The most under-composed and open-ended record of the Pat Metheny Group discography, this relatively lickety-split recording has been considered by cynics to be nothing more than a contractual obligation record--the last recording Metheny made for Geffen before moving to Warner Bros. and releasing Imaginary Day (Warner Bros., 1997). It's an album that, along with the recent The Way Up, could be considered one of the group's most revolutionary records to date.
Dismissing Quartet as nothing more than a contractual obligation record is as unfair as considering We Live Here to be nothing more than smooth jazz. Coming off a world tour to promote We Live Here, Metheny took the core quartet-- himself, Mays, bassist Steve Rodby and Wertico--into the studio to record what is undeniably the most oblique and free record the group has ever made. With the exception of the title track from Offramp (ECM, 1981) and "Scrap Metal"--a live staple that's never found its way onto a Metheny Group studio record--Quartet is about as loose and under-produced as it gets.
That's not to say there aren't glimmers of Metheny's rich melodicism. The brief rubato "Introduction" and poignant waltz "When We Were Free" are as compelling as anything he's written. But given the more produced nature of Pat Metheny Group, these tunes and others including the dark ballad "Seven Days" and the Midwestern-inflected "Sometimes I See," feel as though they'd be more at home on one of his non-Pat Metheny Group records. Still, it's a testimonial to his core quartet that they feel completely at home in this less-confined context.
Wertico is a player whose reach extends beyond the Pat Metheny Group's more listener-friendly aesthetic, as has already been proven on albums including Sign of Four (Knitting Factory, 1996)--with Metheny, percussionist Gregg Bendian and the late free jazz guitarist Derek Bailey--and Bang! (Truemedia Jazzworks, 1996)--a challenging set of percussion duets, again with Bendian. Equally, Mays has proven greater breadth and open-mindedness on his own recordings, in particular Solo: Improvisations For Expanded Piano (Warner Bros., 2000).
But perhaps the biggest surprise is Rodby. He rarely solos, but he's been a remarkably flexible anchor for Metheny since joining the band in 1980--the kind of dependable player who is rarely in the spotlight, but has the remarkably consistent ability to find the right note at just the right time. On Quartet he gets the opportunity to work on a larger playing field, from the understated power of "Take Me There," where his resonant bass works in perfect consonance with Wertico to keep things bubbling underneath Metheny's rapid-fire exchange, to the brooding "Oceana," where he gets a rare opportunity to be the front-man, eloquently stating its simple theme.
Elsewhere there are pieces fashioned from free improvisations and the barest of sketches, like "Montevideo," which begins with a sound more akin to something one would hear on an Evan Parker or Derek Bailey record, but gradually morphs into a groove-based jam and, ultimately, a brief but change-based solo spot for Mays--and all this in just under three minutes.
"Dismantling Utopia" is an equally episodic piece that brings together a series of seemingly disparate ideas. Beginning with a curious repeated figure from Metheny on a number of layered guitars, and an abstract theme from Mays, a curiously cacophonic solo from Wertico leads into a more settled but still abstruse melody from Metheny, before breaking down into total free play that, at times, feels more in keeping with contemporary classical music. It's likely that these two collage-like pieces are the product of judicious editing, but the end results feel as though they were intended to be this way from the very beginning.
For those who have preconceived and narrow ideas about what the Pat Metheny Group is about, a good suggestion would be to take some time to revisit the path from Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978) to The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005). The fact is that, while there's always been a strong compositional emphasis, the group's evolution has seen it experiment with a diversity of forms.
We Live Here and Quartet are just two of them but, in their own way, their stylistic breadth makes a strong case for the Pat Metheny Group as jazz's most successful group to combine accessibility with a daring sense of adventure. The clearly voracious musical appetites of original members Metheny and Mays--along with longstanding member Rodby and anyone else who happens to be in a particular incarnation of the group at any given time--have resulted in a body of work where few, if any, boundaries exist, while at the same time forging a unique identity that's instantly recognizable from the first note.