You could purchase the bulk of what can be considered Pat Metheny’s classic early albums with a $20 bill.
Pat Metheny’s career can seem paradoxical. He’s won 20 Grammys, collaborated with what seems like every major post-‘70s jazz artist (including Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau and, most curiously, Ornette Coleman), commissioned custom instruments to be built and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single ticket to one of his concerts for under $50. Still, if you trawl your local record stores enough, you could purchase the bulk of what can be considered his classic early albums with a $20 bill.
While his first solo releases, Bright Size Life and Watercolors, already certified that his atmospheric approach to jazz was of a different breed, the albums released with the Pat Metheny Group are far from the classic sounds of jazz. Metheny was 25 when the group released American Garage, and his influences ring differently than the generation before him. Metheny and Lyle Mays (the keyboard player who co-wrote much of the album) were just as drawn to the sounds of Wes Montgomery and Thelonious Monk as they were The Beatles and prog, and their compositions reflected this.
There isn’t a single moment on American Garage that isn’t drowning in opulence. From the arpeggiated synthesizers that open the album to the triumphant final moments of the closer, a 13-minute suite called “The Epic,” everything is at a breaking point of ecstasy. This leads to some great moments, like the final minutes of the opener “(Cross the) Heartland,” where Metheny and his group set off on a fiery jam. But it also results in material like the opening of the title track” Atop a cheesy rock drum beat, Dan Gottlieb counts the band in like they’re an arena rock group, launching music that could have come from the soundtrack to a movie like Cheaper by the Dozen. Thankfully, “American Garage” develops into one of Metheny’s most driving compositions to date.
Looking past the songwriting gems, a big selling point is that Metheny has to be one of the most impressive guitarists of his time. As his brief solo in “American Garage” shows, he can play blindingly fast. Still, most of his improvisations consist of long melodies that form into cohesive phrases. The written-out tunes are catchy enough, but some of the material he whips up on the spot can be shockingly sticky. The sole ballad, “Airstream,” showcases this talent best. It has some of the flashiest playing on the album, but Metheny’s solo is melodious and silky. Its super-chill vibe would fall completely flat if the musicians were unable to sound so at ease and comfortable with their playing.
On first listen, American Garage can be fairly off-putting, especially to a 21st century sensibility. There’s not a wink of irony to be found, and the band’s earnest, grand intentions can be baffling. Still, the music holds up due to some of the group’s finest playing on record. While there are plenty of reasons that this overblown take on fusion has faded from the spotlight, I consistently find myself walking around humming the main theme from “(Cross the) Heartland.”
Metheny had better albums behind him and material that ranges widely in quality ahead of him. American Garage stands as a perfect distillation of what makes Metheny such a lovable musician: He’s drowning in talent and skill, but always approaches his music with nothing on his mind except having fun. Head to your local bargain bin and hunt for gems like this one, Offramp and New Chautauqua, but avoid his recent forays into computer-generated music like the plague.