From Impro to Compo
On Road To The Sun (5 March 2021; BMG Modern Recordings), guitar legend Pat Metheny eschews his Ibanez PM200-NT in favour of his mythical 42-string Pikasso, but his real achievement here is in composition.
Such is Metheny’s genius that the 20-time Grammy winner reportedly put photos of his collaborators in front of him in order to imagine exactly what part they would play in the two major works that comprise his new album. Specifically, Jason Vieaux – who at 19 became the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Foundation of America’s International Guitar Competition - plays classical on the opening guitar suite Four Paths Of Light, while The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ; comprising John Dearman on ‘seven string’, Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser, and Scott Tennant on classical) play on the six-part second piece, Road to the Sun. In some ways this album may be considered Metheny’s respectful response to Vieaux’s 2005 album Images of Metheny, and to LAGQ’s 2004 album Guitar Heroes, which included interpretations of his material; whatever the case, the guitarists on this record clearly have enormous respect for each other’s skill and compositional ability.
“Originally, I came to composing as a way of expanding my reach as an improviser,” says Metheny. “Improvising and composing are related activities that happen at wildly different temperatures. But at the same time, ideally, the kinds of things that I love as a listener and a music lover are what I aspire to represent, regardless of how they come to be.”
This recording represents a big step for Metheny in at least two more ways. On the one hand, his debut release for Modern Recordings represents a brave move into classical guitar territory, which has been appropriately backed by extensive coverage on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On the other, it has been reported that none of the album was improvised; it was all fully notated.
Jason Vieaux’s opening four-movement solo is packed full of melodies and Metheny’s composition allows him to showcase both his technical ability and his wonderful tone and feel. Metheny says: “I have followed the classical guitar world with interest and from the first moment I heard Jason, he has been one of my favourite musicians. He excels at playing passages that border on being technically impossible, and he also has the rare ability to make things that are simple have real meaning.”
Similar time on the near one-hour long album is dedicated to LAGQ’s six-movement suite that features a mix of folk, jazz, flamenco, country, and Latin styles, which has been described as having “an active melody with interlacing tremolos, counterpoint, tambors, and scales.” Metheny contributes guitar on Part 5, while the final section of this movement features a particularly enchanting melody by the quartet.
The album closes with Metheny’s own arrangement and performance of Für Alina. This piece is a reworking of Arvo Pärt’s moving solo piano composition but the guitarist enhances and embellishes it with a rich tapestry of sounds.
After four decades of transcendent work, Metheny has nothing left to prove, but he continues to explore and innovate both in terms of genres and composition. “There is a unique pleasure in knowing that what is on the page can stand as a complete set of instructions to get to that musical result, not just for these performers but eventually by other players in the future,” he says. “I’m really happy that each of these guys found their path into the music that is theirs - it is unmistakably these guitar players - and that is fantastic for me.”