Speaking of Now disappoints. It disappoints because at first it seems so promising. On the first two tracks, "As It Is" and "Proof", the Pat Metheny Group weaves a dense web of textural, atmospheric jazz that is positively thrilling. These tracks escape the usual pitfalls of smooth jazz that Metheny's music is often susceptible to.
"As It Is" is a rich tangle composed of Metheny's understated guitar work and Lyle Mays's stellar piano playing, all under the auspices of a highly structured and triumphant song structure. "Proof" continues the record's meteoric rise, pushing the sound more towards the loose, exotic terrain of Miles Davis's mid-sixties work or, more importantly, the freewheeling virtuosity of guitarist's George Benson's early recordings. There is a strong and vital connection between Metheny and Benson: Both approach jazz guitar playing with the same deft skill and subtle ear for harmony and song-structure that make them both legends. "Proof" shows Metheny at his Benson-esque best -- riffing around a loose, almost bebop inspired rhythm, Metheny cuts loose, not in self-indulgent soloing, but rather in delightful and entertaining exploratory playing, impressive both for its speed as well as its sense of melody.
Unfortunately, Speaking of Now fails to keep up this level of intensity and novelty. On tracks like "Another Life" and "The Gathering Sky", Metheny's band creates the same dense texture found on "As It Is" with none of the excitement or triumphant grandeur. The album sags under the weight of these overwrought smooth jazz impressionistic sound pieces. Too often the real technical skill of these musicians is lost in the haze of the record's overabundance of synths and, more glaringly, vocals.
Long part of Metheny's sound, the vocal work on this record is particularly grating and hackneyed. Richard Bona's and Cuong Vu's ethereal, often meaningless vocal accompaniments to these pieces add a layer of new-age sentiment that renders the record very flimsy. More often than not, the compositions on Speaking of Now, some of which range as high as 10 minutes long, are dominated by complex chord changes and vocal refrains of empty "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs".
This is a real shame. Beneath all the fluffery of this record lies a great band. The dexterity and maturity of Metheny's playing is a well-established fact, but the rest of this band deserves praise as well. In particular, pianist Lyle Mays really shines, creating dense tangles of intricate notes and chords much in the spirit of Bill Evans and his stylistic descendent, Brad Mehldau. Speaking of Now, however, is not the record for this band -- it does them a disservice. While this may just be this reviewer's taste, all too often great jazz playing is marred by too much attention to studio trickery and new-agey atmospherics. Every once and a while, however, Speaking of Now will give you a good run of nice, clean, really boppin' jazz. Those moments, sadly few and far between, are the saving graces of this flawed record.