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Pat Metheney Group – Pat Metheny Group (1978)

January 25, 2014

PMG PMG

This was not love at first sight.  When I first listened to this album in 1978 I thought it was elevator music.  I had read several positive reviews and a guitar playing college buddy of mine raved about it.  Given the endorsements I stuck with it (obviously or it would not be in my “hall of fame”) and slowly I fell in love with it.

I remember being impressed by the absolute simplicity of the cover.  I would later learn this was part of the ECM record label’s charm – they had a distinct (and still do) visual aesthetic.  To this day I can pull an ECM record out of a crate, and just by its front cover (not even knowing the artist), identify it as an ECM release. The sparse cover art is a perfect match for ECM’s music which also has a distinct aesthetic: atmospheric, tasteful, lean and mellow.  “The Group” album cover is Scandinavian beige with a simple font that would make Steve Jobs proud.  ECM had the coolest inner sleeves too – a flat plastic with one side having paper in it to give it a little body – I swear it is anti-static.

As I continued to listen I started to realize this was not elevator music or what would ultimately become soft jazz. This was a quite storm.  This would be confirmed a few months later when I saw the PMG at Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre Company stage – they surprisingly rocked!.  This is fusion music: jazz, folk, and rock.

Soon I was pretty well seduced and I can’t even being to imagine how many times I have spun this LP (and then CD, then digital files and now back to LP) – probably thousands of times.  The keys are: Metheny’s tone, the compositions, the arrangements and the production values.  Metheny had a big sound palette and over the years it has become even bigger.

I remember wanting to share the album with my girlfriend – setting up a romantic night – presenting it to her as a sonic gift (and by that time a piece of my soul).  I still have that LP and the girl (this fall we will be married 30 years), both are still in mint condition.

As for the music, Metheny has very distinctive fat guitar tone that has its foundations in great jazz guitar players like Wes Montgomery.  The opening cut “San Lorenzo” perfectly defines a folk and jazz fusion.  This is gentle music that is the musical equivalent of a tropical vacation sunset.  The next cut, “Phase Dance” has a more rocking feel, but still mellow.  Side one of The Pat Metheny Group is so solid – twenty minutes of pure ear candy: Pat’s fat guitar squeezing out long fluid notes, Lyle Mays’ supporting and soloing keyboards (busy, but not disruptive), Mark Egan’s Jaco imitation and Dan Gottlieb’s muscular drumming.    All presented on a wide and spacious sound stage.  Generally piano and guitar don’t mix well in jazz (similar in sound with too many overlapping overtones), but somehow Metheny and Mays made it work extremely well for several albums. Although Metheny is the star, this is a true ensemble – that is a group!

I bet I have played side one at about a 10:1 ratio over the years; to the point I am always pleasantly surprised at the beauty of side two.  Side two opens with “Jaco” which is an opportunity for Mark Egan to do his best Jaco Pastorius imitation.  After a Metheny introductory solo he hands off to Egan to strut his stuff.  Egan unleashes a serpentine bass solo and you can see how Jaco and Metheny were kindred spirits in fat tone – it is a shame they did not get to play more together.

“April Wind” is a short solo guitar meditation that foreshadows the great solo guitar work that Metheny will do throughout his career.  “April Wind” is the set up pitch for “April Joy” which is a return to the great ensemble play of the first side. The two songs are a real one-two punch, perfectly complementing each other.

The album ends with “Lone Jack.”  Throughout the album Metheny is restrained and deferring to gorgeous melodies.  On “Lone Jack” he reminds you he is a guitar god with an absolute kick ass solo – a 400 meter sprint that he hands off to Mays for an equally impressive piano solo before the ensemble ties it all up into a bow.

This is truly one of the great jazz-fusion albums.  It is the bridge between 70s jazz-rock and 80s soft jazz (soft jazz is not always a bad thing, but unfortunately it is most often schmaltz, but there are gems hidden in the frosting).  It has it foundations in folk vs. funk.  It is atmospheric, yet it shreds.  I have never tired of this album in the 35 years I have been listening to it.  It has become part of me – a musical reflection of my soul.

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2 Comments
  1. You have me revisiting the music I have by Pat and checking this new stuff out. Why I tune in.

  2. Correction, this album isn’t new but I haven’t heard it. Now I want too get it

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