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Lost On The Shelves: Pat Metheny Group – The Way Up

September 4, 2017

I am one of those people who has a large music collection and every once in a while I forget I have something in my collection:

  • Buying something I already have
  • Letting a once loved album slip my mind
  • Not realizing greatness is wasting away on my shelves

The Way Up falls into this latter category.

A work colleague recently mentioned that his piano teacher, who had a degree in music composition, suggested he should listen to The Way Up by the Pat Metheny Group (PMG). My colleague asked if I was familiar with the album. I said yes because I have all of Metheny’s albums, but it was a bit of a lie because I could not recall the cover art, let alone the music. He raved that it was good. Knowing he has good taste, I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a spin.

Being hooked by an album is based on your receptiveness and state of mind at the time of its arrival. I am not sure where my head and ears were in January of 2005 when The Way Up was released, but boy did I overlook a masterpiece (the album was not missed by everyone, it won the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album). This turned out to be the last PMG album and it may be because Metheny had fully realized the PMG concept with this album. Listening to it now, it is arguably PMG’s  finest work.

I am a big Metheny fan, but given how prolific he is I think I can be forgiven that I have not deeply examined all of his recordings and etched them into my soul. I lost interest in the PMG during the Geffen period (1987-1996) but not with Metheny’s other work. I loved PMG’s Imaginary Day, but lost interest again with Speaking Of Now. I am guessing I just bought The Way Up, listened a few times and filed it without it leaving an impression.

Unlike previous PMG albums, The Way Up was composed as a long form piece. At nearly 70 minutes, it is pushing the limits of the Red Book CD format. Per Wikipedia::

The main idea for the piece had been germinating for several years before finally being officially composed and recorded in 2003-04. Metheny has remarked that, The Way Up became a sort of protest song to counter the influence of, in his view, an increasingly impatient, shallow, and simple-minded world.

This album contains everything in the PMG playbook including: jazz, prog rock, elaborate arrangements, bold compositions, improvisational solos, what sounds like a guitar orchestra, dynamics, lyricism, adroit playing and the instantly recognizable sound of Metheny (proof: I slipped the CD in the car stereo and my wife immediately recognized it was Metheny having never heard the album before).

Although it is presented as one ginormous 68-minute song (split into 4 tracks for CD and 3 tracks for Spotify), it sounds like dozens of 1 to 3 minute vignettes seamlessly and elegantly woven together. It is the PMG’s tour de force. It is a studio created masterpiece, but somehow they played it live (I have to get my hands on the DVD).

I can’t believe this has been gathering dust on my shelves for over 10 years (I regularly dip into the Metheny catalog, but somehow never dusted this one off). It is a grand parting shot from a band that is unlikely to be heard from again.

It is ambitious and complex music, but accessible. That is a big part of Metheny’s genius: making complex music accessible. Turn it down low and this can be background music and turn it up loud and it fully engages you. If you actively listen to the composition, the arrangement and the solos will amaze you. With this album, the PMG honed everything they had been doing for almost 30 years into a perfectly realized album.

I am kind of glad I missed it upon release – this is an unexpected gift.

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13 Comments
  1. I’m with you all the way on Metheny. I was/am/have been a pretty big fan and blogged about him a while back. He lived for quite a time in the Boston/Cambridge area (and may still for all I know) so it was a pretty easy matter once upon a time to see him in small local clubs. Now, like a lot artists I like, I haven’t kept in touch with him or his stuff. Probably haven’t seen him in 10 years. Sometimes we take artists for granted like somehow they’ll always be there. (Or course their music will.) I have never heard or heard of this album. But I have just moved it to the top of the queue for listen in the next day or so. Thanks!

  2. Do you feel happy or guilty when you discover how great something you’ve just previously filed is?

  3. If I get any more good music from you guys my head is going to explode. I’m on this for sure. I’ve been making a few of these discoveries in my own pile.

    • I fully intended to listen to this today. But a lot of things happened, I got a phone call, a thing came in, I got distracted by a shiny object, etc. I’ll go for it tomorrow.

      • “shiny object”? You guys have spotified me. I did the Zappa thing yesterday and now the box is randomly spitting out some pretty solid music. Pat is on deck.

      • You don’t know the shiny object reference, CB? Google it. Urban dictionary nails it. I think you’ll dig the reference and can start using it any time.

      • It is in my vocabulary already

  4. Listened to it today all the way through. (I sometimes get distracted and never get back.) Music Enthusiast seal of approval for sure. It’s hard to go wrong with Metheny. He has impeccable taste. (Although that said, he did some outside stuff with Ornette Coleman some years ago that was hard for me to get into.) I will definitely spin this some more as I find that jazz rewards repeated listenings. But I have to check out some other stuff first. Thanks.

    • Glad you enjoyed. This is a deep one that reveals more with each listen. I agree the Ornette noise album was tough sledding. Not my cup of tea, but I appreciate that a musician of Metheny’s caliber would be drawn to that kind of experiment.

      • Anonymous permalink

        Agreed. Recall that some of the PMG stuff had a “rockier” sound. I remember talking about this at the time and some of us felt he was trying to re-establish (or make sure he didn’t lose) credibility with his jazz peers. What better way than to do some “outside” stuff. But I think Metheny’s true Midwestern heart is closer to this stuff.

      • That anonymous comment was actually me, Axl. Some glitch happened I guess. FYI.

      • Hey, do you by any chance follow or read Vinyl Connection? He recently talked about an album by John Abercrombie (who just passed) called “Timeless.” Nothing really like the Metheny disc but some pretty frantic fusion stuff that I thought you might dig.

        https://vinylconnection.com.au/2017/08/24/timeless/

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