Fusion Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: Pat Metheny Group “Imaginary Day Live”

This continues the topic from my previous post — the merits of concert DVDs.  Here is another excellent one to consider:  Pat Metheny Group’s Imaginary Day Live.

Some would say that the Pat Metheny Group doesn’t abide really comfortably under the typical fusion label and I would tend to agree, in the sense that it is not music along the lines of, say, Allan Holdsworth or Jan Hammer.  The standard definition of fusion is that it is a combination of jazz and rock.  And under that broad umbrella, you could include the Metheny Group, though it has always been heavily tipped toward the jazz side of the scale — and even folk and classical.  It’s not easy to categorize a group that, from the very beginning, has produced a sound unlike that of anyone else.  Driven by Pat Metheny’s iconic guitar, they have created a niche all their own.  I’ll bet you can still remember the first time you heard Phase Dance.  You immediately knew you were listening to something distinctive, fresh, and original.  And even after 30 years of continued musical evolution and innovation, you can tell that Phase Dance shares musical DNA with The Way Up.   

I would categorize their music as Latin-Beat, World-Jazz, New-Chautauqua Prairie Fusion.  But that’s just me.  Regardless of what you call it, the music of the Pat Metheny Group remains a unique pleasure, one that fans all over the world enjoy.

And many have enjoyed it through seeing the group perform live.  In their first 20 years, they toured as relentlessly as any band in the world, carrying the banner of latin-beat-world-jazz-new-chautauqua-prairie-fusion to venues ranging from small jazz clubs to big stadiums.  I remember seeing them at the UC Berkeley Greek Theater in the 80s  — sitting on the sloping lawn overlooking the theater on a balmy summer evening with this marvelous music rising into the night…  It was a magical event, one of my favorite musical memories  — an experience affirmed by tens of thousands around the globe who have had the good fortune to see them live.

And now you can enjoy one of those evenings yourself without having to go anywhere.

Imaginary Day Live

 In 1998, the group was about a year into a tour in support of their new album, Imaginary Day, and in July they arrived at the Mountain Winery, an impressive outdoor venue high on a hill in Saratoga, California.  They were playing a lot of new music that Metheny and his long-time collaborator, keyboardist Lyle Mays, had composed for the album and, after a year of touring all over the world, honing their performance of the music and the artistic and technical teamwork of the group, everything came together at that event to produce one of their finest live concerts.  Fortunately, the group’s bass player, Steve Rodby, created a film of the concert and the evening has been preserved for those of us who were not fortunate enough to be part of the audience that night.  The result was the conert DVD Imaginary Day Live.

I don’t have a lot to say about what is presented on this DVD.  It is superlative.  By this time, Metheny and Mays were not just composing songs, they were composing mini-suites and calling them songs, and the group’s amazing facility was up to the complex demands of performing and improvising on them.  Some of the tunes on this DVD are epic musical journeys unto themselves.  The musicianship of everyone in the group is outstanding — at times, if you close your eyes, you would swear that you are listening to a symphony orchestra rather than 7 people — and the solos on the part of Metheny and Mays are moving, remarkable, and invite multiple listenings (I’ve long thought that Lyle Mays does not receive his proper due as a pianist; he combines expressiveness with formidable chops).  Individually, Metheny and Mays are excellent composers, together they are one of the finest composing teams of the last 30 years.  Their creativity has so far proven inexhaustible.

Here is a video excerpt from Imaginary Day Live.  This is Follow Me, a Metheny/Mays composition that begins with delicate guitar harmonics, works its way into a wail, and then — stops.  It was nominated for the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance:

 

 

 To me, Follow Me is a lyrical, straight-ahead fusion tune — it is nowhere near the most ambitious song on this set.  It’s right at the beginning of the concert and the group is just getting themselves — and the audience — warmed up.  They gradually work their way into some stunning stuff…

One thing that has remained constant throughout the varied configurations of the Pat Metheny Group is that they have always had good drummers (which makes sense, considering that one of Pat’s chief inspirations to take up jazz was hearing drummer Tony Williams play with Miles Davis), and the group has always emphasized both the precision and shimmering sonic color of cymbals, along with the rhythms to showcase them.  This is quite evident in the following song, Heat of the Day, and here the group (with drummer Paul Wertico) is letting it all hang out:

 

 

 The Roots of Coincidence is probably the most stunning composition on this DVD; it is grand, disturbing, wild, and beautiful — and I’m not going to include an excerpt here.  This medium can’t do it justice.  You’ll just have to get the DVD and play it on your good surround sound system at home, or listen over excellent headphones.  It’s definitely on the rockish side of things; there’s even a head-banging aspect to it.  (The piece puts me in mind of that celebration scene that takes place in Zion in The Matrix Reloaded, if you could translate that into pure audio:  the freedom to connect.  It’s more evocative than the movie’s score (and was composed a couple of years beforehand).  It’s music that guesses at future potentialities.)

Instead of The Roots of Coincidence, here’s something completely different:  Pat and Lyle’s quietly evocative performance of September Fifteenth, which they co-wrote in honor of pianist Bill Evans, who died on September 15, 1980:

 

 

The music on this DVD is quite varied, and the camera work and editing work well with the ambiance of the performance.  There are 10 songs in all, plus an interview with Pat on the Imaginary Day project.  The audio options are PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS Digital Surround Sound.  It is well worth owning, not only for Metheny fans, but for anyone who appreciates heartfelt, engaging, multifaceted, memorable music.  Imaginary Day won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance.

You can get Imaginary Day Live by clicking any of these links:  CD Universe, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Buy.com.   It’s not expensive.

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