In a career spanning 45 years, Pat Metheny has released more than four dozen albums. In the process he has won 20 Grammy awards across 10 different categories – an unequalled accomplishment. From This Place, which was released on February 21, shows that Metheny has no intention of slowing down.
The album features his current touring band, which is something of an international affair. Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez has been a mainstay of Metheny’s various ensembles for more than 18 years now. You might have heard his playing on the soundtrack to the film Birdman. The quartet is rounded out by two newer collaborators in Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock and Malaysian-Australian bassist Linda May Han Oh. To say this is an accomplished unit is an understatement, as anyone who caught their recent Australian tour will attest. These guys can seriously play – with inventiveness and creativity to match their impressive chops.
When he walked into New York’s Avatar Studio, Metheny had 16 new compositions under his arm. Ten of those pieces made their way onto From This Place, leaving the enticing prospect that there may be more music from these sessions yet to come.
Having recorded the quartet tracks, Metheny then enlisted the services of two of the best arrangers in the business, Gil Goldstein and Alan Broadbent, to add orchestral arrangements to the quartet. Five tracks were assigned to Goldstein and four to Broadbent, while Metheny wrote one of the orchestral arrangements himself. This is not Metheny’s first time working with an orchestra, having composed orchestral parts as far back as his score for the 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman. The 46-piece Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra was recorded at the Sony Scoring Stage in Los Angeles. For the most part, the orchestra is there to support the quartet, with the strings and winds mostly relegated to the background texture. The orchestra adds a variety of timbral colours to the texture without ever overwhelming or detracting from the quartet performances.
It’s interesting to compare the different styles of the arrangers. Goldstein’s writing is more textural, adding subtle shades and colours to the ensemble. Broadbent’s arrangements are more cinematic, with lush strings and a more melodic voice. These different approaches complement each other well. It was a good decision to divide the tracks up between the arrangers. Metheny’s own arranging talents are heard on “Everything Explained” which, with its strummed guitar introduction and ensemble handclaps, has something of a flamenco vibe.
Interestingly, there appears to be an error in the liner notes. Goldstein is credited with writing the orchestral arrangement to “Change the Sky”, but there is no song by that name on the track listing. I suspect that “Change the Sky” was the original working title for the second half of the opening number “America Undefined”, as there is no arranger credit assigned to that track. At the 8 minute mark of “America Undefined” the music changes gear and the orchestra becomes much more prominent. I wonder if this 13 and a half minute epic was originally two separate pieces which were joined in the studio – with someone neglecting to update the album credits.
At four and a half minutes, the title track “From This Place” is both the shortest song on the album, and the only one to feature guest vocalist Meshell Ndegocello. The lyrics are by Ndegocello’s partner Alison Riley and Ndegocello is multitracked to sound like two singers, effectively performing a duet with herself. Presented in a gentle rubato the performance is soft and delicate, the strings gently supporting a performance that feels like it could blow away with the slightest breeze. The other guests are Cuban percussionist Luis Conte and Swiss harmonica maverick Gregoire Maret, both of whom contribute to the lovely jazz waltz “The Past In Us”, elevating it to one of the standout tracks of the album.
Throughout From This Place, however, the real stars are players in the quartet. Simcock contributes a bunch of outstanding solos. Oh’s contributions are melodic and presented with a beautiful tone and accurate intonation. Sánchez is one of those drummers who approaches the kit as an orchestra unto itself, and is endlessly inventive. Metheny himself is playing better than ever before. He adds to the timbral diversity with the tones of his archtop jazz guitar, nylon string acoustic, guitar synth, and even a touch of electric sitar.
At 76 minutes length, there’s a lot to savour on this album, and it rewards repeated listening. In a career which has had many high points, From this Place could be a contender for Pat Metheny’s crowning achievement. It’s that good.