Pat Metheny’s ‘Hommage à Eberhard Weber’ Live at Detroit Jazz Festival

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Pat Metheny‘s Hommage à Eberhard Weber received its North American debut Monday evening in the Motor City. The new work, a mixed-media tribute to the German bassist featuring big band and sampled video, closed out the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival on the main stage. Hommage was premiered in Stuttgart, Germany in January 2015 at a concert honoring Weber, which he attended, and also serves as the title track of the upcoming ECM release due out this Friday 09.11.15.

Pat Metheny, particularly over the last decade or so, has been treating listeners to new sonic adventures, be it with his symphony-length The Way Up for the Pat Metheny Group, his orchestrion project (both solo or incorporated into the Unity Group), and now this inventive big band composition. Weber, who’s been unable to perform since a 2007 stroke, sounds and feels musically alive and well in this new work.

On a selfish note, I was happy to have Metheny bring the name, image, and sounds of Weber to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is often North American-centric (understandably so, to a degree) and doesn’t often feature the Northern European jazz aesthetic. I made the trek with friend, collaborator, and fellow ECM fan Matt Borghi. (We recorded some pre- and post-show comments and discussion for a forthcoming episode of his Sound Traveler Podcast due out this week. Link here.)

The piece is unique and its performance was unlike anything I’ve seen in a jazz setting. Analogous attempts have been made in other styles, particularly in Zappa Plays Zappa, which has featured Dweezil Zappa playing transcriptions of his father’s guitar solos visually accompanied by projections of his father executing the original. But that’s in more of a reproductive, canonical context. In Hommage, Metheny uses samples of Weber’s unaccompanied improvised solos as launching pads for both composition and improvisation, resulting in an entirely new work. (Rather than an orchestration of Weber’s ideas or something else similarly derivative.) Metheny writes in the album’s liner notes:

It came to me that it would be interesting to take the idea of sampling one step further; to find video elements of Eberhard improvising and then reorganize, chop, mix and orchestrate elements of those performances together into a new composition with a large projection of the Eberhard moments that I chose filling a screen behind us as we performed. It seemed like a new way to compose for me that would almost take the form of visual sampling.

Reading about it and seeing footage – my photograph above or the official video trailer below – don’t quite do it justice, as this is a composition that is meant to be seen as well as heard. Reading the descriptions, I was intrigued going into the performance, but what I saw was much greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. Metheny was backed by the Detroit Jazz Festival Big Band (featuring regional heavies) and shared the spotlight with vibraphonist Gary Burton, drummer Danny Gottlieb, bassist Scott Colley, conductor Alan Broadbent, and of course the footage, spirit, and sound of bassist Eberhard Weber.

The work is largely in four sections:
I. Emerging from silence, winds, cymbals, guitar, and Weber build thick sonic textures and dense harmonies, giving way to Weber’s plucked solo ostinato. The big band is then off at a healthy moderato, with guitar and vibes taking the melodic and soloistic reins. Even when quicker and rhythmic, the winds offer more textural than melodic support here.
II. Some building arco passages then transition to a more burning section, led again by a plucked ostinato from Weber. Here Metheny takes us into more “big band-friendly” territory, offering ample room for Metheny to shred with his trademark affected tone — it’s almost Pat Metheny Group Big Band featuring Eberhard Weber. The band transitions out of this part with the instrumental sections rhythmically punctuating against one another, eventually blending into the more textural elements from the beginning.
III. Weber & co. then lead us into a folk-like romp, with Metheny quickly strumming on the hollow body a la 80/81‘s “Two Folk Songs.” Here, Scott Colley shines in the spotlight dueling in call-and-response fashion with a digital Weber. And, amazingly, like the rest of this piece, it works. It doesn’t feel forced or like the band is “playing to a track.” It all melds together into one cohesive unit. A frenetic drum solo by Gottlieb then leads us to the final chapter.
IV. Much like the beginning, the big band is more textural here, while Weber melodically solos atop. The digital Weber has acted more as musical director and bassist until this point, but he’s the featured soloist to close, which makes this Hommage a very fitting and tasteful tribute.

Metheny mentions in the liner notes that he hadn’t scored for big band in decades. Well, could’ve fooled me. It’s a very well-written work. Furthermore, I can’t express enough just how well all the parts come together. Seeing and hearing Weber within the piece really made him feel like a genuine part of the performance. Bravo to Pat Metheny on a job well done.

The soloists and ensemble gave a commanding and cohesive performance. I could be wrong, but it appeared as if there was a quick skip/glitch in the video feed near the transition from the first to the second sections, but everyone quickly adjusted and got back on the same page. Perhaps it wasn’t a glitch and there was just a natural hiccup to overcome in the Weber track; hard to tell. (Speaking from my own experiences performing the music of Jakob ter Veldhuis, I can attest to the difficulty of performing composed works with tape, particularly when the samples aren’t always “exact” in certain sections.) The mix itself was mediocre at best, but that had nothing to do with the performers nor the composition.*

I’m very glad I saw this piece live, the performance of which I’m sure will be a rarity going forward. I really hope ECM considers releasing a video of the Eberhard Weber tribute concert from Stuttgart in January so that more people will have an opportunity to see this work as well as hear it. But until then, check out the audio, and the rest of the concert (featuring a host of other musicians including Jan Garbarek) when it hits the shelves this Friday.

*Having seen many DJF concerts on that same stage, I’m surprised that the mix wasn’t MUCH better. Quest, a quartet, was much louder than this full ensemble, for instance.

[Photo by yours truly]

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