On May 26 in 1980 five jazz musicians convened at Talent Studio in Oslo, Norway. They were jet-lagged from red eye flights and had a full day of recording ahead of them. The session was the brainchild of the youngest among them, a 26 years old guitarist who’s dream was to bring some of his most admired musicians to play together for the first time as a group. What ensued was one of the most productive and inspiring recording sessions in modern jazz. After a little over one day of recording, the session yielded a double LP album for the ages. This is the story of Pat Metheny’s album 80/81 on the ECM label.
Metheny was not new to the recording location, nor to the ECM label and its manager Manfred Eicher. Back in 1974, when he played in Gary Burton’s band, he met Eicher and recorded the album Ring. The following year he recoded back to back the album Dreams So Real with Gary Burton and his first solo album Bright Size Life. His first recording at Talent Studio in Oslo, with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, was in 1976 for the recording of Gary Burton’s quintet’s Passengers for which he also wrote some of the material. The first two Pat Metheny Group records and the fantastic solo New Chautauqua followed, also recorded by the legendary producer/engineer duo of Eicher and Kongshaug. The tasteful reverb they applied in the studio is now part of the legendary ECM sound, and it worked magic on the fresh style and sound Metheny was creating in the late 70s. After non stop touring, including Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light in September of 1979 and with his group early in 1980, he was ready for his next project.
In a 1978 interview for Downbeat, Pat Metheny expressed his reservations about the restrictions imposed on him by Manfred Eicher: “If Manfred had his way, every album he did would be six ballads and a bossa nova for an up tune. There are some problems for me with ECM, but it’s still 50 times better than anything else.” His last 1970s album, American Garage, was indeed a rarity in the ECM catalog being produced by Metheny himself, with the help of Richard Niles. Metheny had the outmost respect for Eicher, at one point saying the only criticism Eicher ever made was “too commercial”, a phrase normally absent from a music producer’s vocabulary. In another comment he said: “To me the only real fault is that Manfred tends to choose artists who don’t know how to swing.” However by early 1980 Metheny was a star on the jazz scene, and his standing in the jazz world now allowed him to pick who to invite for a recording session. Indeed, on that May 1980 session in Oslo the other four musicians could swing like very few can.
Metheny didn’t just ask four great musicians to come over for a session. He had a clear vision for how they will sound together, and wrote new music with their sound and personality in mind. Interestingly, he also assembled combinations of musicians who have not played or recorded with each other before. Amazing as it sounds, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who between the two of them played with most anybody in jazz who is worth listening to in the fifteen years leading to the 80/81 session, have not recorded together up to that point. The pairing together of two tenor sax players, Dewey Redman and Mike Brecker, was also a first for both of them. It is interesting to note that not only this was the first time Metheny had reed players on one of his albums, but excluding his collaboration with Ornette Coleman on Song X, 24 years passed after 80/81 before the next time he featured a sax player on an album under his own name, with Chris Potter on the Unity Sessions record. Metheny recalls: “For the first time I have the opportunity to write this element of the breath. One day I noticed that all the instruments I had worked with on Gary’s and my own records were instruments from the rhythm group: piano, bass, guitar, vibraphone, drums, percussion and synthesizer. Never had I the opportunity to write for this Human Element, and I really regretted it. The sound of the breath is something very important. That was the main reason for me to do something like 80/81 at all.”
The two tenor saxes together are featured on three pieces on the album. Two of them are energetic and allow the horn players to stretch their blowing abilities: Open, an improvisation vehicle for all soloists, and Pretty Scattered, with a theme that resembles some of Ornette Coleman’s twisted melodies. The third is The Bat, a pastoral tune that got a different and beautiful rendering in the next Pat Metheny Group record Offramp.
Just how well Redman and Brecker connected together is best told by Metheny. In a podcast he dedicated to the making of 80/81, he told a story that happened during the short European tour the group played in the summer of 1981: “There is something that happened with Mike and Dewey on that tour that is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. They were different kind of players, they did not overlap in any way. Early on we had a gig in a jazz festival in Portugal and David Oakes, at the time a relatively new sound man said, “Ok let me hear some Tenor. Mike – play”. Mike went up and played a lick. Then – “Dewey come up and play something”. And Dewey walked up the mic and played some Dewey kind of stuff. Then he said “now both of you play something at the same time”. Jack and I were sitting behind them, and they both walked up to the mic and played this long improvised phrase, but completely 100% in unison, like one saxophone. And they and Jack and I and David Oakes stopped and just stared at each other for about ten seconds like – what just happened? If you had written out a cadenza and said play this they would have practiced it for a month to get it that tight.”
The title tune 80/81 was written for Dewey Redman, whom Metheny met while touring with Gary Burton’s band in the early 70s, sometimes sharing the bill with Redman who was playing with Keith Jarrett’s American quartet. That quartet, also including Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums, was one of the best jazz combos of the 70s and left a deep impression on Metheny, who recalled Redman’s peculiar practicing methods: “Keith would write pieces for Dewey that were very difficult and Dewey would figure out a way to get through those changes that was not what you would ever expect. When I gave Dewey that tune, he took it to the bathroom for about two hours and practiced arpeggios up and down the changes. Then he came out and said Ok, lets record it. And then he didn’t play anything like that on his solo.”
After playing all the compositions Pat Metheny prepared for the session, the band realized that they had material for more than one album. Manfred Eicher suggested they keep recording to fill up a double record. Pat Metheny ran out of originals, and Charlie Haden pulled out a few Ornette Coleman arrangements. One of them was Turnaround, first released on Ornette’s second album Tomorrow Is the Question! from 1959. Metheny, well versed with Coleman’s music, was not familiar with this one and was reading it in the studio. Evidently Haden and DeJohnette were having a blast during the session, and Charlie Haden can be heard at the end of the recording all ecstatic about Jack DeJohnette’s playing.
