It’s not too likely that guitarist Pat Metheny and his group, who intelligently intermix elements of jazz, world music and pop/rock into many of their compositions, will have a hit single from their latest CD, The Way Up. It’s filled with variations and improvisations around one central theme and totals nearly 70 minutes. Without a doubt, smooth jazz programmers will be pulling out a lot of hair trying to extract radio-friendly tracks from it.
First and foremost, the recording is a serious work and requires several listens to fully discern the multiple compositional layers and levels of musician interaction. Yet it also embodies the sorts of appealing textures and rhythms generally associated with Metheny’s most commercial material. The guitarist says the album is a natural byproduct of the band’s ongoing evolution.
In the early years of the Pat Metheny Group, the music was predicated on “using the guitar in a textural and orchestral way, as well as the lead voice,” Metheny says. “Along the way, an electronic aspect of the band emerged. Later on, our use of percussion balanced it out, and finally we added voices. We always tried to do things that went someplace else compositionally through long forms, intros, interludes or tags. If you look at the band’s history from that perspective, it would be inevitable that we would be leading up to something like The Way Up. A single piece that lasts for the entire length of a CD had been on my list for 10 or 12 years now, and had been working its way to the top. It felt like this particular lineup, especially with the addition of drummer Antonio Sanchéz, was the one. We finally had all the pieces in place to kick everything up, not just a notch, but two or three.”
The composing and recording of The Way Up took well over a year. Metheny and longtime keyboardist and co-leader Lyle Mays spent six weeks just creating the framework for the piece and sketching in some of the details. Afterward, with about 15 minutes of music still left to write, the bandleader had hoped for a week to rehearse before starting the initial tracking. Instead, he got wrapped up in a worldwide trio tour with Sanchez and bassist Christian McBride. During those gigs’ breaks, he worked on The Way Up with fellow PMG bandmembers: bassist and co-leader Steve Rodby, trumpeter/vocalist Cuong Vu and new addition harmonica player Gregoire Maret. Bassist Richard Bona, who was on the previous PMG CD, contributed some vocal and percussion touches, as did percussionist Dave Samuels.
“Normally, we gear up for a recording period and stay in it; I don’t do anything else,” Metheny says. “I think we were so excited about the band and its development that we wanted to get right in there [after touring]. Unfortunately, I had already planned my post-Group activities with the trio, so I kind of got caught and had to juggle the two. But in fact, it was a good way to do it.” When everyone was able to get together for sessions at Right Track Studios in Manhattan, the days were long, concentrated and very focused. Through the years, Metheny, Rodby and Mays have formulated a well-organized method of working: Metheny and Mays do most of the composing, with Mays focusing extensively on the orchestrated parts and the bassist oversees all of the band’s parts, while also organizing the session’s recordings and being mindful of continuity.
Rob Eaton, who Metheny feels is the fourth spoke of the PMG creative circle, handled the disc’s engineering duties. A musician in his own right (he’s a member of noted Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra), Eaton has worked on most of Metheny’s albums since 1983. “All of Pat’s records are a challenge,” the engineer says from Tennessee, while on tour with DSO, “just in the sense of the music. There’s so much thought that goes into it that my job as engineer and mixer becomes extremely important. To a certain degree, the music fails if I don’t do my part well. This particular recording was one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had, especially trying to make it all work as one cohesive piece of music.”
As one might expect, Metheny’s group wasn’t tracked all at once for the entire 68-minute duration of The Way Up. Instead, due to everyone’s busy schedules — including Eaton’s — segments were recorded every couple of months. Right Track is the preferred studio for the guitarist and Eaton: They’ve worked on the last five PMG CDs there. Besides the studio’s prime location in Manhattan, “They have a Neve Capricorn digital console, which we have become quite fond of, especially for mixing,” Eaton says. “They’re very hard to find these days, and we’re not sure how much longer that one is actually going to be around because they stopped supporting it years ago. But for what we do, the sound and the power of the console — it’s really a phenomenal machine. It’s pretty warm and doesn’t sound like a digital board; that’s one of the things we really like about it.”
