The Pat Metheny Group is a jazz group founded in 1977. The core members of the group are guitarist and bandleader Pat Metheny, composer, keyboardist and pianist Lyle Mays (who was part of the group’s inception in 1977), and bassist and producer Steve Rodby (joined in 1980). Other long-standing members include Paul Wertico, who was the drummer for 18 years.
Founder Pat Metheny first emerged on the jazz scene in the mid-1970s with a pair of solo albums: Bright Size Life released in 1976 - a trio album with virtuoso bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses, followed by Watercolors in 1977, featuring Eberhard Weber on bass, pianist Lyle Mays, and drummer Danny Gottlieb.
Despite the constant categorization of Metheny’s music as “fusion”, it was always his intention to create improvised music that had a greater emphasis on bringing out harmony than anything common to what was called “fusion” of the time. Pastorius, with whom Metheny struck up a friendship while the two toured in Joni Mitchell’s backing band during her transition from her earlier folk rock compositions to jazz, had at the same time explored melodic lines for his instrument within the melodies normally heard, rather than just providing a simple bass line with the drummer, revolutionizing the way the bass guitar was viewed by the musical establishment. The two friends would sit up late during the early 1970s and discuss the new possibilities their instruments held.
“At the same time, Jaco and I were both really on a mission to find a way to play and find a way to present our instruments in an improvisational environment that expressed our dissatisfaction with the status quo at the time.”
In 1977, bassist Mark Egan joined, with Mays, Metheny, and Gottlieb, and the first version of the Pat Metheny Group had been formed. Metheny’s follow-up album formalized the relationship, and featured several songs co-written with Mays; the album was released in 1978 as the self-titled Pat Metheny Group on the ECM label. The second group album, American Garage (1979), was a breakout hit, reaching Number One on the Billboard Jazz chart and crossing over onto the pop charts as well, largely on the strength of the up-tempo opening track “(Cross the) Heartland” which would become an early signature tune for the group. This first incarnation of the group included drummer Danny Gottleib and Mark Egan on bass guitar. The group built upon its success through lengthy tours in the USA and Europe. The early group featured a unique sound, particularly due to Metheny’s Gibson ES-175 guitar coupled to two digital delay units and Mays’ Oberheim synthesizer and Yamaha Organ. Even in this early state the band played in a wide range of styles from experimental to grassroots music. Later on, Metheny began working with the Roland GR300 guitar synthesizer and a Synclavier System, while Mays expanded his setup with a Prophet 5 synthesizer designed by Sequential Circuits, and later with many other synthesizers.
From 1982 to 1985 the Pat Metheny Group released Offramp in 1982, a live album, Travels in 1983, and First Circle in 1984. Travels won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance in 1984. The Falcon and the Snowman followed in 1985; a soundtrack album for the film of the same name. The latter featured the song “This Is Not America”, a collaboration with David Bowie which reached Number Fourteen in the British Top 40 in early 1985 and Number 32 in the USA.
Offramp marked the first recorded appearance of bassist Steve Rodby in the group (replacing Mark Egan), and also featured Brazilian “guest artist” Nana Vasconcelos, who had appeared on the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. His work on percussions and wordless vocals marked the first addition of Latin-South American music shadings to the Group’s sound. Offramp was also the group’s first recording to win a Grammy Award, marking the start of more-or-less unbroken series of wins for the group, up to and including their latest release The Way Up, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. The South American influence would continue and intensify on First Circle with the addition of Argentine multi-instrumentalist Pedro Aznar. First Circle also marked the group debut of drummer Paul Wertico (replacing Danny Gottlieb). This period saw the commercial popularity of the band increase, especially thanks to the live recording Travels. First Circle would also be Metheny’s last project with the ECM label; Metheny had been a key artist for ECM but left over conceptual disagreements with label founder Manfred Eicher.
The next three Pat Metheny Group releases would be based around a further intensification of the Brazilian rhythms first heard in the early ‘80s. Additional South American musicians appear as guests, notably Brazilian percussion player Armando Marcal. Still Life (Talking), (1987) was the Group’s first release on new label, Geffen Records, and featured several tracks which have long been popular with the group’s followers, and which are still in their set list. In particular, the album’s first tune, “Minuano (Six Eight)”, represents a good example of the Pat Metheny Group’s compositional style from this period - the track starts with a haunting minor section from Mays, lifts off in a typical Methenian jubilant major melody, leading to a Maysian metric and harmonically-modulated interlude, creating suspense which is finally resolved in the Methenian major theme. Another popular highlight was “Last Train Home”, a rhythmically relentless piece evoking the American Midwest. The 1989 release Letter from Home continued this approach, with the South American influence becoming even more prevalent in its bossa nova and samba rhythms.
Metheny again delved into adventurous solo and band projects, and four years went by before the release of the next record for the next Pat Metheny Group. This was a live set recorded in Europe entitled The Road to You, and it featured tracks from the two Geffen studio albums alongside new tunes. By this stage, the group had integrated new instrumentation and technologies into its sound, including Mays’ addition of midi-controlled synthesized sounds to acoustic piano solos, accomplished via a pedal control.
Mays and Metheny refer to the following three Pat Metheny Group releases as the triptych: We Live Here in 1995, Quartet, 1996, and Imaginary Day in 1997. Moving away from the Latin style which had dominated the releases of the previous decade, these albums were the most wide-ranging and least commercial Group releases, including experimentations with hip-hop drum loops, free-form improvisation on acoustic instruments, and symphonic signatures, blues and sonata schemes.
After another hiatus, the Pat Metheny Group re-emerged in 2002 with the release Speaking of Now, marking another change in direction through the addition of younger musicians. Joining the core players (Metheny, Mays and Rodby), were drummer Antonio Sanchez from Mexico City, Vietnamese trumpet player Cuong Vu and bassist, vocalist, guitarist, and percussionist Richard Bona from Cameroon.
Following the group’s 2003 tour, Bona left to concentrate on his solo career, but appeared as one of two guest artists (the other being mallet cymbalist Dave Samuels) on the group’s latest release, 2005’s The Way Up, together with a new group member - Swiss-American harmonica player Gregoire Maret. The Way Up is a large-scale concept record which consists of a single 68-minute-long piece (split into four sections only for CD navigation). Metheny has said that one of the inspirations for the labyrinthine piece was a reaction against a perceived trend for music requiring a short attention span and which lacks nuance and detail. Many of the textures in The Way Up are created from interlocking guitar lines - Steve Reich is credited on the CD as an inspiration, along with Eberhard Weber, and there are large open sections for solo improvisation and group interplay. On the group’s 2005 tour (when its lineup was supplemented by Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Nando Lauria), The Way Up was played in its entirety as the first half of the concert. The final performance of the piece was at a free show for more than a hundred thousand people at the close of the 2005 Montreal Jazz Festival.
The Way Up was released through Nonesuch Records. It is planned that all of Metheny’s Geffen and Warner Bros. Records albums are to be re-released on the label.