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?