POPULAR musicians are not known for taking chances. After all, their fans might be alienated, so it's better to play it safe, right? Not according to Pat Metheny, the immensely popular jazz/pop guitarist, who recently threw this reasoning out the window when he decided to team up with iconoclastic jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman in what has turned out to be a major musical event. The collaboration resulted in a record, ``Song X,'' and a short tour through the eastern half of the United States, including a stunning evening at Town Hall here last week.
Although Metheny's super-smooth guitar playing seems like the direct opposite of Coleman's sometimes cacophonous and frenzied alto sax, the two men surprised everyone by proving that they are a perfect match. They both love melody, and have an unaffected, instinctive approach to the most demanding music. The press has affectionately been calling them the ``Odd Couple,'' but Metheny and Coleman have actually been aware of a connection in their seemingly disparate musical styles for quite some time.
Metheny said in a recent interview, ``One of the first profound experiences that I had as a listener to music was when I was about 11 years old and I bought Ornette Coleman's record Tomorrow Is the Question.' I have no idea what prompted me to buy this record. At that point I knew nothing about jazz -- I had no way of knowing whether this was a new rock-and-roll band or what. Well, I took it home and played it, and it just knocked me out.''
From then on, Metheny was a fan of Ornette's. ``I liked the way he played and the approach that he took, which had such a strong point of view. And the kind of fearlessness, too, in his improvising. Ornette is on a different level than virtually any musician I've ever heard. There are a few, maybe five or six instrumentalists who have the gift that Ornette has, where each note speaks volumes rather than chapters or sentences.''
Over the years, the young guitarist would sometimes play Coleman's tunes, and he even recorded a few of them. Metheny was playing at the Village Vanguard jazz club several years ago when he finally got to meet Ornette.
``We talked for just a little while, and I instantly liked him personally -- he's a very natural guy, there's no pretense whatsoever. He told me that he liked the way I played, which was of course incredibly flattering! -- and he said maybe we should play sometime. Of course I said, sure, oh, yeah, yeah!''
Then, earlier this year, when Metheny was in the process of changing record companies, he decided he'd like to do something really distinct for his debut album on the new label. Right away he thought of Ornette: ``I had seen him recently and had heard some tapes of him at a rehearsal, and he sounded so good.''
So Metheny made an official proposal to Coleman, and within three weeks the record was done. ``We spent about eight hours a day practicing and playing together and working on the music that we finally played on the record. Our goal was to come up with something different. We didn't want to do a re-creation of an earlier Ornette band or his current band, Prime Time, and we didn't want to do the Pat Metheny Group.''
Metheny and Coleman were joined on the album and on the tour by Ornette's son Denardo on drum synthesizer, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Charlie Haden on bass. Their appearance at Town Hall was a great burst of inspiration and a ``joyful noise.'' The astute mix of acoustics and electronics, involving both sound and light, was just the right setting for Metheny and Coleman's creative muscle-flexing. There was some wonderful improvising by all the members of the band, and although the moods shifted from frenetic to reverent, the strong underlying melodic themes were there to be heard. Although the almost overwhelming energy of the music caused a few people to walk out, the majority stayed on and cheered.
``The thing that a lot of musicians forget is that playing music is actually listening -- to yourself and to the other players,'' Metheny says. ``This project was an example of five good musicians who are better listeners than players. All of us hear more than we can play.''