Pat Metheny is so annoying. With an ear for modern harmony and a talent for catchy melodic improv second only to maybe Bill Frisell's, he's one of the slickest guitarists in contemporary jazz. But the two dozen albums in his discography, including those that sold in the hundred thousands, reek of lightweight fusiony dross better suited for the Kmart PA than for the rich legacy of serious jazz. One could argue that Metheny's longtime songwriting partner, keyboardist Lyle Mays, is the culpable influence. But that would imply that the guitarist has no mind of his own, which is hardly the case.
In 1985, Metheny teamed up with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman for the startling Song X. A decade later he recorded the offbeat, noise-drenched solo record Zero Tolerance for Silence, arguably the most bizarre tangent a pop-jazz star has ever inflicted upon an established fan base. Then last year, while feeding his loyal followers Beyond the Missouri Sky and Imaginary Day -- serene duets with bassist Charlie Haden and breezy Metheny-Mays ear candy, respectively -- he paired up with U.K. guitarist and avant-garde visionary Derek Bailey for The Sign of 4, a three-disc explosion of corrosive colors and textures that chiseled his monolithic jazz-lite image into a jagged mass of abstract beauty.
Metheny's muse roams wild across a massive stylistic range, and that, understandably, irks jazzheads. But unlike most commercial success stories, this guitarist's mettle is without question.