Great Albums: Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)


Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)

Personnel: Charlie Haden (bass), Pat Metheny (guitars and other instruments)

When I lived in Washington, D.C. there was a radio show on Sunday mornings called “G-Strings” which featured acoustic music played on stringed instruments. The music was usually jazz or classical, with a bit of bluegrass and folk music thrown in. It was a great show and you could always hear some really interesting stuff. The beauty of acoustic music and acoustic instruments is that you can really hear the personality of both the instrument and the player coming through the music.

Beyond the Missouri Sky is an album that, like Haden and Metheny themselves, defies categorization. Both of the players are known as jazz musicians, but this is not really a jazz album, even though it is informed by the spirit of jazz and has many improvised passages. At heart it is a duet album, with Haden on upright bass and Metheny on various acoustic guitars, with a little bit of very subtle supplementation via keyboards, additional guitars (electric, acoustic, and sitar), and percussion. In the liner notes to the album, Haden refers to Metheny’s sound as “contemporary impressionistic americana”. I can’t really say it better than that. But it’s interesting to see that word, “impressionistic”, coming from Haden, who known primarily as a lyrical and, well, impressionistic bassist. My friend Rick  used to always refer to Haden’s playing not as “playing” but as “painting”. It’s really a powerful metaphor when you think about it, especially when listening to this album – you can almost picture the two of them, Haden and Metheny, seated together, painting with their instruments, the wide open Missouri sky as their canvas.

But enough waxing poetic. Back to the music. One little detail that I love about Missouri Sky is that you can hear all the little noises that the instruments make. It’s not sanitized – this is pure musical creation, in all its imperfect glory. Bass strings flap and buzz against the fretboard; guitar strings squeak and creak as the player’s hands slide across the ridged surface of the strings. And the most glorious thing about stringed instruments, especially those played with the fingers, such as guitars and basses, is that more than any other instruments, they respond so well to touch (the master of touch, Jeff Beck, doesn’t play with a pick anymore for a reason). Couple that with a wide dynamic range, and you have an incredibly expressive vehicle.

Missouri Sky is the first album where I really “got” Pat Metheny as an artist, and it’s also when I fell in love with his playing. That may seem strange, considering how prolific he is, but it took me a while to get my head around what was going on in records like Bright Size Life, Watercolors, 80/81, and the like. Missouri Sky is quiet, it’s slower, and provides easier access to the music, and after listening to it – many, many times – I found that it eased the transition into Metheny’s more famous trio records, and beyond.

I won’t talk about every tune here, but I do need to touch on a few of the highlights.

“Our Spanish Love Song” is by far the best piece on the album, and it features one of the best guitar solos I’ve ever heard – possibly THE best. No joke. I would love to know how many takes of this they recorded, and how much they rehearsed it. The song itself was penned by Haden, and has a beautiful melody, the kind that you just want to listen to over and over again. But Metheny’s solo is something to behold. It is almost classical in its composition, utilizing many classical compositional techniques, yet it retains the presence and magic of the best of Metheny’s improvisations. Listen to the way he uses theme and development (around 1:40 – 1:50), and repetition (2:05 – 2:17) to create tension and release.

The playing here is highly technical – his phrases are almost textbook perfect examples of playing over changes, moving only the notes you have to to create that sort of slippery feeling of playing through the chords. My favorite lick in the solo is a great example of this – it’s just a quick turnaround lick that starts at around 2:04. Notice how he outlines the changes perfectly, yet still manages to sound musical, amping the emotion at the same time. Brilliant.

After the solo, the melody is restated before a final rideout solo. This song also features one of my favorite songwriting techniques – stating the melody first in a lower register, then later returning to the same melody an octave higher. You can hear this technique in just about any style of music, and it always works to give the song a sense of movement and momentum, that one extra push at the end to make the song really fly.

“Precious Jewel” hearkens back a bit to Metheny’s “Two Folk Songs” from the 80/81 album. This one has Metheny in strumming mode while Haden handles the melody. It’s a nice break from the more pensive moods of the other tunes. Some obvious overdubbing here, with Metheny playing some electric guitar lines for the melody and solo.

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is probably my second favorite tune on the album, which is kind of amazing considering it’s composed of a very simple melody over some basic open chords (G, D, Am, Em). It’s a tribute to both the songwriting (it was written by Jimmy Webb) and to the setting. The song has been performed and recorded a bunch of times by numerous artists (Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, and Webb himself), but none come close the emotion that is discovered here…

OK, quick aside/brainstorm…as I was writing this I was thinking that I kinda liked the Linda Ronstadt version and that it reminded me a bit of Grace Potter…then I thought, wow, Grace Potter would absolutely KILL singing this song…then I thought what if Metheny was on guitar and Haden was on bass with Grace Potter singing…then I sat here and daydreamed happily for a while about what that would sound like. Somebody needs to get that together NOW…ok, I’m done.

In this intimate setting the song takes on an intense melancholy tone that is hard to shake off – it stays with you long after the last chord has been played, and you don’t want it to end. The song features some really nice and subtle key modulations as well – if you’re not paying attention you almost miss them completely.

The final song, “Spiritual”, was written by Haden’s son, and you can really hear Haden get into it on this one. The playing by both Metheny and Haden is almost painful in its restraint.

The word I keep coming back to when I think of this album is intimacy. The music here feels close, palpable. Haden and Metheny are true legends and masters of their instruments, yet they never show off, never overplay. Every note is perfectly placed yet they retain a loose, improvisational feel. I listen to at least some of this album almost every day. It has long held a spot on my personal “Desert Island” list, and I think it always will.