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Pat Metheny - Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home CD (album) cover


Pat Metheny


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.31 | 85 ratings

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3 stars The more I hear of Pat Metheny the less sure I am of what kind of artist he is. I realize that I'm catching up with most of his albums decades after they were released and, therefore, they're bound to be dated to some extent but I still have to call 'em as I see 'em and they tend to run the gamut from intriguing to insomnia-curing. My earliest exposure to his aural art came in the form of his partnership with keyboard wiz Lyle Mays that culminated in 1981's exciting "As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls" album. By contrast, his namesake group's '84 offering, "First Circle," is as boring as watching paint dry while the very jazzy "80/81" record is so complex at times that it makes my head spin. So who is Pat Metheny? After listening to "Letter from Home" several times I still have no definitive answer to that question. Let me make this clear, though. Just because I don't cotton to everything he produces doesn't mean he's not an extremely talented musician. He's a monster guitarist. Period. The bottom line is what emotions his music elicits in the listener and I can only speak for myself in that regard.

The disc opens with "Have You Heard." Pat and his merry men had been dabbling heavily in South American flavors for years so it's no surprise that a lively Latin aura surrounds this song, setting the tone for what's to come. Metheny zips all over his fretboard as if to flash his impressive credentials up front and then Lyle Mays injects hot pizzazz into the final section. It's a great way to start an album. "Every Summer Night" is next and it's a light jazz tune that alternates between 4/4 and 6/4 time signatures seamlessly. It sports a very elegant atmosphere but it's also quite predictable. If not for the outstanding solos by Pat and Lyle it would've been branded as mall muzak. "Better Days Ahead" is contemporary, Sergio Mendes-styled Brazilian fare that passes without making any impression on me at all. "Spring Ain't Here" follows, a moody number they dedicated to Stanley Turrentine. It's a very subtle piece of music and they keep it low key for the full seven minutes. I'm beginning to think that Metheny's association with Mr. Mays is the best thing that ever happened to him because the stuff I like most is the stuff Lyle either wrote or helped to write. "45/8" is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it glimpse of festive Rio that's over in less than a minute whereas "5-5-7" takes a little more time to unfold. Mays' synthesized whistle effect gives this relaxing song a breezy vibe. Pat's guitar ride is smooth as silk but the track morphs into something much more fascinating when Lyle takes over and changes it into a flowing fantasy of musical colorings. He is truly the progressive thinker of the bunch and he makes a huge difference.

An up-tempo Bossa Nova pulse drives the perky "Beat 70" relentlessly. The piece features a clever accordion melody that gives it a unique aspect but it's the fluid piano and guitar leads that I find most gratifying about it. Percussionist Pedro Aznan adds spice to almost every cut while also serving duty as the band's part-time vocalist. "Dream of the Return" is a lovely ballad that he contributed Spanish lyrics to and, while it's romantic and all, it's a tad too mushy for my tastes. Perhaps if I was in seduction mode it would come in handy but those days are long gone nowadays and it just makes me sleepy. Speaking of Lyle Mays, however, his "Are We There Yet" is the finest tune on the record. It has a funky but wonderfully quirky and complicated melodic foundation that not only captures but steadfastly holds your attention from beginning to end. Mays' synth solo is scintillating before he gracefully transforms the piece into an ethereal soundscape that's as deep as the trenches of the Pacific Ocean. It's hypnotic and well worth the price of admission. Aznan's "Vidalia" follows. Its mysterious intro leads to his lonesome singing over a semi-tribal drum pattern that is reminiscent of what Peter Gabriel was investigating in that era. It's all a bit strange here and there but I do like its sense of adventure and the group's collective courage to go where it leads them. "Slip Away" adopts a peppy pace that's semi-inviting but the song's glossy veneer is too slick for me. I know what they're doing isn't child's play but I always hope to be surprised by something that pops up along the way. Unfortunately, nothing does on this one. Glad to report that they end on a classy note. "Letter from Home" is a gorgeous, soothing piano piece that Lyle presents with quiet but powerful passion.

This album ended up winning the Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance at the 1990 awards ceremony, the same trophy the Pat Metheny Group had garnered for each of their three previous discs, so it's obviously held in high esteem by many who know a lot more about jazz fusion than I do. All I can tell you is that it is immensely better than the dull-as-dirt "First Circle" and has moments of greatness to savor if you are patient. Some of it is overly tame yet it never stoops to patronization. South American-tinted jazz can grow tiresome for those who like to be pleasantly shocked from time to time but the band tosses in just enough imaginative detours to keep it from slipping into Exotica territory. 2.7 stars

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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