Forty-one years ago, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays released this masterpiece of jazz fusion, of progressive jazz-rock. There is no real category for this type of music.
Note: Usually I link YouTube videos in my reviews, ECM Records seems to control the availability, so you are getting mostly live versions.
I heard someone call Metheny and Mays the Lennon/McCartney of jazz fusion. That’s quite a compliment, but I can’t really disagree. Metheny and Mays had the magical touch; they spoke a musical language we could only admire and enjoy.
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls is credited to Metheny and Mays, a rare duet project. Metheny had recorded solo albums, Pat Metheny Group albums and side projects. Of all Metheny’s projects, this blends the most sophisticated song construction in an accessible and melodic form. I’m speaking only of my own taste and not a technical opinion of Metheny’s jazz expertise. What this album introduced was his grand musical vision and scope, as Metheny appetite for experimentation, balanced with respect for traditional, would take him to incredible sonic vistas that.
This album is different from American Garage (1979), his preceding album with Mays, which is more jazz-rock and a commercial vibe. The last song on American Garage, “The Epic”, is more in the vein of Wichita Falls.
Metheny was recording for ECM Records, a German label owned by Manfred Eicher, who also served as the session producer, and recorded in Oslo, Norway. Besides Metheny and Mays, only Brazilian percussionist and vocalist Naná Vasconcelos played on the sessions. Metheny also handled bass.
As I listen to this album on CD, I recall the first time I heard it on vinyl, forty-one years ago. I was in my early 20s, off on my young life, exploring new frontiers, like the musicians on this album. Metheny was a Midwest guy, now recording and playing all over the world. How does a guy with a view shaped by the earthy Heartland, rub shoulders with jazz greats and create exciting sonic landscapes felt by people all over the world? With this album, Metheny and Mays stood at the intersection of traditional jazz and jazz fusion. Imagine painting a soundscape never heard by anyone before.
“As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” 20:44 – This album-side length song is quite a musical creation, it is a mini symphony of various musical ideas. One has to really listen to fully appreciate the different themes and variations. This song is constructed with layers of overdubs.
This album begins the rapid sonic ascent of Metheny/Mays in producing sounds that bare faint resemblance to guitar and piano. I think of textures, three dimensional artworks of sound. On this song we hear sounds that will surface again on many later albums; trademark instrumental sounds instantly recognizable as Metheny/Mays.
The role of percussion in their work moves to center stage, being much more than an accessory, playing a key function as the eclectic spine for the many musical characters in Metheny/Mays works.
“Ozark” 4:03 – This is one of Metheny/Mays’ most recognizable songs. It is mesmerizing in its musical force, shouting celebration and reverence. Mays’ piano playing is a tour d force, simply brilliant. Simply amazing.
“September Fifteenth” (dedicated to Bill Evans) 7:45 – Jazz impresario Bill Evans, revered by contemporaries, passed away on September 15, 1980, during the recording of this album. Acoustic guitar gentleness by Metheny and textures by Mays. Metheny is a brilliant guitarist, he reminds me of Yes’ Steve Howe on acoustic guitar. Mays matches him on the piano. This is a heartfelt and reflective song.
“It’s for You” 8:20 – A gorgeous song, sweet but not sappy, robust yet not overwrought. It is shimmering but has bite. The vocal work is measured and effective.
“Estupenda Graça” 2:40 – A gentle song with vocals. On an album of standout songs, this short one is rather overlooked.