What can I say?..., July 13, 2006
Reviewer: YouthInAsia (DFW, TX USA) - See all my reviews
This is difficult for me. I have wanted to write this review for a long time but have been at a loss as how to best articulate my thoughts concerning my favorite recorded music work of all time. I am no closer now to knowing exactly what to say than I have ever been, so I'm just going to write.
There is something transcendent about this album that has had the effect of changing peoples' musical lives, so to speak. A quick glance through the reviews posted here will show this to be a remarkable, common theme and I am no exception. I honestly don't remember the exact year...I don't even remember how I stumbled across it - a used record store or garage sale, perhaps. I first heard Pat Metheny's Watercolors somewhere in the 80's when I was musically aware of nothing more than the hair metal of the day and I haven't been the same since. Dokken and Cinderella are long gone and Watercolors is still the gold standard by which I judge the listenability of all other works in what has become a permanent, life-long appreciation of jazz. What follows will be an overall comment on the album as a whole and then I would like to comment somewhat on each track.
There are a number of confluent elements at work that make this album so special. What is immediately evident is an overwhelming stylistic maturity and sophistication that is years - even decades ahead of its time, which may be why it has remained somewhat obscure and underappreciated. There was absolutely nothing like it at the time and very little that has approached it since. Indeed, Metheny hasn't produced anything like it since himself - his recordings immediately subsequent to Watercolors were far below its artistic quality and it wouldn't be until First Circle that he would approach that level again. It is a concept album - various musical interpretations of themes pertaining to water. But the concept is subordinate to and ultimately succeeds as a byproduct of the masterful craftsmanship of Metheny's composing along with the musicianship of the rest of the group, not the other way around. Each song instantly transports you to a refreshing, watery place - from a playful summertime lake to the infinite expanse of the ocean to the banks of a bustling riverwalk to the sparkling, mysterious depths of a frozen subterranean cavern. It is truly an amazing musical experience.
And what is even more amazing is the fact that Metheny was in his early twenties when he composed this material - some of it even earlier than that. It would be less of a shock had something so sophisticated and progressive come from a long-standing veteran, but here was essentially a college kid writing and playing music that the rest of the music world hasn't yet caught up to. Metheny singularly broached a musical style that others have subsequently only dabbled with in the form of "elevator music", but what he achieved with Watercolors goes far beyond the bounds of mere style and deep into the realm of art - art fused with jazz. Added to all of this is the piano virtuosity of Lyle Mays that is every bit the equal of Pat's skill on guitar, the unique sound and personality of Eberhard Weber's bass that is so well utilized, the fabulous production quality of Manfred Eicher and ECM records and the confluence is complete. My only regret about this album, and all other masterpieces recorded before the advent of CD's, is that it is heartbreakingly short, obviously due to the time limitations of vinyl in those days. What a treat it would be to have this album remastered (as Pat has done recently with several others) with any alternate takes that still exist being added to make a full length CD. Just a thought.
Track 1 Watercolors, Track 4 Lakes, Track 5 River Quay: What I would most like to point out about these tracks is that they are as good an example as anything that exists on record of the lyrical quality to Metheny's composing and playing that has so distinguished his career. Too often in jazz a quirky rhythm is contrived into which is crammed a further contrived melody. But the powerful melodic identity of each piece is what sculpts the ebbing rhythm patterns that flow effortlessly and captivate your attention just as easily. The melodies beg for lyrics and are worthy of a thousand words. But in the end it is the lyrical artistry of Metheny's soloing that says more than could be said with ten thousand words. (In light of this it is quit understandable that several years later Metheny would begin to incorporate vocalists as wordless instruments into his compositions.) Perfectly complementing are the formidable yet graceful jazz chops of Weber, whose bass at times sounds as much like a human voice as anything else. Mays is no less spectacular. The clarion tones of his piano fill an enormous amount of space and wash over each piece, bathing them in the best piano sound I have ever heard recorded. And of these three songs Lakes is probably the most outstanding. It is absolutely uncanny how Metheny is able to musically communicate an idea in your minds eye beyond what almost any amount of words could say. The understated beauty of the opening phrase instantly transports you to the shores of a sunny vacation lake, abuzz with recreation and summertime fun. You can almost smell the bar-b-que and feel the warm sun. But this song is as technically formidable as it is aesthetically beautiful. The bridge section offers one of more brilliantly conceived and executed chord progressions you will here anywhere in jazz, on top of which Metheny and Mays each lay equally brilliant solos.
Track 2 Icefire: Another distinguishing characteristic of Metheny's career has been his penchant for unusual instruments and instrumentation. I can think of no better album to exemplify this delightful excess of his, and it starts here with the perfectly named "Icefire". Upon hearing the first seconds of this song you are inclined to think that Metheny is playing multiple, overdubbed instruments. Actually it was recorded on one track with one take, almost completely improvised, on one instrument - an electric 12-string guitar strung with an ingenious alternate tuning. I won't bore you here with the technical details but for those interested Pat gives an adequate description of it on his website if you dig a little. The result is literally breathtaking. The mysterious, crystalline sound of the guitar paints a sparkling mental image of an icy cavern far beneath the earth, shimmering like fire, while Metheny's melodic genius creates the vast expanse necessary for you to explore its depths. There were (and are) other musicians who have tinkered with unorthodox methods but none I know of that have come close to the artistry that Metheny has achieved here. Incidentally, this same alternate 12-string tuning can be heard on works from other albums of his like Sirabhorn and Fallen Star.
Track 3 Oasis: Where Icefire introduces you to an unusual tuning, Oasis introduces you to an unusual instrument, and you are given no time to catch your breath. The harp-guitar is a standard hollow-body acoustic guitar with either steel or nylon strings (in this case nylon) to which several additional unfretted, "open" strings are strung across the body - sort of a mini-harp attached to a guitar. There is no agreed-upon standard harp-guitar form and the varieties that exist are endless. But whatever version Pat was using here, he has created something as unique as the instrument itself. The song is built upon a deeply emotional, eastern chord structure and - unlike Icefire - Pat plays the harp-guitar on multiple overdubbed tracks; holding each chord for contemplative, long intervals while plucking only a dissonant portion of each chord with different rhythm patterns on each track. All of this results in a spectacular chorus of what sounds like a thousand wind chimes, gently tolling in a warm desert wind. But Pat is not alone. Joining him is Weber, using a bow on his unique bass to produce a haunting vocal sound...the lone denizen of a far away oasis softly singing amidst an isolated cluster of palm trees in a sea of shifting sand. While the word "oasis" has become somewhat of a cliché, especially in the world of smooth jazz, this song truly is an oasis in the parched desert of so many other uninspired musical ideas.
Track 6 Florida Greeting Song: The first part of a mini-suite, Florida Greeting Song is a duet between an unusual pairing of Metheny on electric guitar and Dan Gottlieb on drums. Heretofore I have not mentioned Gottlieb's contributions specifically, but his unobtrusive yet nimble percussion is a key element to the album's overall success. The song is a fast-paced, mostly free-form guitar solo stylized with Metheny's patented lyrical genius that evokes images of a colloquial ritual of hospitality from long ago, flavored with just a dash of Cajun zydeco. Metheny is in full control as the song makes several accelerations and decelerations and Gottlieb follows flawlessly, stride for stride.
Track 7 Legend of the Fountain: The second part of the mini-suite, Legend of the Fountain sees the return of the harp guitar, only this time Metheny plays unaccompanied and without overdubs. The classical sound of the nylon strings in Metheny's artisan hands creates an aura of ancient beauty as he forges a melody that gives you a fleeting glimpse of a mystical, forgotten place. I've listened to this song many times and as short as it is in length - in an almost tragic way - it is no less powerful than anything else on this album.
Track 8 Sea Song: There is not much that can be put into words to accurately describe this song. It must be heard. And when you do, keep in mind the fact that Metheny was a teenager when he wrote this. He says the inspiration came from seeing the ocean for the first time in his young life after having just arrived in south Florida from Missouri to attend the University of Miami. This song is as much art as it is music - an aural canvas on which is painted a tranquil seascape of majestic beauty. The production quality of this piece also represents ECM at the height of their powers, coaxing a sound from Weber's instrument that is almost whale-like. Metheny, Mays, and Gottlieb all sparkle as they freely navigate the song's structured chord progression with moments of still calm and swelling, wave-crashing crescendo. This is an intensely emotional and atmospheric piece of music that casual listeners might find overwhelming, but those of us who listen to music with intent will find it thoroughly rewarding and unforgettable. And so goes all of Watercolors.