Pat Metheny, “America Undefined”
The wheels never stop turning for Pat Metheny. While keeping up a global tour regimen unsurpassed by any jazz musician, this guitarist-composer is also constantly developing new ideas — in terms of concept and execution, instrumentation and color. All of which factors into his new album, From This Place, which Nonesuch will release on Feb. 21.
The album builds on the core of a well-traveled band, with Metheny on guitars and keyboards, Gwilym Simcock on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. But it also features the Hollywood Studio Symphony — in orchestrations by Alan Broadbent and Gil Goldstein that run more billowy than bombastic, with an American character that reflects the Metheny sound-world. That’s certainly the case with its overture.
“America Undefined” stretches to more than 13 minutes, with enough of an episodic feeling to suggest a mini-suite. Its melody appears at the outset, first via Oh’s arco bass line and then in Metheny’s hands. There’s a lot of detail to absorb here, in the countermelodies assigned to bass and piano, and in the way Sanchez pilots the tempo like a skiff in choppy waters. Simcock’s solo is a brisk and silvery thing, and then Metheny steps in with a statement at once expressive and measured.
The orchestral arrangement on the track is by Goldstein, and for the most part it’s extremely subtle, operating as an intensifier. (Serving much the same purpose, impeccably, is percussionist Luis Conte.) The piece seems to wind down around 8:00, but Metheny has other designs: its last five minutes nudge into more cinematic territory, complete with sound effects.
There’s a likely metaphor in the track’s locomotive motif — the clang of crossing bells, the huff and chug of the engine — but Metheny doesn’t spell it out. Just as the piece’s title feels intended as a conversation starter, its musical details set a course for the journey ahead.
Ben Williams, “If You Hear Me”
Among the many distinguished Pat Metheny associates, past and present, is bassist Ben Williams, who just announced his third album, I Am A Man. As you can probably infer, it’s a sociopolitical statement, rooted both in the historic civil rights movement and in its continuing struggle today. (Cornetist Ron Miles has a recent album by the same title, a slogan from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.)
Williams not only composed the songs on the album; he also wrote lyrics, for guests including Kendra Foster and Muhsinah. On the lead single, “If You Hear Me,” he smoothly handles lead vocals himself.
Williams also plays electric bass on the track, of course, and wrote the arrangement for string quartet. He’s joined by a heavy group of peers, including Kris Bowers on piano and keyboards, Anne Drummond on flute and Jamire Williams on drums. The short-but-sweet trumpet solo, starting just before 3:00, is by Keyon Harrold; the tenor saxophone solo, from 5:40 into the fade out, is by Marcus Strickland.
I Am A Man will be released on Rainbow Blonde Records on Feb. 7.
Marta Sanchez, “El Cambio”
Spanish pianist Marta Sanchez has shown steady evolution as a small-group composer and bandleader over the last several years — and El Rayo de Luz, her new album, holds to that trend. Due out on Fresh Sound New Talent this Friday, it’s a sophisticated outing that capitalizes on a two-saxophone frontline, and on the considerable talents of those saxophonists, Chris Cheek and Román Filiú.
“El Cambio,” which has its premiere here, is a case in point, with a melody scored in such a way that Filiú and Cheek both sound as if they’re playing on their tiptoes. The song has a deceptively simple rhythmic cadence, expertly handled by bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Daniel Dor, with Sanchez providing choice chordal accents. Her piano solo begins around 3:30 and accrues momentum as it goes: the picture of composerly self-assurance.
Avram Fefer Quartet, “Testament”
Testament, the new album by saxophonist Avram Fefer, could reasonably be pegged as an avant-garde all-star project. Along with Fefer, it features guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor — improvisers adept at turning any digression into an epic. But the resulting musical summit doesn’t feel like a collision of forces (or egos) so much as a melding of voices (and minds).
The album’s title track bears a dedication to Ornette Coleman, whose spirit lurks therein (alongside that of another incantatory phantom, Albert Ayler). There’s molten fire in Fefer’s delivery, though even he can’t outshine Ribot in this mode; the guitar solo on the track is an instant classic of its kind, before a terrific bass-and-drums bramble that leads back to the theme.
The Avram Fefer Quartet — with Luke Stewart subbing in on bass — will perform at the Zinc Bar on Nov. 26.
Julia Hülsmann Quartet, “This Is Not America”
We opened this Take Five with a Pat Metheny composition that invokes America in the title, to troubled effect. We’ll close the same way, via German pianist Julia Hülsmann, who covers “This Is Not America” on her ECM release Not Far From Here.
“This Is Not America” was composed by Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie, for the 1985 spy thriller The Falcon and the Snowman. The song has recently come back into active circulation — Camila Meza sings it on her 2019 album Ámbar — both as a grace note for Bowie and a comment on our current political state. Hülsmann’s arrangement assigns the melody to her bassist, Marc Muellbauer, before setting the stage for an impassioned tenor saxophone solo by Uli Kempendorff. The song follows an arc from mournful stoicism to uncorked fury, which feels about right.