Music Diary Notes: Revisiting Pat Metheny Via Derek Bailey and Peter Brotzmann

A couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing Trey Gunn’s Modulator, I referenced Pat Metheny’s Zero Tolerance for Silence as forming my expectations. But as I was writing that I realized it had probably been a decade since I had listened to it and so naturally I pulled out the CD and popped it into my car for my commute to work for a few days.

When Metheny released Zero Tolerance for Silence (ZtfS from here on) back in late 1992 I bought it straight-away as I tended to do back then (and still do now). I had read previews on USENET (this was really before the Web, kiddies) blasting it as ‘noise’, but as a fan of his stuff and of avant-garde jazz in general that made me anticipate it more.

Here is a Youtube clip of Part 4:

To put it into context, that is one of the more melodic and ‘accessible’ segments from the CD. For most listeners, they popped in the CD, met up with the wall of noise that is the 18 minute Part 1, got about 2 minutes into it and put the CD back on the shelf to rot forever.

For myself, I listened to it for a while, but eventually it too ended up forgotten on my shelf. I easily got past the introduction, but as I mentioned in the Modulator review, the feelings I had were ‘academic exercise’, ‘indulgent’ and ‘bombastic’.

Listening to music for me is seldom a linear experience. When I was listening to Part 1 of , the first thing that came to my mind was Peter Brotzmann’s 1968 classic ‘Machine Gun’. I didn’t have that as a frame of reference in 1992 since it was little known and out of print. But since I have it now it was simple enough to listen to both recordings back to back. Here is Machine Gun:

Listening to Brotzmann and his group including other reeds, two bassists, a piano and two drummers, there is a similar feeling of aggressive chaos … but there is also much more. There are musical statements being made individually and also by the music as a whole. The intercommunication works amazingly well in spite of the loud and in-your-face style, and there is a sense of both fear, anguish, and desperation. By contrast Metheny’s pieces simply seem flat – which goes with his description of ZtfS as a 2D representation of a 3D world.

But while that was a close contextual reference based on the structural elements and use of space, musically it comes from a very different place. So I decided to dig into another work featuring Metheny, this one led by guitarist Derek Bailey, called Sign of 4.

This is another one that frustrated jazz purists and Metheny fans alike, but as a fan of Metheny’s exploratory side and Derek Bailey, I have always found the 3-CD set intriguing. As a point of reference recall that Bailey seeks music with no tonal, rhythmic or harmonic center – and Metheny and the two percussionists were fully on-board for the entire time. Of the three CD’s the first is a live recording and is the weakest in my opinion, but also bears the most direct comparison to ZtfS. The second CD ‘The Science of Deduction’ shows much greater interplay and improvisational development. Metheny is not the master of this realm – this is clearly Bailey’s domain. But Metheny is also not just putting on pretense – it is a solid work from a multi-genre master guitarist.

Here is Part 1 from ‘A Study in Scarlet’

So after all of this meandering I return to Zero Tolerance for Silence. I have given it two weeks of my listening life, dealt with it in the context of other similar recordings, and yet my opinion hasn’t really changed. It has some good moments, but ultimately is a mediocre musical experience. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Metheny did the recording for any political reasons with Geffen records – he has way too much integrity for that sort of shenanigan. I believe it represents music that he simply needed to make and record at that point in his musical journey. It also happens to be the worst recording in his career. But hey, with a track record like his, I can deal with that.

I actually find his 1992 solo recording Secret Story much more interesting and worthy of study, so let’s close with a 1993 live recording of the first song from that CD, ‘Above the Treetops’:

Have you ever gone back to a recording you had dismissed or set aside in your past and looked at it anew? Did it change your opinions? And what do you think about any of this challenging music? Tell me about your thoughts!

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews