Classical Album of the Week: Jazz and Classical Intersect in Pat Metheny's Road to the Sun
July 12, 2021. Classical guitarist Jason Vieaux, a Pat Metheny fan for years, plays a beautiful four-movement composition for solo guitar that the jazz great wrote for him for the album, Road to the Sun, which also features the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet playing the title piece. Vieaux tells the story of how Four Paths of Light came to be.
In 2005, Jason Vieaux was about to release his album, Images of Metheny. He was playing at a series in Richmond, Virginia when he had the unexpected, if likely a bit nerve-racking, chance to meet Metheny and share the music with him. “I thought I might have the opportunity to get his blessing,” he says. “I also thought well, if he doesn’t like it, I can ask the label if they can bag it.”
Metheny did like it, and even wrote a forward for it. A musical friendship was born, as they emailed periodically and followed one another over the years. Vieaux, writes Metheny in materials for Road to the Sun, became his favorite Bach interpreter on the guitar.
The Journey to Four Paths of Light
About ten years ago, Metheny told Vieaux, “I’d like to write you a solo guitar piece. I don't know when or if it's going to happen; it might just show up in the mail.” Then, two or three years ago, when Metheny composed Road to the Sun for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, he wrote to Vieaux, “I got it. That's where your piece [Four Paths of Light] is going to go. I think this is a record.”
Metheny writes of Vieaux, “While he excels at passages that border on being technically impossible, he also has the rare ability to make things that are simple have real meaning. His playing inspired me to write a piece that would hopefully challenge and inspire him in return.”
Jason Vieaux met with me on Zoom in June of 2021.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Growing up studying classical, surrounded by jazz
Vieux, who co-founded the guitar department at The Curtis Institute of Music and has taught for over 25 years at his alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Music, grew up in Buffalo, New York. There he studied classical guitar with one of the founding members of the Buffalo Guitar Quartet, Jeremy Sparks.
“With Jeremy, my first teacher, I got pretty far down the classical guitar road. I graduated high school at 16 and I had 75 pieces in my repertoire. I was 'all in' on the whole classical music thing. And that was really because my first teacher -- that's what he did; that's what he knew; and that's how he played guitar. He was in this group of these long-haired guys who wore tuxes and played Debussy and Darius Milhaud. They were really great musicians and great players.”
Meanwhile, his parents’ record collection was almost entirely modern jazz, he says. “That's where I think I first heard Pat. My mother's record collection was more dance-oriented music, like Motown singles, the Beatles, Lovin’ Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas.”
His meeting with Pat Metheny in 2005 sewed the seeds of a collaboration that would flower 10 years after Metheny told Vieaux that a piece for him might just show up in the mail one day.
Four Paths of Light
“Actually, it did sort of just show up in my mail one day,” say Vieaux. “Pat is so busy -- I can't even really process what a typical day must be like for him. So he would not be in contact for a long time, like for six months, and then [suddenly] it was all right here, the whole 19-minute piece.”
That was September, 2018. “And then he booked the recording dates for January 2019, so I didn't have a whole lot of time. We met in Saratoga Springs at Skidmore College (I was doing a residency there) to go over the piece, and that little meeting for two or three hours helped before the sessions in January.”
“As we talked beforehand, it wasn’t that I asked him to write something, but he did ask, 'is there anything, in particular, you might like to hear?' And I cited a lot of his more dissonant ventures into music: Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, these kind of things; or even some Pat Metheny Group tracks; those are some of my favorite things of his.”
The first movement [of Four Paths of Light] he says, was just like that -- "like a buzzsaw, really edgy but also sounding very much like him."
The second part was a ballad. "So it was really clear, right away, I could dig into the piece.”
The recording sessions
“Then the rest of the detail stuff we learned through three days of recording sessions in January. It was something like 28 hours of recording time he had booked, and we used every minute of it ... I would be playing one phrase, but he would have me do it three or four different ways.”
“He wanted different options, because I think he's more accustomed to putting things together; the studio is actually an instrument, where you have all these options and he can put it together.”
“I was trying to think of [my role] as a sideman for Miles, or if I was a sideman for Joe Zawinul. The concept is they have a very clear vision and I'm supposed to execute that. I was very much in that mode, as I would be with any any composer, really.”
Conversations were strictly musical says Vieaux. “There's no literary narrative or anything like that, which I think is great." It is, in fact, why Metheny is one of Vieaux's favorite artists. "When the music is at its most intriguing, it allows you to fill in your own kind of narrative. It's got a mystery, a kind of a mystique to it."
While it's been described by some as a guitar suite, Vieaux says it's more like a sonata. "All three of those movements are so different from each other, but they're all connected. It's best listen from start to finish because because they're thematically linked all the way through."
Pat Metheny's voice
"It's really hard to describe Pat's music," says Vieaux. "It just comes from so many different places. I think because I was such a big jazz fan, the more I explored his music, the more of those things I found, but his influences are not that easy to identify. You really have to understand the history of jazz, and that's why it's really hard to explain."
Difficult to explain in words; just listen.
The title work on the album is Road to the Sun, played by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. The last piece on the recording is Metheny's own performance of his transcription for 42 string guitar of Arvo Pärt's Für Alina.