Guitar Heroes

What was Pat Metheny thinking? He can be a maddening musician; a great guitarist who has had an influence on an entire generation and whose musical projects range from the challenging to the mundane. The same man who has put out a string of commercially successful, polished and anodyne world-pop-jazz-instrumental CDs has also made great small group recordings – Bright Size Life, Question And Answer, a phenomenal CD with Ornette Coleman, Song X, and more than held his own with Derek Bailey at The Knitting Factory on The Sign Of Four . At times his Pat Metheny Group CDs have transcended the horizons of fusion into deserved classic status, with cuts like “Phase Dance” and “The First Circle.” His latest release, Orchestrion , is a textbook example of that output, with broad landscapes of songs, touches of Brazil and the blues, electric guitars and synthesizers, lush orchestration and large-scale arrangements; a standard, expected Pat Metheny Group recording.

Which is the problem, and it’s an enormous problem. Along with the sound of the music, there is an overarching organizational principal and philosophical goal to the record. Metheny set out to do something brand new, and ended up, seemingly on purpose, producing the same old same old. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what he set out to do was to remake his band and the way the music is created and played by enlisting the expertise of innovative musical technologists like LEMUR to build a robot ensemble that would accompany him in real time. I’m all for the idea in concept, and having seen LEMUR’s work in practice, especially an amazing and important robot performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique, I was anticipating the release with excitement. But the results are such a failure in terms of philosophy and values that I am both disappointed and offended.

The music is not the problem, it’s generally fine, with lovely touches like Metheny’s trademark Midwestern blues ache on the coda of the title track (along with the standard Metheny cliché of the rising, languid Oberheim voice, prevalent throughout the disc), and the rousing and satisfying large scale architectural structure that he favors. There is a symphonic/Romantic quality that is very strong in his Pat Metheny Group music that sets his work apart from the mainstream of smooth-jazz/light-funk/tech-fusion. For laying down notes, the two consistent problems are a slightly muddy, overly compressed mix, and that fact that a robot is playing the drums. Computers are masters at dividing time into infinitesimally small, discrete units, but stitching those back together into rhythms is something that only humans have been able to do. Forget the Turing Test, when a computer can create a groove, then I’ll believe AI is possible.

Robots were just smarter then

But rhythm is just the symbol of the crushing awfulness at the heart of this project, which is that Metheny has replaced his human band with a robot band in order to do exactly what he’s always done. Now, if this was just a matter of saving money, like on Broadway, then he would be an ass for putting musicians out of work and going for an inferior, stiffer quality. But he’s not an ass, he’s a fool.

For Antheil, and especially Conlon Nancarrow, robotics were a means to do what could not normally be done. Antheil wanted to create an entirely mechanical music, in line with some of the Utopian aesthetic ideals of his era, while Nancarrow realized the music he wanted to make, a riotous combination of boogie-woogie and Bach, was far too physically difficult for a human to perform. They were each revolutionary, regardless of any measures of success or failure or pleasure. Metheny, meanwhile, is positively thrilled to realize a project that he had dreamed of since he was a kid, with the Tom Swiftian idea of “an instrument . . . capable of playing just about anything mechanically,” that is fundamentally the same as Antheil’s and Nancarrow’s, and instead uses it to play exactly what has been played all along. Without knowing the conceptual provenance, one would think this was no different than any other Pat Metheny Group recording, except for the lousy drummer. And that would be right. The aesthetic bankruptcy of the concept in practice eviscerates whatever truth the music may claim, and no matter the polished sound, the melodies, the emotionally manipulative structures, the record has the heart of the Tin Man, but without the charm and the hope.

As a YouTube commenter points out, “this is how Skynet began.”

There’s charm and heart to spare in Marc Ribot’s solo disc, Silent Movies . It sounds like a reflection upon what has already been a long, varied and incredibly fruitful career. There’s every kind of music Ribot has played, either as a leader of his own bands or supporting the likes of Tom Waits, John Zorn, Elvis Costello and James Carter, flowing through the disc. He’s a great artist of American vernacular music, adding a harmonic sophistication, sincere wit and irreverent skronk to jazz, rock, funk, punk, latin and country styles, and sounding completely idiomatic in each. And of course, there’s his improvising . . .

Silent Movies sounds like a suite of related short pieces, mostly for acoustic guitar. There is a graceful waltz, a quiet, quasi-flamenco ostinato, an elegiac ballad, an track that manipulates feedback in a wonderfully vocalized fashion. “Fat Man Blues” captures the goofy sophistication that is one of Ribot’s unique qualities. What he’s saying, the music he’s making, is immediate and intimate, and the close miking gives the feeling that he’s sharing a small, but comfortable, space with the listener. The music ambles through rooms of memories, relaxed but with emotional weight. The deliberately tinny sound of “Radio” is a microcosm of the disc; the playing is a take on Django’s gypsy jazz, the sound is of overhearing a segment of the past, our shared musical past and Ribot’s own personal path. The guitar is an ancient and almost universal instrument and Silent Movies, beneath it’s quiet and modest surface, stores an enormous collective memory of how people have made music across time and geography. Silent Movies stimulates these recesses of memory, explores the shared imagination of culture that comes from decades of movies, radio, records, books and nights spent in contemplation. It’s a beautiful record and has an expressive power and pull.

It’s most likely that one won’t accidentally stumble upon Music From Raritan River , by the Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo, but it’s worth seeking out. This is a quietly excellent recording, accomplished in every regard. It’s objective qualities are easy to list; excellent playing from guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman and guests the Daedalus Quartet, a wide range of good musical material and superb recorded sound. Those qualities, however, don’t begin to describe what a pleasure it is to listen to the CD.

