Fusion, the musical meeting of rock and jazz, has never really lived up to its promise. Sure, it had its achievements: the monumental (if somewhat Wagnerian) first two albums by John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report's exquisite "I Sing the Body Electric," and some nice work by Jean-Luc Ponty and Tony Williams, to name a few. But all too often fusion has meant only the crudest encounter of the two genres: simple melodic heads and scale-ridden, "technically accomplished" guitar solos over simplistic funk bass lines and manic, show-offy drumming.
The extraordinary guitarist Pat Metheny has taken fusion in a far deeper and more interesting direction -- so deep, in fact, that the term is grossly insufficient to describe his music. Metheny blends a dazzling combination of elements: To a drop-dead post-bop jazz technique he adds a gift for soaring, Brazilian-tinged melodies and subtle, inventive rhythms, all presented with the dramatic flair and mastery of electronic tonalities of rock. Above all, he brings joy to his ceaseless musical explorations: Metheny is so guileless in his demeanor and fiery in his playing that he brings to mind a kid who woke up one day and discovered that he had been given the key to musical heaven. As one of the most popular improvising artists in the world, Metheny has introduced legions of rock fans to the joys of more complex music. Jazz could hardly have a better ambassador.
With his new CD "Quartet," one of the most adventurous works in his prolific career, Metheny explores new territory: the avant-garde suite, a thematically-linked series of starkly investigative improvisations that sound more like Aaron Copeland or Cecil Taylor than they do like Miles or Wes Montgomery. Metheny fans who put on "Quartet" expecting the exuberant melodies and catchy riffs that dominate albums like "First Circle," "Still Life: Talking" and "Letter From Home" may be bemused when they come to tracks seven through 11: these five sui generis compositions -- it makes as much sense to call them "classical" as "jazz" -- are the opposite of easy listening. But Metheny and Co.'s unflinching integrity and soft collective touch make them well worth an intense session with the headphones.
And for those not prepared for the trip, "Quartet" offers more accessible marvels, in musical styles to suit every taste. Metheny's range, as usual, is almost ridiculous. He plays in virtuoso modal post-bop style on "Take Me There," wails bluesy on the haunting, Wes Montgomery-esque "When We Were Free" (check out Lyle Mays' zero-to-80 chordal solo), sneaks mocking drone quarter-tones under a demented samba break on "Dismantling Utopia" (his angular, insinuating solo recalls John McLaughlin), and uses a guitar synthesizer to tell a soaring story on the prototypical, exultant Pat tune "Language of Time." Throw in assorted bizarre marches, Blood Ulmer weirdnesses and Chinese inflections, and you've got a CD as eclectic as anything Metheny has released.
"Quartet" is noteworthy not just for its daring tonal investigations, but for a new sophistication in its handling of ballads. If there was a weakness in Metheny's repertoire hitherto, it was his ballad writing; his slow tunes have tended to be overly simplistic, almost to the point of treacliness at times. No more: "Quartet" sounds like Metheny's been listening to a lot of Bill Evans. The ballads are pretty and complicated -- the free spirit has come around to the standards, and it pays off. It may not be quite in the league of Metheny's masterpieces, "Letter From Home" and "Still Life: Talking," but it's close. In its quietly audacious way, "Quartet" represents yet another step forward in the career of one of the most gifted of contemporary musicians.