There’s an interloper’s factor when “commercial” musicians step into the improv world. Free improv, despite what a lot of people think, isn’t thoughtless flailing. Try playing along with an Evan Parker or Derek Bailey CD; it’s not as easy as you’d think.
So, on the one hand, you have the sentiment of, “How dare they think they can just step right into this world!” On the other hand, free improv today sounds pretty darned similar to the free improv circa 1969, when Derek Bailey and The Company were first working it out. Maybe some new voices couldn’t hurt.
Metheny’s music has gained popularity for being pretty and airy and cinematic — that’s the word the critics love, and it’s apt. But Metheny has always insisted that his music isn’t meant to be played softly or quietly. It’s not just mood music. And jazz in general, he says, ought to be loud.
To that end, The Sign of Four, a 3-CD set recorded in 1997, opens with disquiet: a 62-minute marquee piece called “A Study in Scarlet.” It was performed live at the Knitting Factory, and it marked Metheny and Bailey’s first meeting, each bringing along a drummer as well (Paul Wertico and Gregg Bendian). They didn’t know much about one another beyond reputation, but it seems understood that they were going to do something improvised and not-nice. And so it was: Metheny soon cranks it to 11 and never looks back.
Some people complain that this froze the entire piece, limiting the choices of Bailey and the drummers, and obliterating any chance to hear Bailey’s sublime, scribbly language. True. But again: Different isn’t bad. What came out was more than acceptable, IMHO. It’s interesting hearing Derek Bailey really shred, heavy distortion and all, and the drummers occasionally back off to create the illusion of calm. A second live disk of shorter pieces, and a studio disc, include moments of exploring other territory (i.e. quieter stuff), where silence gets to play its role.
Does Sign of Four work? I’d say yes, absolutely. But it’s not for everybody, and I can see why even a fan of abstract music might snub it. What’s of interest here is that Metheney tried something outside his usual bounds — and, to an extent, so did Bailey.
In 1994, Metheny had gone on a solo excursion into similar territory. Zero Tolerance for Silence came out with zero fanfare on Geffen, his then-current label. In a Rolling Stone interview, Metheny described it as an exercise in “filling space” rather than creating space — the latter being his usual M.O. in those cinematic, open-sky pieces he’s famous for.
As I’ve mentioned before, you can often judge a CD by its cover. That harsh, stark, almost evil fluorescent light. Yes, this won’t be another “Phase Dance.”
For my money, the 18-minute “Part One” is “Zero Tolerance for Silence.” Meaning, that’s the piece I think Metheny really set out to do. The track consists of four overdubbed electric guitars, intentionally out of tune by the sound of it, manically hammering away at blurry white-noise chords. Metheny takes occasional breaks for solos, where all four guitars, now sounding even more out of tune, plunge into criss-crossing, grunting, atonal lines of single notes before returning to the blur.
My guess is that Metheny recorded one guitar track with no schematic, just a general plan of what he wanted to do. Each subsequent track was recorded while listening to the first one and following its cues, so that the solos and the chordal blurs would be in sync.
It’s harsh and grating — and oddly relaxing, due to the long stretches of near white noise. I’ve literally fallen asleep listening to it. And you know what? I honestly like “Part One.”
Parts Two through Five, though, feel like B-sides. Metheny seems to be using the same approach — four overdubs in sequence — but doesn’t have another grand idea to back up the execution. He draws some sour-toned, off-key melodies that you could say are experimental, or microtonal, or bold … but really, they’re just annoying.
I’m glad Metheny had the interest to give this type of music a whirl, and that he got the support to put the results out on disc. The differences in Zero Tolerance and Sign of Four show how enriching it is for a musician to be pushed by others in a group, and the latter shows that Metheny does have an aptitude for this stuff. He could enrich his mad improv skillz if he wanted to concentrate on this music, I’m sure — but of course, that’s not his thing, and that’s fine.