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Published: 2004/02/28
by Pat Buzby

Featured Columnist: Pat BuzbyA Bit About Collecting

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a tree on the Pat Metheny Yahoo newsgroup. As a result, two soundboard recordings of his group from Besan and Marseilles, France in July 1991 made their way to my hard drive, and I have spent a few hours installing them, copying them in exchange for blank CDRs or other similar recordings, and sending e-mails to facilitate both of the above.

Some might not understand why I and, in the case of this tree, a few dozen others would want to spend our spare time this way. Here is an attempt at explaining it – a part of it, anyway.

These two concerts were part of a tour during which the Metheny Group recorded their most recent live CD, The Road to You. A while back, I read a story from their engineer, Rob Eaton (also known for Bob Weir impressions and Dead vault-digging), where he mentioned that he had told Metheny not to expect to be able to use the performances from the first concert Eaton recorded, only to have Metheny insist that his solo from "Have You Heard" that night was special enough that Eaton would have to find a way to pull it off the flawed tapes for the CD. A bit of close listening revealed that Besan was the very concert where this happened.

This song is an example of what I'll call the "cookie cutter syndrome." This applies to many artists (think of all those "Truckin'"-"Other One"s from the early 70's, for instance), but the Metheny Group is an especially strong example, as their shows tend to be very consistent – perhaps too much so, if you ask their detractors. The Metheny Group played "Have You Heard" at just about all of their concerts, as far as I know, from 1989 through 1998, and each version features Metheny playing two choruses on a blues-with-a-bridge structure. These solos tend to be very similar on the surface, but going a bit deeper shows that although he has some signature licks, he did a remarkable job of finding a unique approach each time out.

While I was mulling over my ideas for this column, I came across one of the releases of the infamous Dean Benedetti tapes of Charlie Parker's solos. Using a wire recorder (about as good as a bootlegger could do in the late 40's), Benedetti tried to record all of Parker's solos in a serious of shows – not the other players' solos or the rest of the songs, just Parker's solos, one after another. One reviewer described these solos (which I haven't heard) as being like a series of snowflakes, with many in a row from the same structure but all of them individual. Now, Parker arguably did more to advance the art of improvisation than any other musician in history, and was perhaps more deserving of this sort of attention than Metheny (or any other musician who gets discussed regularly in jambands.com). Still, it's enjoyable to check out a new example of Metheny's efforts to deal with that familiar 44-bar structure whenever I track down a new recording from those years.

It's also enjoyable to put oneself inside a favored artist's shoes. Why was the Besan solo so special? Listening to it a bit less casually than I would normally, I do notice how fleetly he moves through the assorted scales and how he mixes in a few catchy melodic figures with the more erudite stuff. In comparing this solo with the Marseilles solo from five nights later, and comparing a few other solos from these two shows with the ones used on the official CD, I found that the best way to distinguish them was to start with the "liftoff" – the phrase with which Metheny or the other soloists began their statements. The Marseilles "Have You Heard" has an earlier, more abrupt "liftoff," but it's not inferior to Besan in an obvious way. Perhaps Metheny will be the only one to understand the choice.

Still, it's fun to grapple with these questions. Around the same time I started delving into unofficial recordings, I started checking into various fanzines, and generally found people with the same curiosities about different artists: why did they chose particular songs for their setlists, why didn't [obscure early 70's album track] get played live more often, why did they leave certain cuts off their albums or drop certain players from their bands. Some of these recordings have no clues to offer, but occasionally they reveal a secret or two. These secrets are what I and other collectors look for: they bring us a step closer to the heart of music and, at best, provide inspiration for our own pursuits.

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