“What It’s All About” – Pat Metheny

When I first heard Pat Metheny’s “One Quiet Night”, I told people that it was my new vote for “best acoustic guitar recording ever”, replacing my old favorite, Phil Keaggy’s “Beyond Nature” – it looks like this position has been replaced yet again by Metheny’s new “What It’s All About”, his first release in his new deal with Nonesuch records. I make a claim of this nature for a lot of reasons, with the stellar audio quality being just the starting point. Metheny’s breathing is a subtle but easy to find ongoing organic musical element of the record, reminding people that as perfect as the playing is that might lull you into a feeling that you are listening to some hyper-produced ultra-sheen modern record, at the very heart of it is one guy sitting in his home studio with a fantastic guitar and a killer microphone, laying down the feeling from his soul.

Speaking of the recorded instrument itself, the star in that department on this outing is once again Linda Manzer’s baritone six string acoustic steel string. I was at Linda’s Toronto shop a few years ago and got to play one, and all I can say is that yes, there IS a good musical reason for a builder to have their guitars start around $8,000. Another integral part of the guitar arrangements on the record is Metheny’s unique tuning of the baritone instrument, and how he uses that to give the illusion of two guitarists playing together when there is really just one. When first heard “One Quiet Night” I knew it was a baritone guitar but hadn’t read the liner notes talking about the tuning, and when I heard what he was doing with all the seconds in the voicings and the very high but soft background parts, I just couldn’t believe the claim that there were no overdubs – all the fingerings I could envision to perform them were impossible in standard tuning. When I found out what the tuning was, it explained the secret: the guitar is tuned down a perfect fifth A to A, but the 3rd and 4th strings are tuned up an octave from where they would be in that tuning (A-E-C-G-D-A) in what I call a “half-Nashville” tuning, since it is similar to the standard “all the highest strings of a 12 string” tuning that is used on lots of country records to double regular six string parts. Not only does this add a minor 3rd to the range of the instrument, but it allows both close and wide interval spreads to be relatively easy to grab – not to mention giving a HUGE bottom end. But of course, all of that would not add up a lot in the hands and mind of a lesser musician than Metheny.

The overall concept of the record is to cover some of the really well written songs of the modern American songbook of standards from the 60s and 70s, much in the same way that Herbie Hancock did with his “the New Standard” release. Always the master at subtle shading in his use of harmony, Metheny picks “standards” that tend to be chordally rich like “Alfie” – or if they aren’t in their original form, as in the case of the old surf classic “Pipeline”, he makes them so with his intense reharmonizations. And speaking of reharminization, there is no more abstract example of the art that you will find than his version of “Garota de Imanema” – you’ll really have to look to find much you recognize from the Jobim cocktail set classic it’s so de- and re-constructed.

But to my ears, the stand out tracks here are the old little re-recorded Association gem “Cherish” and Bacharach’s masterpiece “Alfie”, already a gorgeous chord progression without any re-working. In both, Metheny uses modulation to a new key as the perfect way to inject new life just as you thought you knew it all in the arrangement, and puts “Cherish” through the same kind of harmonic cycling at one point that he did in his tune “Sunlight” from “Secret Story”. But probably the thing that most contributes to the illusion of there being two guitars is Pat’s control of dynamics in his right hand. His finger control is such that he can bring out the melody on one set of strings while at the same time playing the background parts so softly on another set of strings that it makes it seem to have to be played by two different players.

Manzer’s Picasso guitar, built for Metheny based on a dream he had, makes it’s only appearance on the opening track on the record, Paul Simon’s “The Sound Of Silence”. Like a harp guitar from days of old with both high and low fixed pitch strings, it also is equipped with a fretless and a standard fretted guitar neck. Pat alternates between the fixed pitch bass strings and the high harp strings to lay down reverberant pillows of chord clouds for his fretted neck parts to float upon, giving the feeling of the 60s classic being played in the great hall of an ancient Chinese emperor.

“Pipeline” is played on a standard tuning 12 string acoustic, showing the power, endurance and control that Metheny has built up on such a demanding instrument over years of constant performing. On of the unique strengths he has that so few other guitar players can claim is his use of open strings to give him huge and unique voicings all over the instrument, and this is what gives this track the driving and churning power that is almost gives you an audio image of the feeling of being inside a foaming wave in the ocean.

“Rainy Days and Mondays” and the poignant “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” also get put through the “Metheny reharm-mill” to great effect, and it’s really a pleasure to hear a well constructed tune like “Betcha By Golly Wow” get some new life breathed into it as well. The CD closes with the Beatles “And I Love Her” on nylon string guitar, and it has a such a causal intimacy to it that you almost get the feeling that you were hearing a performance after taking requests from guests at a party or at home for his wife. His touch on the nylon stringed guitar has always been one of my favorite sounds instrument, this closing track is just a reminder that some things don’t change.

Besides this just being a really beautiful guitar record, I hope it will help to solidify the trend towards contemporary musicians advancing the true spirit of the “standard” pop tune by drawing from beyond ‘the regular “20’s to ‘40s songbook” into ‘60’s to present day catalog to find new compositions to reinvent regularly in the stages and recording projects of the world. Metheny’s “What It’s All About “ is all about that, and will hopefully will inspire to keep bringing fresh new ingredients into the modern improvisers cook pot.

Doug Perkins
July 7, 2011