Many of his fans are in an uproar, questioning his sanity. Down Beat has given his album a snorting, dismissive, pious one- and-a-half star review. His record company is trying to remain calm, releasing the project as a limited edition and hoping that the whole mess goes away quietly.
We're talking, or course, about the controversial new Pat Metheny album, Zero Tolerance for Silence, as thrilling an adventure in new music/new jazz guitar as any you'll hear this year. The guitarist went into New York City's Power Station on December 16, 1993, and layered improvised guitar parts that may suggest hints of everything from early John McLaughlin to early Jethro Tull to Pete Cosey to Glenn Branca, and then some. Often, pentatonic riffing will splinter off into the atonal ozone. Accidental harmonies will rub up against each other, enhanced by the raucous overtones of his grungy guitar sound. Other times, it's every part for itself, in a sonic pell mell that effectively scrubs your sinuses as you listen.
In short: what came out that December day is unlike any other Metheny title in the oeuvre.
Context is everything; had this album been released by a guitarist on a small experimental-minded label, it would have enjoyed a quiet life of noble obscurity. But it goes into the broad-based bin of Pat Metheny, one of the more healthily complex jazz artists of our time. Zero Tolerance implicitly asks questions. For instance - is it jazz at all? Not in the strict sense. These five improvised pieces are less about jazz or rock vocabularies, per se, than densities and abstract values of sound painting. What does connect the album to the spirit of jazz is its inherently probing nature.
Some listeners may find the wall-of-sound approach jarring. But the multi-tracked textural onslaught - with a gnarly distorted tone band with parts that are not always in intonational agreement - sometimes achieves an odd meditative quality.
Metheny's raw desire to move beyond complacent traditions is hardly new, and, as such, Zero Tolerance is actually a fairly logical extension of his aesthetic. What was disturbing, for some, about his plush and popular Secret Story was its patent lack of adventurous, dissonant, deconstructivist ideas, whereas most of Metheny's albums - even the accessible Group albums - contained hints of stretching or enlightened quirks that punctured the shiny fabric of general acceptability. Certainly, Metheny made a bold political statement about artistic values when he kicked off his Geffen period with the Ornette Coleman collaboration of Song X.
But Zero Tolerance for Silence is something else again. Listeners got an inkling of Metheny's brewing restlessness upon hearing the guitarist's work on Gary Thomas's Till We Have Faces of last year, which contains some of Metheny's most inspired soloing on record, and with a new rough-hewn guitar sound.
Zero Tolerance for Silence - a perfect title - is as much a textural statement and a comment on the state of the electric guitar, that once-potent emblem of rebellion which has devolved into predictable roles. Metheny, in a sense, even had to flee from his own past, since the glassy style he pioneered has had such a heavy influence on today's jazz guitar status quo. Zero Tolerance is not at all a virtuoso project, but rather a primal holler which reclaims some of the electric guitar's lost ideals. It makes perfect sense that Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore - Branca alumnus and Geffen labelmate - has anointed Zero Tolerance for its importance.
In some way, Zero Tolerance is the real secret story of Pat Metheny, a musician who has zero tolerance for the all-American tendency to milk success, and zero tolerance for the separatist instincts of today's music world - especially in jazz. He defends, with a burning passion behind a toothy grin, his right to play lyrically or with crazy, self-examining abandon or any other way he sees fit. This music is all about paradigms punished. Somebody had to do it. And it's because Metheny has done it that we rejoice - while others recoil.[...continued discussion about Bill Frisell's This Land, Paul Motian's Trioism, Frank Gambale's Passages, Scott Henderson's Dog Party,and Tronzo Trio's Roots CDs...]