With the Pat Metheny Group’s co-leader Lyle Mays’ sad and early passing last week, I’ve been reviewing their extraordinary catalog. Picking the best song (or album) is a fool’s errand as each record easily has at least two masterpieces on them.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Pat Metheny Group (PMG), describing and summarizing their work across four decades, thirteen albums, and ten Grammy awards is difficult. Commonly used terms like “Jazz” or the more adventurous “Brazillian flavored easy listening” are simply too broad, too narrow, or simply wrong.
The worst is when PMG is dumped onto the smoldering “smooth jazz” heap atop lightweights Kenny G and Dave Koz, to which they share little in terms of artistic integrity, ambition, or, for that matter, musical chops. PMG is the real deal and has more jazz group Grammys than nearly anyone to prove it.
“This is Not America” from the movie Falcon, and the Snowman (sung by David Bowie) and “Last Train Home” from Still Life Talking are their most played tracks according to Spotify. You might have heard them. Both are “nice” songs but hardly represent their broader catalog, which features far more adventurous compositions. I sincerely doubt either of those two tracks is any hardcore fan’s favorite.
Broadly the PMG catalog is eclectic and dense. Songs are often played in odd time signatures within unconventional song structures. If I were to describe PMG music, I would say it is harmonically complex, intricately orchestrated, and with many of their songs providing vehicles for long solo improvisations showcasing their individual players’ virtuosity. All this makes PMG extremely hard to play. In other words, also not for everyone.
But for those who do like live high-intensity jamming within the jazz idiom, PMG has proven to be a crowd favorite and one of the few jazz acts that easily fill 5K seats in most major cities across the USA (and even more in Europe and Japan). But, because knowing the difference between banal noodling and virtuosic soloing is not on every music fan’s list of capabilities, not everyone is up for a PMG show. Some fans get disappointed when “it doesn’t sound exactly like the record!”
For them are artists whose live performance really is the record. There are plenty of those in today’s pop.
Conveluting matters even further are the PMG’s wildly adventurous side, always there, that can leave even the most ardent fan shrugging their shoulders. Songs like “Forward March” from the album First Circle may be a brilliant demonstration of dissonance in jazz, but it’s unlistenable for me. And PMG makes a statement by really sticking it in your eye, making “March” the leadoff song to an otherwise strong album. Not the best marketing move.
But, therein lies the source of some of their appeal and may explain why they are so beloved. PMG has never been a band of sellouts. They seem to be a band intent on making music for themselves. If fans come along, great! If not, who cares? “We can go to bed feeling like artists who don’t compromise.”
The result of this “we’re popular enough to make money while not being commercially focused” has put them in a rare and enviable position that makes them polarizing amongst jazz players and fans alike. PMG has become the punch line to many bad jazz jokes, much like Steely Dan has become similar to Rock Roll.
To me, it’s all jealousy.
For me, Steely Dan is the best company to be in. They were a one-of-a-kind alignment of two extraordinary guys, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. And, despite lots of criticism through the years, their catalog today speaks for itself. It is brilliant.
The same can be said for Pat Matheny and Lyle Mays, who co-wrote much of the PMG catalog. There is no PMG without Lyle, just as there is no Steely Dan without Walter Becker.
RIP – Lyle. Thanks for all the great music. It enhanced my life and continues to make be a source of joy. When I hear Pat on “Third Wind” chromatically going up the neck with Lyle’s chordal support, I smile.
And Lyle, if you see Walter, maybe you guys can get a jump on some collaborative compositions? It won’t be heaven without PMG or Steely Dan.
Here is a playlist I made on Spotify with some of my personal PMG favorites.