Pat Metheny: On ECM, in MQA

Rising-star guitarist-composer Nir Felder pays tribute to Pat Metheny and his landmark ECM recordings — now available in Master Quality Authenticated audio.

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Image: Pat Metheny backstage in Illinois in 1981. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty.

Earlier this summer, the classic ECM recordings by jazz icon Pat Metheny hit TIDAL in the sterling MQA format. To celebrate this momentous release, we asked Nir Felder, one of the finest young guitarist-composers currently at work in improvised music, to craft a guest column that considers the overwhelming influence of Metheny and his ECM catalog. Recorded between the mid-1970s and the mid-’80s, these albums include Bright Size Life, Watercolors, Pat Metheny Group, New Chautauqua, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Offramp, Travels, Rejoicing and First Circle. Ed. 

As a kid who grew up like many other suburban bedroom guitarists, practicing scales and chords under a framed Hendrix poster (or was it Clapton for you? Stevie Ray Vaughan?), one of my great early joys was that feeling of initiation into a secret brother and sisterhood of musicians. It was a mystical communion — a lineage, invisible and inaccessible to non-musicians, in the form of a sudden fellowship with the best player in school, the local teachers, a relative who played a little, capital-P Professionals and perhaps a local legend whose name was whispered about town by those in the know. And there, too, somewhere beyond mortal reach, was a connection to the masters, the heroes — the guitar gods. For a kid, they were the legends of guitar lore, and if I practiced hard enough, well, maybe the faces on those posters might shine some of their light and wisdom down on my humble suburban bedroom.

Separate but related to that initial boyhood wonder was a community I found much later. Jazz had its own mythology, its own hero worship, its own legends and innovators and vocabulary and intricacies and nuances and stories and songbooks. I fell in love and wanted to spend all my time with it and know everything about it, much in the same way that the electric guitar had grabbed me when I first saw it played live at age 13. So looking back these many years later, when I try to find the overlap between my guitar-hero initiation into music and my later deep love affair with jazz, I can only find a few people who might have lived equally in both worlds — those improvisors and composers whose posters might have hung over a childhood bedroom and not seemed out of place alongside images of Duane Allman or Chuck Berry.

What was it about Pat Metheny that made him and his music so larger than life? So suited for legend and mythology? Listening back to the treasure trove of music on these new MQA releases, I’m struck again by how much Pat’s work paints a vivid, personal picture of life, both large and all-encompassing and zoomed in on the specifics, on all the beautiful details, full of imagination and wonder. There are wordless stories being told aloud here, pictures painted, narratives constructed, and a palpable sense that each album, each musician, each song, each solo and each note serves in the architecture of a greater whole, a new world being built in front of our ears.

It’s an easy world to describe, because Pat has given us the details. Songs about the Ozarks, fields, skies, farmers, Midwestern nights, Omaha, Airstreams, heartlands, Wichita Falls and American garages. Claps and “one, two, three, four!” count-offs. Striped shirts and cool hair and a band name and acoustic guitars and one electric guitar hanging together with a toothbrush. They’re places and things we already know, but imagined in a new way that we don’t, resulting in an intoxicating mood and feeling that leaves us wondering when Omaha became so magical. That sense of time and place pinpointed in fine detail that doesn’t quite exist on Earth until a storyteller comes along and paints it for us. A lost world that was there all along but that we couldn’t see until someone like Pat Metheny showed it to us.

Metheny performs in the Netherlands in 1983. Credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns.

And along with a uniquely American blend of American music and American places, there is perhaps a uniquely American confidence as well. It’s a sureness of song and melody and storytelling that has so much strength in its roots and structure that it can climb higher than before. It’s a sense of home as well as possibility and a little bit of the rebellion of rock ’n’ roll. And, we must note, this music was recorded in Europe and presented on a European label! But sometimes the views from outside or above are the clearest. 

For me, as for so many other listeners, it was Bright Size Life that came first. And in the best way possible, the album felt like all I might have needed to hear, because in those first few notes was the magic of the whole thing distilled — strangely familiar and at the same time like nothing you had ever heard before, a call from the communion. With all the wonderful music on all of these records and beyond, it’s still a joy to go back to the beginning to hear that instant timelessness and feel like a kid making that revelatory discovery again. I’d bet a lot of folks might feel similarly. Keeping that initial joy and thrilling sense of newness alive across an entire career must have been a tremendous challenge, but then again, maybe it just came naturally to someone like Pat, as these records — First Circle! American Garage! New Chautauqua! — all attest. He certainly makes it sound easy.

So once more, looking back, I’m inspired all over again, drawn to stories, legends, myths and rebellion, and to the service of narratives. I guess I got to join the club, after all, and while I’m here I suppose I have a few stories of my own I’d like to tell, and gratitude for the legends who told me theirs and gave me something to aspire to while they were at it. Here’s to Pat Metheny and to the legends: Let’s all have a listen to these beautiful recordings, and may we continue to strive to tell our stories as poetically as Pat did on these landmark albums.

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