Sharps & Flats

On "Trio 99>00," Pat Metheny's stipped-down outfit rips and soars above off-the-metronome grooves.

Published February 7, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Pat Metheny first came to Beantown in 1973, hundreds of local guitarists seriously considered a career change. The story, now part of jazz mythology, went something like this: A goofy, longhaired teenager went up to Gary Burton before a performance during the vibraphonist's residency at a summer jazz camp and asked if he could sit in. Apparently the kid was persistent and the adults let him play.

The big guys were blown away. The whiz kid knew their complicated modern tunes and played the shit out of all of them. Burton promptly arranged to have Metheny come to Boston that fall as a visiting guitar teacher at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Soon after, he became the fifth member of the Gary Burton Quintet and, since the release of his first recording as a leader in 1976, has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed jazz musicians of his time.

For his 26th outing as a leader, Metheny has once again taken a break from his regular gig -- the more commercial Pat Metheny Group -- and returned to the intimate, challenging trio setting of his maiden voyage.

Recorded immediately after a summer tour with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart, "Trio 99>00" presents a deeply satisfying, diverse program of new and revamped originals, plus a few intriguing covers. While the majority of numbers on "Trio" rip and soar above moderate to off-the-metronome swing grooves, three tracks feature Metheny's exquisite acoustic guitar work on pieces that evoke the plaintive folk-jazz of his duet album with bass giant Charlie Haden, "Beyond the Missouri Sky" (1997).

Two of these, the new "Just Like the Day" and the older "Travels" (co-written with his longtime partner, keyboardist Lyle Mays) are beautiful and delicate beyond measure. Evoking a fragile, tender longing -- perhaps for a lover, a place, a reconnection with something precious within -- these quiet songs without words possess the power to open the heart.

On the third acoustic number, "We Had a Sister" (written by Metheny for Joshua Redman's debut album, "Wish"), the album turns toward darker terrain. Here, the dense, complex harmony and the extensive use of improvisational chord changes help elevate "Trio 99>00" into the pantheon of great jazz trio albums -- especially those made by piano trios fronted by legends like the late Bill Evans.

It's Metheny's electric playing, however, upon which his legend rests. And "Trio" features some of his best ever committed to disc. That may seem like hyperbole, especially when referring to a player who has worked with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Ornette Coleman, but it's true. Using a warm, fat and punchy tone, Metheny is simply on fire here -- technically and creatively unfettered.

From the angular high-speed chromatic bop of "(Go) Git It" through an imaginative reworking of Coltrane's "Giant Steps," from the deep blues of "Soul Cowboy" to the mad, late night swing of Wayne Shorter's "Capricorn," "Trio 99>00" is a must for any lover of top-shelf jazz.

By Mike Britten

Mike Britten is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif.

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