Eaton emphasizes that it was important to record the group as a whole during their times together at Right Track rather than piecemeal. “You really can’t get cohesive tracks without that [group interaction] happening,” he comments. “It’s part of the emotion of the music, even with Pat’s solos that happened during the session. It was very much based around getting the group sound and them all playing off each other. It all ties together in a way that you can’t create later.
“For this particular record, I used a variety of microphones, from ribbons to your basic cheap dynamic type,” he continues. “Antonio is a joy to record and makes my job very easy. I had a pair of Schoeps CMC5s on the overheads for his cymbals. That’s a big part of his sound and an important aspect of Pat’s music — the ride cymbal. It’s fairly unusual, but I used the Beyer M 160 for his snare drum, which gave me a lot of top end without pulling in much of the hi-hat. On the kick, I used a 47 FET. The tom-toms were a little trouble and I ended up going with an [AKG] 414A with a hypercardioid pattern. I also had an [AKG] 452 for the hi-hat and [Neumann] 47 tube above his head for ambience that I could blend in.”
For Mays’ acoustic piano, Eaton used a pair of Schoeps CMC5s up close and Neumann U47 tubes farther back for perspective. Rodby’s bass was captured by TLM 170s on the neck and body, along with a DI for filtering the top end. Vu had a Coles ribbon mic and Metheny used a Neumann KMS 105 for acoustic guitar and a DI for electric. Bona’s and Samuels’ parts and a number of guitar layers were overdubbed at Metheny’s home studio, which is based around Digital Performer and a Mac.
“We wanted plenty of textures as a prime element for the record,” Metheny notes, “and that kind of thing takes an enormous amount of time. But with today’s technology, I can play 50 guitars [in my home studio], not pay $300 an hour or bother anyone with my personal neuroses,” he says, laughing.
After many years of working on Sony digital multitracks, Eaton and Metheny have been recording to Pro Tools during the past few, though The Way Up marks only the second full project the team has completed on the system. Neve 1081 pre/EQ modules went directly into Pro Tools, bypassing the console altogether, and every step of the way, the duo was conscious of keeping the signal chain as clean as possible.
When it comes to mixing, Metheny is happy to let Eaton handle that often laborious task. “It’s a certain kind of skill most musicians don’t have,” the guitarist says. “Basically, we all want to hear our instrument louder than anyone else’s. You really need an objective arbiter, and we’re so lucky to have Rob. He knows us like nobody else, sonically.”
Eaton is quick to point out that he isn’t a jazz engineer and has worked with a variety of artists, including Eric Clapton, Marillion and Ricky Martin. He credits his long association with PMG to his understanding of all music types and to being a musician himself.
Among the tools he used for mixing The Way Up were a Lexicon 960 digital reverb, Eventide GTR4000 multi-effects processors, and some of the self-contained filters, EQ and effects built into the Capricorn. “I’d take the music and mix it to a place where I’m comfortable,” Eaton says. “Pat, usually on the back couch doing stuff on his computer, understands the process needed to get things to a certain place and would occasionally throw out a comment. Once I’m happy, we’d mix the songs to the point where we felt pretty good about them. That’s when we’d bring Lyle and Steve in. Then we have two fresh sets of ears that are very familiar with the music. They get to listen to it for the first time and take notes. Then we implement all those things into the mix and go from there. That’s invaluable to us, because after 10 or 12 hours of mixing, sometimes you can miss some things.”
Ultimately, Eaton, Rodby, Mays and Metheny are very happy with the finished project, especially because when they started out, they had no real way of knowing what they were creating until they put it together. Since then, the PMG has been refining the work nightly onstage. “It was a challenge to learn it, memorize it and be prepared to stand in front of a few thousand people and play it,” Metheny says. “The first night, all of us were pretty shaky. It’s sort of like learning a real hard John Coltrane tune — times 200. Yet it’s been a lot of fun to really learn the piece now that it’s all done and recorded. Believe it or not, it’s continuing to evolve. We’ve done 40 gigs here in the U.S. and still have another 60 to do internationally. I’m expecting it to blossom right up to the end.”