresh chord.
An equally dramatic transition is applied to The Chantays’ 1963 surf classic “Pipeline”, which is explored here as a rhythmic exercise, though in a flamenco style. Metheny captures the same sense of daring and motion, and the same amount of guitar-centered fun while using a different tradition. It’s exciting, but there is also a combination of brooding minor harmony and shimmering overtone that makes it more than a gimmick.
The bulk of What’s It All About is more conventional than the Jobim tune and more penetrating than “Pipeline”. Songs that are fondly remembered by those who listened to plenty of AM radio during Metheny’s childhood sit at the center of this recording. “Alfie”, written by Bacharach and David and a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1967, requires no reinterpretation from Metheny, and he simply loses himself in the astonishing harmonies, pulling on melodic threads that unspool beautifully. The failure of more jazz musicians to really absorb and explore the Bacharach catalog is hereby noted and lamented.
Jazz players have done good things with “Betcha by Golly, Wow” in the past, but not to the point of making it a standard. The Stylistics hit with it in 1971, and Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis and Prince have covered it—as well as guitarist Grant Green and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Metheny does not give the tune a face lift, but his rhythmic approach swings things just a bit, and his delicious voicings bring some new harmonies to the front in various places. Any jazz fan would be able to say “That’s Pat!” after just eight or 10 bars of this one. As it should be.
On all but three songs, Metheny exploits the baritone guitar with aplomb. Pitched lower than a standard guitar, the baritone has a higher pair of strings in the center of the guitar. Metheny used it on 2003’s One Quiet Night. The cover of “Cherish” (the number one hit for The Association in 1966), for example, starts by emphasizing the baritone’s rich low notes as they alternate with ringing-high harmonics. The position of the strings seems to allow Metheny to play melodies, as on “Cherish”, in a rich mid-range while the accompaniment incorporates bass tones and trebly picking and chording.
The two notable exceptions happen to be the opening and closing songs. First up is “The Sound of Silence”, played on a unique 42-string “Pikasso” guitar-harp. It is an eerie and haunting performance that shimmers with the instrument’s multiple sets of closely tuned strings. Metheny’s work on this instrument tends to sound less like either “jazz” or “pop” like a kind of world music concerned with texture and feel.
The last performance on the disc is on nylon string guitar: the Beatles’ “And I Loved Her” given the gentlest of samba grooves. It is, perhaps, a simple and spare arrangement—the kind of thing that might come off as a noodle or a trifle. And I’m not surprised that One Quiet Night was, in the eyes of some Metheny fans, a New Age piece of fluff. But the subtle stuff on “And I Loved Her” makes it much more than a folk song strummed randomly. Metheny’s ability to feed small counter-melodies into the arrangement is remarkable, and his terse and simple improvisation is a clear distillation of the mood rather than something dumb.
I would imagine that your reaction to this Beatles cover might govern your reaction to What’s It All About as a whole. Subtle and simple, whispered rather than shouted, never anything remotely in the “guitar god” category, this new disc is a personal statement. The songs themselves are strong enough —Metheny is wise not to slaughter them with too much volume or speed. Instead we get a spare program recorded in the man’s home—and something that ought to be curled up with when we’re ready to pay attention to the small things that make music speak to us in a small but powerful voice.