JAZZBO NOTES HIGHLY RECOMMENDED RECORDING
80/81 is the first record that hinted that Pat Metheny might be more than just a smooth jazz punk that composed insultingly poppy ditties like Phase Dance and Jaco.
Here, he’s surrounded with jazz heavyweights like saxophonists Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Metheny must have been wetting his pants with joy.
The first track, Two Folk Songs, is typical Metheny: open voiced strummed triads, simple melodies. However, the treatment is anything but simple. Apparently, Metheny encouraged Brecker to play outside lines and vocalizations on tenor over a major triad chord without a 7nth. The result is nothing less than shocking. Structurally, it’s possible to view this as simply Brecker playing free lines over a drone, but the context will make it sound to the average listener like Brecker is playing avant guarde lines over a folk rock ditty. It’s seriously weird, and it took me a long time to get used to it, but now I can kinda dig it. And I’ve got to give Metheny and Brecker props to try something so ballsy.
The title composition, 80/81, was something new for Metheny at that time. It’s obviously Ornette Coleman inspired, like many of the tunes on 80/81. The head is doubled by Metheny and Redman, leaving no chordal instrument. The solo sections are completely free. Metheny is up first. He riffs on the chords implied by the head, but soon enough he departs from that, building up incremental scalar patterns that he interrupts with singable lines to keep the listener feel like they’re grounded. Dewey Redman doesn’t alternate between scalar phrases and melodic lines. He pretty much keeps it all melodic, but much more loosely related to the implied harmonic content of the head than Metheny. Halfway through Redman’s solo, Metheny introduces a stuttering drone and then interpolates a brief chordal sequence behind Redman, adding texture, but not getting in Redman’s way or contradicting anything he’s doing. Meanwhile, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette maintain a propulsive and swinging bottom beneath them. Good tune.
The Bat is a very pretty ballad, again written by Metheny. On his solo, Metheny shows that his skills as a guitarist have been improving. Only a couple of times does his fumble his lines, reaching for a note and just missing it. He’s a little too fond of imitating a vocal style for my taste — too many glissandos — but I can deal with it. I’ve got to admit, I find Charlie Haden’s solo style on ballads a bit dull. He tries to find melodies in the chordal structure, but sticks to a purely scalar approach, rarely using intervals larger than a second.
Turnaround is a blues by Ornette Coleman, making Metheny’s obvious inspiration literal. Metheny has the balls to make it a trio, so he’s out there alone. It’s a sink or swim situation. Metheny acquits himself well, coming up with consistently inventive melodic inventions. DeJohnette is stellar on this track, goading Metheny along with strategic cymbal crashes. Metheny comes up with a technique here that I’ve never heard him do before, and which he pretty much retired after this date. It’s a combination of fingerpicking and scalar work which is pretty unique. At the end of the track, Metheny whoops in exultation, jazzed that he pulled it off. To be fair, he was probably also pretty excited by how beautifully he was supported by Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette.
Open is exactly what is sounds like — a free jazz workout by the band. It starts out with Metheny stuttering around one note, with DeJohnette working up a lather behind him. After Metheny has his say, DeJohnette soloes for awhile before Redman joins in. Then, in an unexpected development, Charlie Haden starts a furious 4/4 behind Redman. Very cool. Eventually, Redman falls away and Haden improvises freely, keeping the same 4/4 groove, concentrating on rhythmic intervallic phrases. Brecker comes in with short phrases which build on one another, then on cue, Metheny and Redman start playing slowly moving auxiliary lines that serve to increase the tension. Eventually, Metheny dominates, leading into a pre-composed theme by Metheny to end the track.
80/81 is the best of surprises. It would be a damned fine album coming from anyone, but from a pipsqueak like Metheny, who up to that point had only put out shallow, poppy, disposable pap, it was a miracle. It served notice that Metheny was becoming an excellent guitarist and was capable of composing solid tunes. Eventually, Metheny would become a worldclass guitarist, composer, and arranger, but for now, 80/81 showed that he couldn’t just be dismissed as a punk capable of selling records to an undiscriminating smooth jazz audience.