Newman and Oltman are tremendously musical. It’s apparent in their taste in material, which begins with Dusan Bogdanovic’s (himself an excellent guitarist) “Sevdalinka,” for guitar duo and string quartet. The modestly exemplary quality of the piece is representative of the entire recording. Bogdanovic’s writing for the combination of strummed/plucked and bowed strings is so good that all one hears is the music, rather than the technically difficult matter of combing the forces and keeping them musically distinctive. The music combines Balkan folk music and rhythms with touches of jazz in the manner that Bartok made available to the West yet, although the sound is familiar, the piece sounds completely fresh and personal. The musicians play the phrases fluidly, completely comfortable in this hybrid idiom, and the music dances and passes conversations around in a social manner. It’s sophisticated and wears it’s style and manners lightly and naturally.

Those qualities are consistent throughout the recording. The most composed piece, in the sense of notational craft, is Lowell Lieberman’s “Nocturne Fantasy, Op. 69”, a superbly made work that grounds its flights of imagination in a bedrock cadence. It is dreamlike, improvisational, purposeful, with a musical logic that allows us to follow every twist and turn. Newman and Oltman play it beautifully, the music breathes like a living thing. Assured in the composer’s structure, we willingly let the musicians carry us along their wandering path. The CD is filled out with August Read Thomas’ brooding “memory:Swells” and three more pieces that capture how the guitar is used as a social/dance instrument around the world, Roberto Sierra’s “Three Hungarian Tributes,” Michael Karmon’s “Caught in the Headlights,” and “Three Songs for Twelve Strings,” a collaboration between Rami Vamos and Randall Avers. The duo play all these works with expression, musical sympathy and an ease in every idiom, even in moments of real pop and gypsy jazz music. Superficially a classical guitar recital, this is one of the most listenable and enjoyable guitar albums that’s come around in a while, and anyone who is a fan of the instrument will find lasting pleasure in it.

Nels Cline has his second release as a leader this year, Dirty Baby , a combination two CD recording and physical product in collaboration with producer David Breskin. More than just a recording, it’s a substantial, ambitious project based around responses to the work of the great Ed Ruscha, especially his “censor strip” paintings. Cline uses a medium size ensemble across the discs, heavy on guitars and percussion, with lighter textures from winds and violin on the second half. Ruscha himself is given credit on each “side” for “playing” his materials, including acrylic, oil, canvas and linen. It’s a conceit that would be profoundly stimulating if the combination of music and visual art worked, and uncomfortable if they didn’t. Unfortunately, seeing the artists name in the band credits is a little uncomfortable.

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“Little Snitches Like You End Up In Dumpsters All Across Town,” copyright Ed Ruscha

The music is not bad, and it will please fans of Cline and of a particular style of playing, but the project is not a success on its own terms. What Cline and Breskin are attempting is extremely difficult – it’s not a soundtrack, as they point out, but it’s an attempt to convey sounds that have some specific connection to the art, as some combination of accompaniment or response. Music is for the most part terrible at this, it can paint it’s own scenes as in the Beethoven “Pastorale” Symphony, but that works when the musicians can create their own images with their own means. Other than Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel I have heard no other music that tells me anything about the graphic images it uses as its organizing idea. A further difficulty is that the Ruscha series is mainly abstract, shapes organized in a framework and very close to Feldman’s graphic scores. Those compositions can be played with great clarity, sensitivity and sophistication, but the music on Dirty Baby is not fully committed to either representation or abstraction. It’s an ambiguous pastiche of, yes, the soundtrack/narrative styles created by John Zorn and Bill Frisell, conveyed with a seeming deliberate ambivalence. There will be fans of this recording, but it says too little, reveals too few deliberate ideas, for it to have as much power as the artwork that is its raison d’être.

Can’s achievement as a band would have been impossible without the great guitarist Michael Karoli. Subtlety is not a quality usually associated with rock, but Karoli’s quiet virtuosity can easily be missed in the incredible group sound. Yet his creative accompaniment, his chiming sound, his expressive understatement were integral to Can. And since Can were the band that more than any other brought rock out of a strictly pop conception and into one where the term art-rock has had validity and importance, Karoli was one of the most important guitarists of the 20th century.

There is now more Karoli and Can to enjoy, thanks to the continued Remastered Edition series of their music on the Mute/Spoon label, and the new disc, Delay 1968 is actually the oldest, a collection of songs laid down for a debut album that was never reissued. This is Can before they were Can, still working their way out of standard ideas of rock music, but almost at the point of early maturity that produced Monster Movie and the subsequent masterpieces. Any Can fan will want this CD and will enjoy it, but it’s far more than a curiosity, it’s an excellent record in its own right and a strong addition to the band’s discography.

The opening “Butterfly” is as regular a rock song as the band produced, hitting all the standard ideas of licks and backbeats, but with a pleasingly skewed sense of direction, as if instead of playing to the next chord, to get to the end of the chorus, they were already set to use the song as a platform to see where they, as a group, might wander to. Most of the rest of the CD is Can exploring that territory, the rock solid group playing under Malcolm Mooney’s lyric improvisations on “Little Star Of Bethlehem,” the proto-punk of “Nineteenth Century Man,” Karoli’s guitar cutting through the hypnotic soundscape of ”Thief.” The music is great, and there’s the fascinating edge in hearing where they have come from, Captain Beefheart is all over the disc, and where they are going to, the great band that made trance, ambient, world and post-punk rock before anyone had ever imagined such things.

And why it matters:

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