THE GREAT CURVE 018

THE GREAT CURVE 018
curated by Todd Berryman

I mentioned during the essay about Anne Murray’s Love Song that I owned that particular recording in multiple formats…and that led me to start thinking about other albums in my world, about which that is true. There aren’t many of them, but a couple I can say I’ve owned at least three times, not necessarily because they wore out, but because I wanted ease of access, or maybe to hear how it sounded in another mode of presentation. In those instances, it was on cassette, compact disc and vinyl. One of those albums I’ve covered in another earlier essay, the one for the Smithereens’ Especially for You.

This is the other one.

Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1981)

For those who may have skipped around on THE GREAT CURVE, I’m going to repeat a portion of the introduction for last week’s essay, as I was first introduced to this particular album in similar circumstances.

WFPL was a public radio FM station that struggled to make its way into Washington County, Indiana in the mid-1980s. Trying to pick it up on the best of nights might have involved moving stereo equipment around the room. On stormy nights, wrapping everything in aluminum foil was the only solution. Portable stereos with telescoping antennas were not an improvement.

In short, it was an exercise in frustration, but it was all worthwhile. The format was primarily jazz, with occasional dives into blues, and a whole whopping two hours on Sunday nights of what was then called “college rock” in some circles. I got the chance to hear a lot of wonderful music I would have never had the chance to explore otherwise.

On this particular night in 1986, I was finishing up some late homework, before the station would play a feature album around 10pm, and I flipped on a Pioneer portable radio/cassette stereo that I was borrowing from a high school friend, trying to see if I could get a better air signal by using that, instead of the receiver in my larger system. Up came something very percussion-heavy, with some keyboard underscoring, very mysterious-sounding. Eventually it went into something like a full band rock arrangement for a few moments, which was the point that my attention was piqued enough that I quickly grabbed a blank tape to capture what might be left of this particular piece. Then what sounded like the strums of an autoharp – not an instrument known for its heavy presence in jazz – cued up a more restrained keyboard section, with the occasional interjection of a voice with a Midwestern accent saying numbers: “…thirty-eight…forty-two…” And then after a prolonged pause, the smacking of lips preceding “…fifty-five…three…” before moving to just keyboards, playing swelling chords. The progressions moved through minors, a burst of majors, then ultimately resolved with something like hope, or optimism, and the sounds of children playing in the fadeout of the song.

Astonished by what I just heard, I let the tape run long enough to catch the artist and song: the title track to Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.

Now, what I didn’t know at the time was that I had only heard what amounted to the last eight minutes or so of the piece. I played that tape obsessively for the next couple of seasons, trying to divine meaning like I was panning for gold. Months later, when my aunt Rita gave me a copy of the album on cassette for Christmas Eve, I discovered that the title track in fact ran over twice that length. After our guests went home, and everyone retired to bed in anticipation of Santa’s visit that night, I put on headphones so I could enjoy the cassette in solitude in the bedroom, knowing that it probably wouldn’t go over with the entire family…and I wanted to be able to focus.

Because it was the mid-1980s and this particular cassette was a reissue, the first thing I heard past the blank leader tape was the XDR quality-control toneburst, which I was used to seeing on cassettes manufactured by Capitol Records and its affiliates, but was not used to seeing on things issued on Polygram-distributed labels like ECM at that time. (As a side note, this being the 1980s we’re talking about, much has changed in the past 30 years, and these companies have since merged, so if this was happening in the present, it’d be another story.) Then a slow fade up of what sounded like people in a mall or public space, and then the start of a pulsing keyboard line, slightly reminiscent of classical composer Steve Reich. As it progressed, guitar stepped in, doubling up on the melody of the piece, and what sounded like thunder a couple of minutes along.

At 2:37, the first clear statement on Metheny’s guitar arrived, which was also the moment where I thought, okay, this will be pretty rewarding, not as slow-moving as the introduction to this has led me to believe. Around 6:08, a mesh of standard hand percussion, played by guest Nana Vascancelos, and some electronic percussion as an undercurrent appeared, plus keyboard textures in the background and Vascancelos emphasizing his playing with vocal accents, low in the mix. Near the 12 minute mark is when I started to come back across the material I’d heard a few months earlier on the radio, which now had even more power with the framing that I had no chance to hear before.

When I hit the end of Side 1, entirely taken by that title track, I felt rewarded, and tired, and that the night owed me nothing more, and so I finally caved in and went to bed. A few hours later, in the dead of night, my usual “I’m in love with this music” ritual kicked up, and I rewound the side to listen to it again, quilted by the quiet of the wintertime holiday house.

Side 2 followed in the middle of the next day, when everybody was occupied with their various presents. “Ozark” opened the side, but with a more uptempo presence than what had come before, with the return of the autoharp starting the song, and a piano progression that I would later recognize as being reminiscent of the late Bill Evans. Interestingly, that perfectly set up the next track, titled “September Fifteenth” and dedicated to Evans’ memory – the pianist, who’d worked with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue, died while Metheny and Mays were in Norway recording the As Falls Wichita album, and the song sprang up during the session as a nod to Evans. (Some listeners may recognize it as a piece that has been occasionally used in PSAs or advertisements for hospitals.)

Then to “It’s for You” as the third song on Side 2. In some ways, it read as an uptempo and compressed version of the title track, with a long meditative stretch in the middle that paid off brilliantly in the closing, starting at 4:42. Little wonder that the creators of the 1985 movie Fandango tapped into this wondrous instrumental for their soundtrack. (To this day, I find it quite a useful piece to test out a stereo, with low-end electronics set against the trebly strumming of Metheny on acoustic guitar.)

The closing was a reading of “Amazing Grace” titled “Estupenda Graça” – basically gospel-by-way-of-Brazil, and a perfect, brief coda to an amazing album.

In the mid-1990s, to save wear and tear on my cassette, I finally caved in and bought the compact disc version of As Falls Wichita and fell in love with the album all over again. Part of it was the discovery that the cassette, in spite of the quality-control process, simply didn’t have as much high end or low end on Side 2 as it should have, and so it wasn’t so much “again” as “really hearing it for the first time” instead. (It was also when I figured out the significance and positioning of the numbers announced in the course of the title track, as they pair up nicely with the time as it goes by on a CD counter: the voice, that of Pat Metheny, is periodically announcing particular seconds going by.)  A couple of years after that, another revelation came in the form of the vinyl purchase, which is when the real “presence” in the album revealed itself, especially on “It’s for You” in the low end, the kind that hits squarely in the solar plexus, when it really gets ramped up in the song’s back half.

I’ve been acquainted with As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls for three decades as of this writing, and it still captivates me as much as it ever did. What also comes to mind are the circumstances for hearing it: me, one night, idly turning on the radio to hear part of a 21-minute piece on a public radio channel. The odds of it happening NOW are next to zero, as many public radio stations wouldn’t take that kind of chance anymore, fearful of losing an audience after five minutes. I find myself wondering, not so much about how my listening life would have been different if I’d heard it earlier, but what it would have been like if the fates hadn’t aligned to hear it at all in the first place. Even as a jazz fan, would I have ever found it? That was my true point of entry into Pat Metheny’s work, and in many ways various aspects of jazz I hadn’t explored before – would my world have begun and ended with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Glenn Miller?

I don’t know. But I shudder when I think about it.

Further research:

A live version of “It’s for You” from the Montreal Jazz Festival, the year following the release of the As Falls Wichita album.

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