As a music aficionado I am eclectic in my tastes of music genres. It is an advantage to my listening habits as it opens up the playing field quite wide. On the other hand it is impossible to find a single album that can embody most of these genres, unless I make my own mix tape. I love program music all the way back to renaissance and baroque, leading to romantic and modern classical music, with a soft spot for symphonic tone poems that conjure images and colors. No wonder that the classic era of progressive rock provided me with the same enjoyment, setting those preferences to popular music, rock aesthetics and long form musical compositions. However I also like musical improvisation and all forms of jazz music, ethnic music, film scores, folk, electronic music (I love analog synthesizers) and the list goes on and on. There have been examples in the past of fusing some of these elements together, such as the third stream in jazz music (John Lewis and MJQ), rock music that interpreted the classics (ELP), classical music with folk forms (Dvorak), rock music with ethnic and folk influences (Santana, Fairport Convention), folk music and jazz (Pentangle).
But no album that I know was able to bring together the improvisation know-how of jazz musicianship, evocative program music, long-form multi-part composition, analog synths and ethnic music so brilliantly like the topic of this article. This is the story of the album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.
From the onset of the Pat Metheny Group (PMG) when it formed in 1977, it was clear that this is no typical jazz or fusion group. Founders Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays came from a background of formal jazz studies, but both had unique ideas about the concept of musical moods, textures, sounds and structure. Early musical pieces such as San Lorenzo and Phase Dance from the band’s self-titled debut album were far from standard jazz tunes. Lyle Mays: “I wouldn’t call them tunes. They were much more than that. They were compositions which had drama, pacing, interesting use of form, and creative thought put into areas beyond melody, harmony and rhythm.” Also evident on that album and the follow up American Garage, were both musicians’ quest to enhance their sound in all ways possible, acoustic, electric and electronic. Mays continues: “We were tinkerers, Pat inventing new tunings for guitars and new settings for his digital delays, me programming sounds on the Oberheim 4-voice and finding new uses for autoharps. There were high concept discussions on dynamics, orchestration, drama, presentation…everything. It was the opposite of the jam session.”
Pat Metheny adds: “Jazz guys at that point would shuffle up on stage and tune up and start playing Stella or something. One of the things that made us unique was that we put a lot of thought into the presentation.” The band went as far as starting the concert with pre-recorded ambient-like music to set the mood while the audience enters the concert hall and finds its seats, building its way up until it climaxes with the band coming up on stage. This was tried at Tufts University towards the end of 1979, but it did not work at all. The jazz-oriented audience that followed the group at the time was too stuck in old habits. Progressive rock fans were much more open to this experiment which was tried successfully with bands like Yes earlier in the decade playing the music of Stravinsky before the concert began. The fine idea was abandoned from live performances, but it surfaced back on the album reviewed here.
In 1980 PMG did not release a new album. The band kept a hectic touring schedule in the US and Europe, and Pat Metheny found time to record two very different projects: The fantastic 80/81 album with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, and Jack DeJohnette, covered in a separate article on this blog, and a new duo project with Lyle Mays. The goal was to continue the stylistic path they established with PMG, but go farther into the area of composition, music that evokes moods and ambiance. Pat Metheny: “We wanted to make a record that showed that improvisational thinking could be applied to more than just solos on changes. That one could improvise on the form itself, or one could improvise orchestration. One could even improvise the dramatic sweep of a section. Improvisation is far more versatile than it was often allowed to be.” Side one on the original LP is taken by the title track As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, and the opening of that track is an immediate statement that something new is brewing here. If that opening was put in front of me as a blindfold test before I knew about the album, my guess would have been something from the progressive rock or electronic space music direction, maybe a concept album that Pink Floyd could put together. Mysterious background noises of a crowd, pulsating bass notes, sound effects, synth pad, lots of open space between the notes.
As the piece develops, it keeps moving between different sections, with interlocking composed and improvised parts. Ideal music to listen to with headphones as you build an imaginary film in your head. Mays: “One of the devices that film makers have available to them is the juxtaposition of opposite elements to achieve more nuanced and complex results. What happens in the listener’s mind is that the brain tries to make sense of it and can often come up with a very interesting story, far more interesting than what we might have in mind.”
