For several decades now, the Pat Metheny Group has been one of the top-tier jazz bands in the world. Often shifting forms from traditional jazz, the group has always attempted to do something original, with Pat Metheny at the forefront. The group is best-known as a quartet, but aside from Metheny and Lyle Mays (Metheny's creative foil), the membership of the band has varied wildly. The 2006 incarnation includes both Metheny and Mays, bassist Steve Rodby, drummer Antonio Sanchéz, trumpeter/vocalist Cuong Vu, and Gregoire Maret on harmonica. This version of the group signed with Nonesuch records, known lately for giving second chances to artists who might have seemed outre, such as Laurie Anderson and most famously Wilco, as well as reissuing many milestone works by composer Steve Reich.
The band's first release for Nonesuch, The Way Up, feels like it owes a little something to Mr. Reich (whom Metheny has worked with before), opening with a slow-build up that any fan of "Music For 18 Musicians" would find familiar. Soon the band find themselves in their own territory, however, as they perform the piece's main theme and begin to wind into improvisational jaunts that are always a pleasure to travel on.
This version of "The Way Up" comes from the Asian leg of the band's tour; specifically, we're watching them perform in Seoul, Korea. The performance opens with a simple title card and then that engaging intro. No chatter with the audience, just straight into the music. And what music it is. Listening to the interview on the disc, as well as other writings available on the internet, it's clear that "The Way Up" is a very special composition for both Metheny and Mays, one that embodies all that they want their music to express. And their joyful performances amply display just how into the music they get: Metheny practically glows as he plays the theme.
The rest of the group looks a little more serious than their bandleader, but they have no less passion for the material. Each one gets their turn in the spotlight as the piece progresses, and each bring a unique sound that contributes to the whole. With so many aging musicians losing the battle against their own previous works, it's nice to know that some artists are still willing to take chances.
The HD DVD:
As far as I can tell, this is the first release by Eagle Vision, and they start things off right. Unlike Concert Hot Spot, who likes to encode with MPEG-2, Eagle Vision has this concert encoded in VC-1. Now, even with that superior compression codec, I still think that concerts are some of the worst material to use for HD. Most concerts tend to have lighting rigs that bathe large portions of the stage in a single color of light, so most of what you see has the details wiped by being covered entirely in blue, or red, or whatever other color the lighting guy has decided upon. In this respect The Way Up is no revelation, we're mostly seeing solid colors. However, when we get some white light you can make out a lot of detail (you can actually see a tiny scratch on a single key of Mays' piano!), but considering all we're seeing is a group of guys playing music, it's a little hard to be wowed by the image. Still, as far as the encoding goes, I found nothing to complain about.
Now, this is what we're here for. As with any concert disc, the audio is what you really want a good showing from, and this one does not disappoint. We get three audio options: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, DTS-HD (which, as far as I can tell, is not the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio but simply regular DTS with the letters "HD" tacked on at the end), and uncompressed LPCM stereo. All three tracks sound great. Of the three, I found the DTS to be the most disappointing, with the least amount of range. The Dolby Digital Plus fared much better, with a more open soundstage and a warmth missing from the DTS. To my ears, though, as heretical as this might sound to surround lovers, I enjoyed the stereo LPCM the most. The uncompressed sound had such a fine timbre to it that I found myself switching back to it to hear my favorite passages. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the DD+, but the LPCM is the winner in this case.
Eagle Vision once again surprises me by putting the disc's one video bonus feature in 1080p, also encoded with VC-1. The feature in question is a 20-minute interview with Pat Metheny. Metheny is an intelligent guy who really loves what he does, and the 20 minutes goes by in a flash as he talks about the origins of the band, its philosophy, the meaning of "The Way Up" for himself and Mays, and many other topics. He smiles a lot and genuinely seems grateful to be able to lead a life where he can spend his days playing jazz.
The only other supplement is a collection of musician's bios, which are actually a little more in-depth than what you might find on a standard DVD. Metheny gets the longest, of course, but every one is worth reading.
Pat Metheny is a certified legend in the music business, but he still continues to grow and change with his art. The Way Up: Live is a prime example, a single extended piece that builds on what Metheny has done before while continuously striving for something new. The HD DVD has good picture but more importantly, great sound, and is worth a purchase by fans of the group or anyone interested in a new sonic experience. Recommended