The music of the Pat Metheny Group, with its elements of rock, jazz, classical and country, has been typed as neo-fusion, which is as accurate a description as any. In its open romanticism, it suggests the chamber-jazz approach of both the venerable Modern Jazz Quartet and the current European school. And though Metheny makes ample use of synclavier guitar and guitar synthesizer, while partner Lyle Mays explores the electronic keyboard, both seem less interested in the sheer power available than in their gadgets' ability to enhance their basically acoustical approach.
"Offramp" may surprise fans of last year's rockish "American Garage." The ambiance is much more laid-back and introspective. The exception, oddly enough, is the title tune, a brittle, dissonant and busy bow to the jazz avant-garde. It's a tribute to Ornette Coleman in which Dan Gottlieb's frantic percussion serves as a cushion for traffic- jam cacaphony and beached-whale noises. It's a departure for the group, and not a flattering one. The album's other "lively" pieces reflect the influence of guest percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. Both "Barcarole" and "Eighteen" feature intriguing riffs and percussive accents a la Weather Report, but neither moves beyond the developmental stage.
Much better are three quiet "orchestral" pieces, in which the group's deliberate arrangements focus on the dynamic subtleties and provocative synthesizer voicings that sometimes get washed away in a sea of electricity. "James" swings along on Mays' Chick Corea-like acoustic piano, its bright and bouncy melody serving as a cushion for straightforward improvisations. "Au Lait" is particularly lush and romantic, full of wispy and bittersweet themes that Michel Legrand could have used in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."
The album's most mesmerizing tune is "Are You Going With Me?" Built upon a very subdued but swaying Latin rhythm, it sounds almost too commercial, like something that Dave Grusin would concoct. But the haunting pastoral melody tricks the listener, suddenly gliding without ever having seemed to take off. Mays and Metheny deliver clean, uncluttered solos on their synthesized instruments; Metheny's sounds like a meshing of trumpet, oboe and harmonica. His work this go-round is less adventurous and trailblazing, more refined and subtle. Yet, while "Offramp" may focus more intensely on synthesizer combinations than previous albums, Metheny and Mays continually affirm their aversion to flash; in this group, illumination comes from within.
THE RECORD, THE SHOW
THE ALBUM: Offramp (ECM-1-1216).
THE CONCERT: The Pat Metheny Group, Saturday at 8 at the Warner Theater.