For decades, jazz guitar traded in a certain degree of tonal anonymity. Sure, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green had different styles and could be easily identified. But the basic sound of their instruments — the tone that they sought to produce through their amplifiers — was similar: clean, pure, ringing, straight-ahead. This was the aesthetic of jazz guitar, and it took players with a grounding in rock music to see that the revolution wrought by Jimi Hendrix could be a boon to jazz as well as rock.
One of the first guitarists to hit my ear as having a distinct guitar tone — a guitarist I could identify based on a single note — was Pat Metheny. His trio record Bright Size Life (1975) had some traditional virtues like swing and fluid improvising, but it featured wide-open, folkish melodies and the sharply different guitar tone of both the leader and his bassist, Jaco Pastorius. It wasn’t rock guitar exactly (lacking feedback, distortion, or crunch), but Metheny’s sound had a slight echo or chorus effect and a coolly muffled sting that set it apart. “Here is a guy”, I thought at the time, “who knows what he wants to sound like.”
And it was true. Though Metheny would become a notorious style-hopper over the next few decades, his every note was pure him. On poppish Pat Metheny Group records, the sound is like a sweet glider against the sky; on his records with great saxophonists (Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, and Michael Brecker, as a sideman with Kenny Garrett, to name just three), he is a quick-witted accompanist who is too quick to be icy; and on his relatively straight-ahead records with jazz trios, he plays with boppish style while still finding a way to evoke the plains of his native Nebraska.
Metheny’s latest is another such trio session, a solid jazz record that neither hides behind poppish prettiness nor conceals Metheny’s preternatural affinity for melody. It consists of ten original tunes featuring Christian McBride on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. The playing is all around outstanding — complex rhythms and harmonies submit continually to Metheny’s penchant for fluidity and tunefulness.
But, that sound. Since Metheny emerged to great acclaim, of course, his attack and sound has grown more common. Not only do guitarists such as Bill Frisell and Jon Scofield feature guitar sounds that are more peppery and rock-driven than Metheny’s, but legions of younger players have upped the ante. It’s not at all rare today to hear a “mainstream” jazz guitarist dial up a biting tone that still swings. Indeed, it is now possible to hear the “Metheny Sound” as a kind of baseline guitar sound — the increasingly generic “bell-like tone” that begins a discussion of jazz guitar rather than ends it.
And so on Day Trip Metheny serves up a rich serving of a new kind of mainstream. “Let’s Move” places speedy runs amidst amazing stop-times, sets them off against passages of suspended time, then lets the guitarist blaze over a prestissimo walking swing played fluidly by Sanchez and McBride. “Calvin’s Keys” sets up as a loping blues but adds a tricky bridge. Metheny plays melodically and swingingly in both spots, grabbing licks out of thin air that grow directly out of the tunes themselves. On the latter track, you can hear the Ornette Coleman vibe in this playing, which is tangy like a malt vinegar.
Metheny also excels on ballads. “Is This America? (Katrina 2005)” is played all acoustic, and it reaches for harmonic territory that surprises just enough, even though the backbeat from Sanchez’s brushes keeps things easy. “Dreaming Trees” is a freer essay for acoustic guitar, with a particularly affecting solo by a high-register McBride. “Snova” is a light-as-can-be bossa that sounds pleasingly present tense — Metheny’s solo double-times over the samba groove, but the effect remains pleasant and flowing, even if Metheny’s high note pulls have a Nebraskan twang to them.
There is only one track on which Metheny whips out his dreaded guitar-synth. “The Red One” (which appeared previously on the Metheny/Scofield collaboration, I Can See Your House From Here) starts with the guitar sounding overdriven and pungent, getting a low and kick-ass punch that is too often missing from Metheny’s pleasant guitaristic palette. When he moves the instrument into a higher range, though, it screeches like a synth, making the whole point of being a guitar player seem to disappear. Still, Sanchez plays adroitly here, and the band even has a moment of pseudo-reggae groove. Nice.
By now, we’re used to our man toggling between semi-smooth Pat Metheny Group records and projects of greater “jazz” merit. He has made several trio discs over the years, and it’s tempting to hear Day Trip as just another in his string of options. But this trio — particularly with the hearty-voiced McBride anchoring things on bass — is different enough to stand out. At this point, Metheny has long ceased being a novelty, so his pure jazz guitar records have to succeed on invention and cohesive group interaction. This one does.