Well there’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Promised Land”
The cover image for Pat Metheny’s From This Place — Springsteen’s twister touching down under lowering clouds above a reversed title — suggests that the guitarist’s first collection of new music in six years might be a dystopic downer, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls re-purposed for resistance in a tensely partisan time. It’s true that Metheny writes from a distinct viewpoint here; but first and foremost he’s writing and playing from his musical and personal core, giving everything he has to connect with listeners of any and every outlook. And this album communicates like mad. It may end up being one of the best records released this year — state of the art jazz composed and performed at the highest level, a unified work of formidable emotional range and intelligence: instantly accessible, inescapably substantial — and above all, incredibly moving.
On his website, Metheny writes extensively about the process that led to From This Place: touring his back catalog with an international trio of virtuosos (Gwilym Simcock on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Antonio Sanchez on drums); the decision to record brand new tunes without rehearsal (a strategy by Miles Davis with his 1960s quintet); another snap decision to leave space for orchestrations (by Alan Broadbent and Gil Goldstein), incorporating both Metheny’s composed motifs and the quartet’s improvised inspirations; orchestral overdubs with conductor Joel McNeely and the cream of West Coast pros on a Hollywood soundstage (evoking CTI Records’ lush 1970s aesthetic); topped with guest shots from percussionist Luis Conte, harmonica player/Metheny alum Gregoire Maret and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello on the hymnic title track.
All well and good, but process and preparation can only go so far. Where the rubber meets the road is the playing — Metheny’s gutsy, creamy-toned melodicism, Simcock’s rhapsodic comping and vivacious solos, Oh’s fertile, bubbling foundational work and Sanchez’s pungent, earthy rhythmic concoctions. These four are at the peak of their abilities throughout the session, primed to deliver their best. It’s jaw-dropping stuff: interplay verging on telepathy, exhilarating ebb and flow both between individual players and as a unit, the space they leave for each other and the sumptuous orchestral backing all come together in awe-inspiring, high-intensity takes on 10 new tunes. Whether scaling edifices of endlessly unrolling melody (“You Are” and “Pathmaker”), math-rocking through intricate uptempo bebop/Latin fusions (“Everything Explained” and “Sixty-Six”) or settling into hushed balladry (“The Past in Us” and “Love May Take Awhile”), they impress and astonish, as individuals and as a unit. It’s hard to believe there’s a better jazz quartet active right now; this is a band I want to see and hear live as soon as possible.
But in the meantime, whither Metheny’s point of view?
The very word ‘America,’ remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.
— James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What It Means to be An American”
The place Metheny’s coming from is definitely not one of complacent acceptance; his sadness and frustration with our current state of affairs are formative for two key album tracks. The opening “America Undefined” spins off of the James Baldwin quote above, its knotty, pensive theme leaving the mystery of national identity hanging in the air, unresolved. If there’s any answer in the music, it’s in the variations that give each quartet member a shot at making the theme their own, finally locking together for an ominous coda — a fragile e pluribus unum held together by a throbbing, monolithic groove that finally explodes into forward motion. The title track, written the morning after the 2016 presidential election, also sidesteps ideological boilerplate, tracing a path from devastated shock to determined, quiet resolution. Everyone has been there emotionally, at some point in their life, and as Ndegeocello pairs Alison Riley’s haunted lyrics with Metheny’s minimalist melody, the piece transcends protest, reaching across all aisles to engage our common humanity:
From this place I cannot see
Heart is dark beneath rising seas
From this place I don’t believe
All my hopes, a sweet relief
From here I say, I can’t breathe
Both fear and hurt, again we bleed
Unsafe, unsound, unclear to me
Don’t know how to be
From this place I must proceed
Trust in love, truth be my lead
From here I’ll stand with thee
Until hearts are truly free.
Metheny himself states that, in the end,
The currency that I have been given the privilege to trade in over these years put its primary value on the timeless and transcendent nature of what makes music music.
Music continually reveals itself to be ultimately and somewhat oddly impervious to the ups and downs of the transient details that may even have played a part in its birth. Music retains its nature and spirit even as the culture that forms it fades away, much like the dirt that creates the pressure around a diamond is long forgotten as the diamond shines on.
Pat Metheny has consistently aimed for transcendence throughout his career; if sometimes his paths have led him into bland New Age detours or scrambled avant-garde dead ends, that long pursuit has yielded rich rewards across the stylistic range of jazz and rock. From This Place is an utterly satisfying culmination of that pursuit — music both of its time and potentially timeless, gripping at first acquaintance, deepening its impact with every further listen. After playing it almost non-stop for ten days, I can’t recommend this highly enough.
As well as through the usual outlets, From This Place is now available in LP, CD and download formats at Bandcamp.
— Rick Krueger