One of the highlights on 80/81 is a tune Metheny wrote for Mike Brecker, Every Day (I Thank You). It was written in a hotel room in Bremen, Germany late one night after a gig. In the rich catalog of Metheny’s well crafted melodies, this is one of the most memorable and a special one due to Brecker’s soulful playing. As a composition, it is certainly the most interesting and complex on the album, and could fit nicely on the Pat Metheny Group’s repertoire: “I have done a lot of work to create a tune with different sections and tempos. It has a development and a form that is not a straight song. But all of that is nothing compared to the emotional depth that Mike played the melody.” For Mike Brecker, who was in the process of kicking a drug habit at the time, the whole session was a life altering event, and this tune in particular affected him deeply: “When I was writing the tune I was hearing how Mike would play this, and the tune is very strongly associated with Mike now. He was going through a difficult time then. He was cleaning up his life and was not there yet. He was suffering a lot.” In the notes for the ECM Selected Recordings series dedicated to his music, Metheny wrote: “Mike Brecker has often talked about how he felt this record was a turning point for him, that he discovered something on this date about the way he played that affected things that he did later.”
Every Day (I Thank You):
Metheny had the deepest respect for Brecker, and at the memorial service held for Mike Brecker in New York’s Town Hall on February 20, 2007, he said: “The real thing that made Mike so special as a musician, as a player, was his incredible ability to communicate what it is to be human. The complications of it. The struggle of it. The joy of it. To manifest a sound that could describe things about what it is to be here on earth that everyone, musician or not, could feel and recognize as being true.” If you need an example of what Metheny is talking about, search no farther than Brecker’s playing on Every Day (I Thank You).
The last tune on the album is a solo by Metheny called Goin’ Ahead, which he intended the full band to play but it did not seem to gel when attempted on the first day of recording. The next day Metheny decided to try a different approach: “There was an acoustic guitar in the studio, a crummy beat up Ibanez. I started playing it to show Charlie the chords and realized this could be something just on the acoustic guitar. Jan Erik setup the mics and I played the chords and the melody. I was really doing a demo for the guys to show them how it should be played. When I came in everybody was – wow, you should just do that, it sounded great. And I said, well I think I just did do it.” Going Ahead became a footprint for many tunes Metheny will record later in his career, including his collaboration album with Charlie Haden, Beyond The Missouri Sky.
80/81 was released as ECM catalog numbers 1180/81, as ECM has a unique number for each LP, including double LPs and boxed sets. The band recorded and released the album in 1980, and then performed it live during their tour in 1981. Number games aside, the album was a successful one for ECM and Metheny, reaching number four on the Billboard jazz charts. A quick glance at the rest of the chart that week shows the grim state of American jazz around that time, with mostly well-produced, synthetic and uninspiring albums all around. The album won the Jazz record of the year prize in the German record critics’ award in 1980
My favorite tune on the album is the opener Two Folk Songs. I still remember the first time I listened to the album many moons ago and the sheer excitement that I felt immediately after the needle dropped on side one of the first LP. This must be one of the best album openers of all time. The fierce acoustic guitar strumming hits you and before you had time to recover from your surprise the rest of the band joins with a relentless energy that continues for the full 20+ minutes of the tune. Metheny introduced that strumming style on New Chautauqua the previous year, but up to Two Folk Songs that style has not been used in the context of a jazz quartet. Metheny: “As far as I know that is the first time that there had been that kind of rhythm section with the guitar strumming integrated stylistically in such a way with Jack DeJohnette’s ultra modern approach to drumming. Adding to that the connection that Charlie and I had to Missouri made Two Folk Songs have a pulse and a foundation that until that time I don’t think there has been anything quite like that.”
Two Folk Songs, 1st:
All musicians are in top form on Two Folk Songs. Brecker plays like I never heard him anywhere else. Metheny realized that in the studio during the recording: “The way that Brecker played on that track was kind of scary at the time. It was like, man what is that? It was something that has all that post Coltrane vocabulary, but there was this whole other thing. It was a real defining moment in Brecker’s approach.” On a separate occasion Metheny whimsically said: “The most treacherous position in jazz was being the guy on the bandstand who has to take a solo right after Mike Brecker.” Still, Metheny delivers a maginificent electric guitar solo after Brecker.
For me the standout performance on this tune is Jack DeJohnette’s, who also considers this tune one of the highlights of his rich career: “The groove on this thing just boils beginning to end. The way the solos build by each person is just amazing. Its like each one of us is telling a story musically that is so strong and passionate it really pulls you in.” Metheny on DeJohnette: “He is a challenging musician to play with. He will get all over you. I often joke its like going ten rounds with Muhammad Ali. Two Folk Songs is a classic example of that. That particular kind of thing – even eight notes but swinging – Its a groove that didn’t exist before Jack came along.”
About 13 and a half minutes into the tune, as the band winds down the first folk song, Charlie Haden starts the second folk song by playing a slow soulful version of Old Joe Clark, an old American folk tune usually played with a banjo or fiddle at high speed. Haden introduced this tune twenty years earlier on Ornette Coleman’s quartet Change Of The Century album. You can hear it 4 minutes into Ramblin’, the album opener. Metheny and Haden’s shared Midwest background may have started here and culminated on the album Beyond The Missouri Sky: “Charlie really experienced that Midwest background thing. When he was a little kid he was touring around with his family band, performing on radio shows and playing shows with Mother Maybelle Carter. He’s got that background in a much deeper way than me. I’ve always felt very close to the kind of music that comes from out there”.
Two Folk Songs, 2nd:
Due to copyright restrictions, tunes from 80/81 are not allowed on youtube. I included one minute samples from the tunes in this post.
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