May 1999

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny
Telarc CD-83442
Released: 1999

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance *1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment **

[Reviewed on CD]Did you fall hopelessly in love with the gorgeous Beyond the Missouri Sky, Pat Metheny’s and Charlie Haden’s homage to mutual roots and friendship? I did -- hard. It made me look forward to Metheny’s latest effort with celebrated guitarist Jim Hall. It seemed like a sure-fire bet: two legendary guitar players, proven standards, original compositions and improvisations, an intimate setting -- the smart money predicted another winner.

If it were only just this easy to replicate magic. In mathematics, one plus one always equals two. By the time you get to love, things don’t always add up so conveniently. We all would rather not remember those occasional love-making sessions devoid of passion and sadly mechanical, even though we had mustered technique and stamina galore. Great music-making is very similar. When musicians connect, the tiniest movements of a melodic line are transformed into a precarious dance on passion’s precipice, pauses a-quiver with tension and the notes suspended on a sense of shared breath. Personalities blend and a merger happens, which is what good improvisation depends on. After all, improvised notes haven’t been polished and gone over time and again until found worthy for a final written-out score. They need to ride on the artists’ chemistry. Without such chemistry, music turns into bad sex. Notes become strangely disjointed. There’s no coherence that binds things together. One goes through the motions, but there are no thrills.

Musicians call this noodling. All of them do it, but usually only before a performance, as part of their personal warm-up ritual, grabbing bits and pieces of scales, challenging riffs and slow-motion fingering. A symphony orchestra’s backstage area turns into a veritable cacophony prior to curtain call, but once the curtain lifts, everyone becomes a part of the larger entity, and little invisible antennas pick up cues amongst the members to create the cohesiveness that is so tangible when present and which is a prerequisite for unforgettable performances.

Enter Jim Hall & Pat Metheny. Anyone who is familiar with each artist’s individual oeuvre cannot fail to be impressed. No overt tendencies for sequel-itis to ensure commercial rewards for these two. That’s because artists of Metheny’s and Hall’s caliber remain fascinated by roads less traveled, and they dare to explore them. Of course, this means going down dead-ends once in awhile. In a peculiar way, such detours serve the celebration of artistic freedom. When put on record, like Metheny’s Zero Tolerance for Silence, the actual musical rewards for the listener are debatable. But one can allow for such expressions as part of creative growth. What becomes less tolerable is what seems to have occurred on this particular album. Namely, there is no chemistry between the two players, which can happen -- but don’t put it on record. Chalk it off to a bad day or realize that no matter how good each one is on his own, things just don’t gel as a team. Hence, noodling is what’s mostly on this 17-track, 74-minute menu.

To be fair, however, there are three tracks that do work. On these tracks, the music hangs together with a clear sense of coherence, improvisations are neither self-serving nor mindless, and one feels compelled to revisit the tunes. "The Birds and the Bees," a composition by Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller, could get airtime on the smooth-jazz stations, even though it’s too inventive for their regular fare. The improv rendering of "Summertime" opens with Metheny's chordal strumming that harmonically doesn’t give away what’s coming, namely the famous theme as introduced by floating e-guitar, which swiftly gives way to Hall’s minimalist invention. "Farmer’s Trust" is a slow ballad with the sense of endless open space and long melodic arch that is typical Metheny: dreamy and ethereal, with crafty harmonic twists that add color and suspense. But that’s it. The rest of the disc, I'm sorry to say, is a testament to bad sex -- no chemistry or passion.

If this disc ends up spinning on listening stations at Towers and Borders across the country, see whether you hear something I don’t. But I wager you’ll agree. One doesn’t need a degree in rocket science to recognize when music doesn't fly. It is, however, more creatively challenging to make great music. I have remembered this when discussing Jim Hall & Pat Metheny, as both artists have given us plenty of memorable and often downright unforgettable discs. It just doesn't happen here.