Monday, February 11, 2008

A Day In The Life...

Pat Metheny with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez - Day Trip (Nonesuch, 2008)

Some critics in America appear to be hailing ‘Day Trip’ as among the best records of Pat Metheny’s illustrious career, and perhaps his best trio album since ‘Bright Size Life’. Both are audacious claims, especially given that ‘Day Trip’ sounds accessible and conventional, perhaps even lightweight, in light of Metheny’s more ambitious achievements. It lacks the fire and fury of ‘Song X’ (his infamous collaboration with Ornette Coleman), the rigour and grace of his recent partnership with Brad Mehldau or the sheer compositional muscle and attention to detail of ‘The Way Up’.

Accessibility can often be a positive characteristic though, and Metheny certainly makes a virtue of it with this charming and enjoyable set. Joined by bassist Christian McBride and exuberant drummer Antonio Sanchez, the eleven mostly bristling tracks were cut in a single day of recording. It’s bustling with energy and tremendous momentum, and the sprightly, spontaneous group interplay is a refreshing tonic after the audacious rigours of Metheny’s recent work. There’s also an impressive, rapid fire flow of ideas, particularly from Metheny himself, who solos superbly throughout.

There’s fast and furious, rhythmically inventive playing on the opener ‘Son of Thirteen’ and ‘Let’s Move’, whilst ‘Calvin’s Keys’ is one of Metheny’s most straightforwardly enjoyable compositions in years. It even bears a passing resemblance to Nat Adderley’s ‘Work Song’. The nimble, light playing on this piece also recalls the great Wes Montgomery. McBride and Sanchez make for superb sparring partners throughout, Sanchez’s drumming bursting with dazzling technique, yet also retaining a subtle mystery and intrigue. Metheny’s guitar sings as much as ever, but McBride’s solos are also lingeringly melodic and lyrical.

Metheny brings out his nylon stringed acoustic for the haunting and mournful ‘Is This America? (Katrina 2005)’, a near-perfect elegy for the people of New Orleans and their suffering, with a clear and pure American melody that recalls Bill Frisell at his best. ‘When We Were Free’, actually revisited from 1996’s ‘Quartet’ album, adds further political implications but not at the expense of a superbly swinging groove.

It’s worth noting that a fair chunk of this material is revised from other projects. ‘The Red One’, which sounds a little out of place in this context, originally appeared on ‘I Can See The House From Here’, Metheny’s outstanding meeting with John Scofield. ‘Snova’ and ‘Son of Thirteen’ both originally appeared on Alex Spiagi’s ‘Returning’. Still, one of the delights of jazz as an idiom is the ability to constantly breathe new life into old material, and these stripped back trio versions create space and exciting new tensions.

‘Day Trip’ is not Metheny’s most original or dazzling work, but its performances are vivid and engaging, and it’s great to hear him back in a trio set-up after experiments with larger ensembles. It perhaps works most effectively as a document of spontaneous and immediate craftsmanship. It also works as a series of inspired and memorable signposts, both back to impressive moments from Metheny’s own career and the influences of other musicians. There are unlikely to be many albums this year displaying more verve, spirit and musical instinct.

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