At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
As I write this, guitarist and composer Pat Metheny is in his mid-60s. Earlier this year he was honored as an NEA Jazz Master, racking up another accolade to put on the shelf next to his 20 Grammy Awards. It doesn’t feel strange to cite Metheny as one of our emergent jazz elders, though it might have seemed a little less obvious an outcome, to some, at an earlier point in his career.
Metheny plays a subtle but important role in Playing Changes. He’s a prominent figure in a chapter devoted to jazz education, because he was present at a crucial moment in the development of our modern pedagogical apparatus. He’s also a testimonial witness at times, notably in a chapter about Brad Mehldau, with whom he toured just over a decade ago. More implicit is the idea that Metheny’s aesthetic signature, which encompasses everything from post-bop to rock to Brazilian pop to minimalism, has resonated with generations of composer-improvisers under the broad and ever-shifting canopy of jazz.
For an impressively long time, that influence flowed through the prism of the Pat Metheny Group, his spectacular flagship with Lyle Mays on keyboards and Steve Rodby on bass, along with assorted other collaborators. The sound and sweep of this band has been a powerful force on the scene over the last 40 years; it’s impossible to imagine the Brian Blade Fellowship without it, to name one of many examples.
Because the 129 Essential Albums list begins with the year 2000, there are only two Pat Metheny Group releases that make the eligibility cutoff: Speaking of Now (2002) and The Way Up (2005). A whole bunch of other albums could have appeared instead. I love Metheny's trio work with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart, and harbor great affection for both his Orchestrion project and the various iterations of his Unity Band.
But it felt clear to me that The Way Up would be my choice, partly as a specific acknowledgment of the Pat Metheny Group and partly because the album, a nearly 70-minute suite, is so monumental an achievement. Reviewing it in JazzTimes, Thomas Conrad observed the album’s radical scaling-up of formal ambition; the PMG, he wrote, “has moved to a new level, rather like a short story writer who suddenly publishes a major epic novel.”
I’m in agreement with this assessment, and will add that the personnel on the album bring a fantastic intensity of focus to the effort. Along with Metheny, Mays and Rodby, the ensemble here features Antonio Sánchez on drums, Cuong Vu on trumpet and Grégoire Maret on harmonica.
To a man, every one of these musicians works heroically to disappear into the matrix of Metheny’s writing, especially on the suite’s half-hour-long overture, “Part One.” Melodic motifs emerge, flutter seductively for a moment and then whoosh away, only to recur much later in the going. Almost any one of these motifs could be the heart of a discrete, standalone song, but that isn’t Metheny’s intention here. He’s specifically thinking in sprawling terms, and you could no more extract one strand of the composition than you could isolate a single thread in a tapestry.
Conrad put it well in his review, so I’ll give him the last word here:
This long work is also remarkably successful in sustaining narrative interest, through multiplicities of subplots and myriad shifts of mood and tempo and texture. Passages of reflective lyricism escalate to keening crescendos, then the music falls away, to reconfigure itself and build again. This is music that demands many listenings.
I’ve given this music many listenings since its release 13 years ago. Revisiting it over the last week for the first time in a while, I’d say it holds up, and then some.