"There are challenges in writing a long-form piece," Metheny says. "But even the early group gravitated toward 10- to 12-minute compositions. That continued through later recordings like 'Secret Story' and 'Imaginary Day,' which were constructed as suites. There was transitional material so that the music didn't stop between pieces."
But while suites are assemblages of short pieces, melded together but essentially independent of each other, "The Way Up" has an interdependent symphonic structure.
"It's fundamentally different when you are crafting a piece where everything is connected to everything else," Metheny says. "We were working from a 300-page score, drawing from formal techniques that had more in common with Western classical music than jazz. Except that improvisation was the major focus; the composition sets up different environments for the soloists."
The musicians drummer Antonio Sanchez, trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassist Steve Rodby, jazz harmonica player Gregoire Maret and longtime pianist/co-composer Lyle Mays must construct their improvisations to set up the larger harmonic/thematic development of the piece. "That doesn't just happen," Metheny says. "They can take off on a tangent, but they have to find a way to bring it back."
For all of its structural innovations, the music is very much of a piece with previous Pat Metheny Group recordings. "There is no question that we have a 'sound' there has always been a fingerprint to this band," Metheny says. "But I have always welcomed that the sound is a major part of our message."
"Some musicians shed their skin every so often," he continues. "From 1993 to 1996 they sound one way, and then in 1997, they change completely and look down on their old sound. My thing has always been to expand on what I know I love. The basic premise of 'Bright Size Life' [his first album] still is valid to me. I still play some of those songs."
Although the title of "The Way Up" refers to finding the means to rise above the lowest common denominator of cultural mediocrity, it could equally refer to Metheny's career ascent. Over its extended course, much of the guitarist's sonic arsenal is displayed, from sun-dappled acoustic runs to minimalist pointillism, synthesized keening to lovely pastoral anthems.
Written specifically for this group, the music takes advantage of its strengths. Antonio Sanchez is masterful in rhythmic support at low volume, and Cuong Vu's rounded, harmonically ambiguous phrasing adds a layer of questing unpredictability. Lyle Mays is, dependably, Lyle Mays. Whether listeners find his synthesized atmospherics and romantic keyboard miniatures charming or cloying, his playing is the heart of the band's sound.
After the group's month on the road, the piece's complexities are meshing. "The first few times just starting and stopping together was a major accomplishment," Metheny says. "Now we can really fine-tune; we are all having a lot of fun."
Metheny, who first played here with the newly formed Pat Metheny Group in 1978, says he is looking forward to returning. "We only get to come around every few years," he says. "But we do play really long sets."
After 27 years, and no regrets, there are a lot of songs to choose from. S
The Grammy-award-winning Pat Metheny Group plays the Landmark Theater Tuesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22-$30. Call 262-8100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.