Pat Metheny Group – Travels – ECM Records 

by | Jul 18, 2018 | Jazz CD Reviews

ECM reissues a brilliant Pat Metheny live concert album on vinyl.

Pat Metheny Group – Travels – ECM Records ECM 1252/53 (1983/2018) 180-gram stereo double vinyl (distr. by Universal Music Group), 96:28 ****1/2:

(Pat Metheny – guitar, guitar synthesizer; Lyle Mays – piano, synthesizer, organ, autoharp, synclavier; Steve Rodby – acoustic bass, electric bass, bass synthesizer; Dan Gottlieb – drums; Nana Vasconcelos – percussion, voice, berimbau)

Jazz takes on another dimension when it is played live. The Pat Metheny Group released Travels in 1983. It was the group’s first live album and won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance. Travels climbed to #3 on the jazz charts and cracked the top 100 in pop. Recorded in Philadelphia, Hartford, Sacramento and Nacogdoches, the setlist  is comprised of previously released and unreleased material. The tour was in support of the studio album Offramp and featured Metheny (guitar, guitar synthesizer) Lyle Mays (piano, organ, synclavier, synthesizers), Steve Rodby (bass, bass synthesizer), Dan Gottlieb (drums) and special guest Nana Vasconcelos (percussion, voice). ECM has reissued Travels on 180-gram double vinyl album.

As the group initiates the familiar pulse-driven rhythm of “Are You Going With Me?”, the crowd erupts with applause. The low-key pulse refrain draws the listener into a hypnotic groove. On the first solo, Mays executes a note-bending performance on synclavier that has the aesthetic tonality of a harmonica. Metheny handles the 2nd solo in a mind-blowing synthesized colossus of sound. The musical intensity swells to an orchestral texture and volume. There is a modulated chord change, and a big “live” finish. PMG  continues the Brazilian vibes with “The Fields, The Sky”. This never-recorded song features the signature, melodic Metheny lead with more discernible atmospheric nuance. A slight waltz-time shift and the Pat/Lyle instrumental cohesion are intriguing and accessible. What feels unique to this group, is the ability to create internal cohesion with percussive instrumentals (fierce strumming on guitar) and “wide open spaces” (ethereal keyboards and guitar effects). Special guest Nana Vasconcelos adds vocalese to “Goodbye”, but the understated lower-volume singing does not rise in the mix.

The band steps up on “Phase Dance”. Recorded on the auspicious 1978 ECM debut Pat Metheny Group, this track epitomizes the core of the Metheny and Mays collaboration. Infused with a tight Latin jazz rock cadence, the fluid guitar lead (with subtle rhythm punctuations by the band) is awash in prominent flourishes and articulated by precise fingering. Mays (who is always so effective with his synth accents) answers with a delicate solo on piano, but with bluesy attitude. Metheny returns to the lead before the show-stopping climax. “Straight On Red” (another song originating on Travels) is a crowd-pleaser with a propulsive drumming intro. There is a transition to some airy synth and guitar improvisation. Then Mays rips on an extended, percolating run (on piano) that is complex with agile right hand notation. It is memorable. On another “new” song (“Farmer’s Trust”), Metheny immerses himself in an elegiac ode to Americana. With minimal percussion, this lovely meditation is a staple of PMG live shows.

“Extradition” (one of several Metheny/Mays co-writes) opens with synthesized guitar, syncopated time and a gentle piano in the background. Metheny pushes the tonality and Mays’ synclavier adds winsome resonance. In a rare solo effort “Goin’ Ahead” is a breathtaking performance (as it was on the 80/81 ECM album) of guitar technique. Metheny explores the emotional sentiment of the ballad, while keeping a single note bass pulse driving the song. This composition and its musical inflections would be an integral part of the guitarist’s future projects. Amazingly, the group (with some cymbals and voice electronics) shifts effortlessly into the epic fusion suite, “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”. This cut opened the same-titled 1981 ECM release, and took up a full side. The abstract, unconventional Metheny/Mays number represents the zenith of their successful partnership. Even with ambient surroundings of synthesized music, the melodic coherence is palpable. A warmer middle section leads into one of several Mays’ “floating” synthesizer riffs. Like Pink Floyd, they use highly proficient engineering (Jan Erik Kongshaug) that provides structure to unusual electronic instrumentation. Mays’ interlude church organ is like a hymnal, and Metheny closes the deal with a denser, rock-like guitar.

Side IV begins with the title track. In a different arrangement, Pat executes soulful hooks with Mays harmonizing on piano. The band joins in softly, as Metheny creates a slow-dance framework with his agile, succinct runs. “Song For Bilboa” (a PMG encore specialty) kicks off with a hard-driving tempo and piercing guitar synth (Turn this one up!). There are jazzy chord changes and a long, spirited solo by Mays on piano that has a variety of swirling dynamics, trilling and crashing chords. It seems to bridge traditional jazz forms (like hard bop) with global, technological-based jazz. Metheny’s “big sound” distorted guitar is a nice counter to the acoustic piano. The finale, “San Lorenzo” (from Pat Metheny Group) is joyful and melodically exotic. Steve Rodby’s double bass is supple and Metheny mixes loud echo with hushed notation. There is a slow-burning groove with rhythm upticks. Mays has perhaps his best solo with inspirational crescendos, a Bill Evans reverie and a gospel-inflected finish.

Travels is a near-perfect match between an artist and label. This 180-gram vinyl is compelling. The pristine engineering reflects the meticulous arrangements. All of the raw unfiltered acoustics of a live performance are captured, but so is the expanded layered sound. Small details like a faint cymbal or double bass are not buried in the mix. The synthesized sounds do not have a lot of distortion and Metheny’s guitar simply glows.

Kudos to ECM for reissuing 180-gram vinyl jazz at competitive pricing. (most single LPs cost about $20, and double LPs  start around $25 ).

Side I: Are You Going With Me?; The Fields, The Sky; Goodbye
Side II: Phase Dance; Straight On Red; Farmer’s Trust
Side III: Extradition; Goin’ Ahead; As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls
Side IV: Travels; Song For Bilbao; San Lorenzo

—Robbie Gerson

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