It keeps getting better and better. Next we are introduced to a number of new sounds in the arsenal of these two sonic explorers. The first is a drum machine, a tool that was in existence for some time then but still not widely used, and much less so by jazz musicians. The use of the drum machine here is pretty simplistic, a static pattern that does not change throughout its use on the track. But it is very effective and provides an interesting contrast to the sounds to follow, which brings us to the third musician on the album, the one and only Nana Vasconcelos. The gifted Brazilian percussionist first appeared on an ECM album with Egberto Gismonti’s Dança Das Cabeças in 1977 and before playing on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls added performances with the trio Codona and his own solo album Saudades. You already heard all kinds of small percussion instruments being shaken in the opening sections, but now shakers and a talking drum come to the front. Mays: “Nana’s first pass was on shakers, deep sounding shakers. It was stunning to watch visually. His whole body was shaking with it. Then he went back and played talking drum that was partially a response to a synth part I recorded. It was another voice that was telling you something in a language that none of us spoke. I still don’t know what to make of that section. It does not sound like anything I had heard before.”
The talking drum drops from the track, and now an organ joins the sound palette. This section is slow moving and functions as to segue to the climax. But as you guessed already, nothing is hurried and it is all about setting the right mood. Mays: “We did not know how to get from one section in Wichita to the last part. There was an electric organ in the studio that sounded pretty good. It had a quasi-church organ sound. I tried to play the organ in such a way with the volume pedal and a movement of notes that was in between music that was going forwards and backwards. It helps make the emotional transition to the final set piece.”
And we come to the glorious climax of the piece, a section that required a little more than hand percussion to emphasize the beat. Pat Metheny thought of a drum set, but none of the musicians in the room was a drummer. Not a problem, thought the young guitar player and sat on the drum stool. But as gifted as he was with strings, his attempts at the drum set were mediocre at best. Nana Vasconcelos heard the feeble attempts and thought ‘I can do better than that, at least’. He took the drum seat and nailed it in the climax section, playing along with Metheny on bass.
The combination of composition, arrangement and improvisation truly makes this album unique. There is still a ‘jazzy’ feeling to the album even with all the rich layers and sounds that were overdubbed. Mays discussed this aspect of his work with Pat Metheny: “For all the thickness of any PMG arrangement, the personality of Pat and me as soloists always came through and background parts were always background. That did not happen by accident. This was all highly philosophical, thoroughly planned and carefully executed. So yes, it was designed, thought out and based on classical principles.”
You would expect the magnificent title track to end there, right? It builds and builds, reaches a climax, comes to a meaningful end and c’est tout, non? Well, there are six more minutes to go with an atmospheric piece that seems to have nothing to do with the whole composition, but it is a brilliant way to slowly and calmly end side one of the LP. Remember the abandoned idea of using pre-recorded music to start a show? Abandoned, but not forgotten. Mays wrote multiple parts for various synth sounds and layered them together expertly using a guide track. Mays: “To organize the whole thing I had laid down a second count, so that I could follow the score. When I heard my own voice say 3 or whatever, I knew that was 3 seconds, 10, 15, and I was just reading the score, playing the synth parts, being conducted by my track of second indicators.”
And then a serendipitous thing happened. Mays: “Purely by accident in the mix, Manfred Eicher un-muted the track that had my original second count and the sound of my voice saying these numbers. Mixed with all that was so bizarre and so perfect that it was one of those happy accidents. That was not a designed deliberate effect. It just happened.”
In 1988 Christian Dior created an ad for one of its perfume products and licensed the use of the number counting section in it. Mays happily received the only actor royalty check in his life. As Bob Ross said while painting his endless oil landscapes, ‘We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents’.
There is more going on during that long atmospheric ending of As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. The crowd sound effect comes back, and in the spirit of anything goes, the two young musicians incorporated other found sounds into the mix. Metheny: “Jan Erik, the Norwegian recording engineer, at one point he’s reading the newspaper in Norwegian and we thought, wow that sounds cool, so we added a little bit of that. There’s some whistling that’s Nana walking through the studio and we just dropped in a little bit of that.”
