From the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Mark Small
The album Road to the Sun from Pat Metheny is notable on many counts. It’s striking that of its 57 minutes of music, Metheny is featured on only one eight-minute track. For the rest, he relinquishes the spotlight to classical guitarists Jason Vieaux and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ), who perform epic solo and quartet compositions he wrote for them. The work dedicated to LAGQ shares the album’s title, and the opus for Vieaux is called “Four Paths of Light.” Completing the program is Metheny’s 42-string guitar rendition of “Für Alina,” a piano composition by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Jazz guitar virtuoso, bandleader, and composer Metheny probably needs little introduction. In a prolific 47-year career, he has earned three gold records and 20 Grammy Awards in 12 different categories. With Road to the Sun, Metheny ventures into new territory as a classical composer.
The genesis of the project traces back to about 2005, when Vieaux and Metheny met after Metheny’s trio played a concert in Richmond, Virginia. “I gave him my Naxos album [Guitar Recital: Jason Vieaux], and my Albéniz album [Sevilla],” Vieaux says. “I didn’t think he’d listen to them. Then two weeks later he sent me an email saying that he really enjoyed them.” That same year, Vieaux put out an exquisite album called Images of Metheny, which included solo guitar versions of such well-known Metheny compositions as “Letter from Home,” “The Road to You,” “Always and Forever,” and “Every Day (I Thank You)”; it had been completed but not released at the time of their meeting.
The two became friends and began attending each other’s concerts. “The first Jason Vieaux concert I went to was around the time he was coming on the scene,” Metheny recalls. “His Bach playing is absolutely spectacular, and I think at that moment the seed was planted that I wanted to write something for him someday.”
Fast forward to 2013, when Metheny met the members of LAGQ at the Crown of the Continent summer guitar camp in Big Fork, Montana, where all were resident artists. Impressed by LAGQ’s concert, Metheny told them he wanted to write a piece for them. LAGQ formally commissioned a piece from Metheny, but two years would pass before it began to take shape. “Pat emailed us and said he had the whole map and harmonic foundation of the piece completed,” says LAGQ leader William Kanengiser, “but assigning the parts was going to take him some time.”
Back to Vieaux. “Pat told me about ten years ago that he wanted to write a piece for me,” Vieaux recalls. “Then LAGQ commissioned him to write something and Pat asked me to give him input during the process. So I was on the edge of those conversations.” Knowing that Metheny had to carve out time in his busy schedule for the LAGQ composition, Vieaux figured his own piece went to the back burner.
Metheny initially planned to compose a short piece for LAGQ, but as he wrote, it kept growing until it was a half-hour long with six movements (titled “Part 1,” “Part 2,” etc.). After sending LAGQ the music, Metheny flew to Los Angeles following a concert somewhere in the Northwest to coach the quartet for a full day. “It was humbling to see him come on a day off, probably with little sleep,” says LAGQ’s Scott Tennant. “It showed his level of commitment to the piece.” LAGQ premiered “Road to the Sun” in Denver in 2016 and began playing it on tour. In January of 2017, with Metheny producing, they recorded the work in L.A.
Kanengiser characterizes the writing as “very democratic,” giving quartet members moments to shine together, in subgroupings, and individually. “He studied a lot of our pieces and arrangements and noted how we pass things around the quartet,” Kanengiser says. “We really use the antiphonal and spatial possibilities of the group. In this piece, we ended up with our typically assigned roles. I got some juicy melodies, Scott [Tennant] had the pyrotechnical things, John [Dearman] was the bass player [wielding a seven-string guitar], and Matt [Greif] laid down the grooves.”
“In a way, these guys were the ‘Pat Metheny Group’ for this project,” Metheny says. “The goal was to take advantage of what they all do best and try to reconcile those potentials with my own sensibility of music and what I hope to express with it. These guys are all such astonishing players. There really was no limit on what kinds of things might be possible.”
Part 1 opens with soft, murmuring arpeggios and string brushing before Kanengiser enters with a solo exposition of the contemplative theme and then the others join him. It is quintessential Metheny, with evolving melodies and harmonies and dramatic sweep. Without pause, Part 2 begins with alternating sections of restraint and unbridled energy. Like Pat Metheny Group pieces, there are buoyant tunes, with dashes of chordal harmonics, dynamic contrasts, plus a button ending. In the build to the climax, Metheny added a track of what the liner notes term “guest strumming.”
Part 3 opens with a falling melodic gesture and brooding harmonies that give way to a slow-paced lyrical melody and concise ensemble interactions. The mood shifts for Part 4, where Greif grooves a medium-tempo ostinato in 5/4 over which melodies rise and fall and the players dialog in chordal passages before it all disintegrates into noise and percussive effects. “The most striking part of the whole piece is this transition from Part 4 into Part 5,” Kanengiser observes. “Pat dispenses with notes and has us scrape down the strings with a pick and produce high pitches by plucking behind the nut or behind a bar. It’s an otherworldly sound. When we’ve done it live, people don’t know where the sound is coming from. It’s sounds a little like a plane taking off.”
The episode flows into Part 5 as a rhythmic bass pedal tone in octaves emerges, leading to a rollicking melody played antiphonally across the ensemble. Halfway through, Kanengiser, Tennant, Dearman, and Greif play jazzy solos Metheny wrote for them over a samba groove. Vigorous strumming (augmented again by Metheny) begins a steady ascent through dynamic peaks and valleys in the buildup to a rhythmic finish. If the work had concluded there, audiences would leap to their feet applauding, but Metheny opts for a reflective epilogue in the final movement.
After a short intro to Part 6, the theme from Part 1 is recapped, this time accompanied by dolorous and dense harmonies. “The textures are really great,” says Kanengiser. “All four of us play the theme from Part 1; it’s almost like a string quartet version. Later, I get to play it by myself once more as in the beginning of the piece.” The work comes to rest on an Eb triad with an added twist: A three-note motif incorporating two non-chord tones sounds three times, seemingly posing a question before peacefully ending on the Eb triad.
This music took LAGQ to new places. “The way he voiced the harmonies on the four guitars is so rich,” says Tennant, “and is something we haven’t experienced before. We’ve played Beethoven and Debussy with amazing harmony, but this is something above that.”
Kanengiser noted the arch form of the piece. “It’s like a musical palindrome that begins and ends with the same material, tying things together really well,” he says. “It’s as if you’ve gone on a long journey and then look back with new eyes and new memories. You hear the opening melody again, but it means so much more than the first time you heard it.”
How should Metheny get this music out to his large fanbase? According to Vieaux, after some pondering, Metheny had an idea. “Pat called to say, ‘I’ve got it—this is going to be a record. I’m going to write you a piece and then I’ll figure out something that I will play.’”
The resultant four-part work for Vieaux, “Four Paths of Light,” is the album’s opener. Vieaux had heard the LAGQ piece and wanted something contrasting. “I was keen to give Pat advice on the solo piece,” he says. “My knowledge of his music is very extensive. I didn’t tell him what to write, but I referred him to my favorite things from his previous albums.” Vieaux also pointed him toward classical guitar works by Leo Brouwer, Sérgio Assad, Benjamin Britten, and Alberto Ginastera.
“I wanted something edgy,” Vieaux says, “and Part 1 is really aggressive, exactly what I was hoping for.” He compares Part 2 to the type of tune Metheny would write for his group or combo projects. The abstract nature of Part 1 gives way to a pleasing tonality in this segment. “You get glimpses in reverse of some of the melodic content and chordal stuff from Part 1,” Vieaux shares. “This movement is the heart of the piece and ends with material derived directly from measure five of Part 1.”
For Vieaux, Part 3 is the apex of the entire work. “It accomplishes the climactic moment with a triumphant feeling of release,” he says. “The climb in the latter half of the piece is seemingly endless and is the hardest thing I’ve ever played on guitar. Really difficult!”
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Part 4 features a slow tremolo in continuous 16th notes. “I told Pat what a huge fan I am of his album The Way Up—a 65-minute, one-movement piece with a great epilogue,” Vieaux says. “Part 4 is built around the melody from the second movement, but it’s a little more desolate.”
The studio sessions with Metheny producing were unusual and a challenge for both LAGQ and Vieaux. “Pat and his engineer David Oaks use the studio as a composition tool,” Vieaux says. “Pat was still figuring out how he wanted the piece to sound. He had me play two- or four-measure phrases, and then would ask me to shape them dynamically three different ways, and we’d get two or three different takes of each. I’ve never worked like that on my records.” Upon hearing the final recording, Vieaux noticed where Metheny and Oaks took notes from various bars, edited them into different places, and extended passages.
Ultimately, the 19-minute work took 28 hours of studio time to record over three days. “My hands were completely gassed by the end of the three-day session; it was a lot of playing,” Vieaux says. “I had to take two or three days off before my next gig.”
Similarly, during the LAGQ studio sessions, Metheny wanted many takes, experimented, and even conducted the group through a rubato section. “The recording was fun, intense, and unusual in some ways,” says Greif. “We did lots of complete takes. This is more common in jazz recording than in classical, partly because parts generated on the fly wouldn’t match take to take. But recording that way you get a unique, committed energy between the players. Overall, I think the recording has that spontaneous, natural vibe similar to a jazz approach.”
Metheny closes the album with Arvo Pärt’s meditative “Für Alina” played on his Linda Manzer Pikasso Guitar. “It’s a well-known piano piece,” he says. “When I first heard it some years back, I imagined it on the 42-string guitar. I found the sheet music and figured out a way to use that strange guitar to address [Pärt’s] score.”
A somewhat ominous, low B bass note opens the work. The original 15-bar score consists of a plaintive melody in B minor over a recurring B pedal tone. It’s a perfect vehicle for Metheny’s improvisational explorations of his instrument’s colorful sets of jangling strings. It’s haunting and modal, a vivid contrast to the complex harmonies of the album’s other works.
LAGQ and Vieaux view Metheny’s maiden voyage into classical guitar as hugely successful. Vieaux says, “Pat knocked it out of the park; I think he wrote a killer piece for solo guitar.” “Pat sees ‘Road to the Sun’ as a legacy piece, something that will be around for the future,” says Tennant. Both works, meticulously engraved, will be published in December.
“In the end, maybe what’s most exciting to me about these pieces,” says Metheny, “is that folks 100 years from now will find the same notes on the page that will indicate with full detail how to get to their own version of what is at the heart of this music.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.