But that recording engineer could do much more than read the newspaper. One of the best sound engineers in jazz history, Jan Erik Kongshaug has close to 400 sound engineering credits with ECM Records alone. This album is very different from most of ECM records and veers drastically from the way Manfred Eicher usually records and mixes albums. But Jan Erik Kongshaug immediately understood what the two young entrepreneurial musicians had in mine. Pat Metheny had this to say about him: “He’s the greatest engineer, unbelievable. He is a guitar player himself and its funny because people will ask you what sort of mikes he uses and I can tell you the names and everything, but I’ve used the exact same mikes, the same echo and the same everything. I don’t know what he does, it’s like a magic spell or something that he talks everybody into.”
Before we turn the LP to the second side, a few words about that odd album title and the front cover photograph. The origin of the title comes from bassist Steve Swallow, the gifted bass player who was a member of Gary Burton’s band along with Pat Metheny in the mid-1970s. Known for his wry humor, one of his favorite activities was finding titles for his tunes, such as ‘Bite Your Grandmother’ and ‘I Think My Wife Is A Hat’. He commended on this in an interview: “For a time when I was a teenager I wanted to be a poet rather than a musician. But by the time I was 20, I’d abandoned writing words in favor of music. Song titling is the only way I’ve found to keep my hand in the word game.” One such title was given to a forgotten tune Swallow wrote in the 1960s, never to be recorded. Metheny: “I thought, ‘Man, nobody knows Steve’s tune, and that would be the perfect title for this.’ So, I called him up and said, ‘Steve, can we use your title?’ and he was like, ‘Sure, no one is ever going to play that other tune.’ That title really sums up a lot about Steve Swallow’s sense of humor. He’s got a million things like that.” Swallow gets a thank you credit on the album sleeve.
Steve Swallow, on his part, expanded on the origin of that title: “I had nothing particularly notable in mind when I came up with that title; I’ve forgotten what the saying I derived the title from was, but it was something like ‘As goes New Hampshire so goes the nation,’ or words to that effect, a reference to predicting election outcomes.”
As you look at the cover image, you think of Jimmy Webb’s timeless tune Wichita Lineman, made famous by Glen Campbell in 1968. The song, about a lonely lineman, was written after Webb drove past a seemingly endless line of telephone poles:
I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
The photograph was taken by Klaus Frahm, who has a few credits on other ECM albums. He never met label head Manfred Eicher. As a freelance photographer his work was recommended to Eicher through his long time graphic designer Barbara Wojirsch. Interestingly his son, musician Nils Frahm, was influenced by the promotional albums that his father received from ECM by mail. His music – electronic, ambient with classical influences, may appeal to ECM fans.
Side two opens with a sweeping Americana composition and one of Lyle Mays’ finest moments on any record, per Pat Metheny. The keyboard player commented on the tune: “Ozark is a reference to my family background – hillbillies from Tennessee. The idea of Russian classical music meeting hillbilly back country with a berimbau from the jungle of Brazil is just irresistible.” Indeed, Nana Vasconcelos introduces one of his main specialties, demonstrating his mastery on this unique single-string and resonator gourd instrument. The Brazilian percussionist, upon listening to the track years later, commented: “Yes, I had become a country and western musician!”
The tune is one in a long thread of music compositions that Lyle Mays and Pay Metheny wrote with the influence of the American Midwest and its beautiful scenery. The reference is to the mountain range south of Pat Metheny’s home state of Missouri, and south east of Wichita, Kansas. These themes started early on tracks such as (Cross the) Heartland from American Garage and Country Poem from Metheny’s solo New Chautauqua.
The synth pad that opens the track is played on an Oberheim 4-voice, the first synthesizer Lyle Mays acquired and used since the formation of PMG. Oberheim started manufacturing some of the earliest polyphonic analog synthesizers in 1975. Mays discussed the use of that synthesizer: “With my old Oberheims, it’s gotten to the point where there’s almost a single family of sounds that I use them for—that straight, sawtooth, old-fashioned analog sound. I’m not consciously trying to get a string sound, but I’ve got 16 oscillators firing on a unison note, and that’s analogous to 16 string players.” Mays was always after new ways to generate and express sounds on his synthesizer. With the Oberheim he used a programmer controller to tweak the sounds the way he wanted: “The Oberheim allows you to have independent control of each oscillator and assign polyphony through a computer. It actually has the separate components for each oscillator, which makes it a very interesting synthesizer.” A later model of Oberheim synths, the OB-X, made great contributions to various genres of music. You will recognize its sounds from the opening riffs of Miles Davis’ Star People, The Police’s Invisible Sun and most famously Van Halen’s mega hit Jump.
The next track is a beautiful duo between Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, named September Fifteenth after the date pianist Bill Evans passed in 1980, the same month the album was recorded. It is a combination of melodies written by the two. Lyle Mays wrote the opening melody in 1977 inspired by the music of Ravel and Debussy and brought it to PMG, but it was never performed live.
The middle section is a waltz which Metheny originally wrote a few years earlier for the band Oregon: “Oregon was going to do a record where they play music by other composers. I was touring at the time with Gary Burton and we did a lot of concerts opposite Oregon. Ralph Towner used to come out and play with us. So I wrote this piece for them and I think they recorded it but somehow it did not get on a record.”
The end of the piece is an unplanned improvisation, when the two musicians continued to play after the written music ran out and the tape kept rolling.
Mays on the guitar playing by Pat Metheny on this track: “One of things that always impressed me is that extreme technique that Pat has, the control that he has. He can play material like that and it’s totally believable. It’s a real challenge to play something that sparse, that simple, and having it come out that evocative.”
The last piece in this review is another personal favorite and one that was immortalized in the 1985 road trip film Fandango starring a young Kevin Costner. The title of the track is “It’s For You” (with the double quotes), an internal joke on the front cover photograph. Interestingly, this was the first piece of music that Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays ever wrote together. It was written before PMG was formed, while Metheny played as a guest musician in Marlena Shaw’s band, in which Lyle Mays was the piano player.
Mays: “It matches the sonic environment of the rest of the record. You get the notion that things aren’t always as they seem. We’ll start a piece in one mood, but be prepared because it might go someplace else. The piece goes into a spiritual place, a choral with multiple synth layers and Nana’s voice.”
A unique feature on this song is Lyle Mays’s bass playing on a synth bass, a feat he never repeated on subsequent recordings.
For fans of analog synths, this piece of music features another analog gizmo used by Lyle Mays and one of the most recognizable synth sounds out there. We are talking about the Prophet-5, the first programmable polyphonic synthesizer. It was manufactured in 1978 by Sequential, the company founded by analog synths genius Dave Smith.
The track “It’s For You”, like many other tunes by PMG, features Lyle Mays’ signature sound. It is a hybrid between ocarina and flute. You have heard it all over the album reviewed here and on classic PMG tunes such as Are You Going With Me? And Minuano 6/8. It took a good amount of tinkering with the synth to get that distinct sound. Mays: “If you owned a synth back then, you had to be a programmer whether you liked it or not. My scientific brain loved it and I became quite good at it.” That sound became so famous within the analog synth community that many synth manufacturers re-created it as a factory patch with new models of their instruments, sometimes even labeling it the ‘Lyle Mays’ patch. The mastermind behind this sound is pleased: “It’s been endlessly flattering to see new synths come out with my name in the patch list.”
Pat Metheny’s solo on this track is one of Lyle Mays’ favorites by the guitar player, who said this about it: “It was a one and only take. I had ten different people send me versions of them singing that solo or playing along with that solo. There was a gospel group that did an entire version of that solo where they wrote words to it. We attempted to play that tune live every few years but with the standard that’s set on that record for what that tune is we never seem to be able to match it.”
To close, here is the key wedding scene from Fandango featuring “It’s For You”. The film features about 9 minutes of music from the album, including part of September Fifteenth and also Farmer’s Trust from Travels. There is a piece from Keith Jarrett’s album Spheres in the film. If you are an ECM fan this might be a film you want to watch.
For more on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, visit Pat Metheny’s excellent podcasts page, including a series of podcasts from 2009 with him and Lyle Mays discussing the album.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this about the album preceding As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls in Pat Metheny’s catalog: