Contemporary jazz has a way of fading into the background, accompanying activity without interrupting or intruding on life. Speaking of Now, the newest release by the Pat Metheny Group, behaves this way. With its pleasant and unobtrusive tracks, Speaking of Now creates a relaxing atmosphere of intricate acoustic jazz. All the songs on the album employ extraordinary instrumental work and innovative compositions to impart an overwhelming feeling of serenity. After 10 minutes of the album, I frequently forgot I was listening to it all.
Speaking of Now presents a new lineup for PMG. Of course, leader and guitarist Pat Metheny is back, and so is his songwriting partner and keyboardist Lyle Mays, as well as acoustic bassist Steve Robby. The new additions include Antonia Sanchez, an amazing and dynamic drummer from Mexico City; Cuong Vi, a masterful soloist on the trumpet; and Richard Bona, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist from East Cameroon.
A truly collaborative album, Speaking of Now draws its strength from the ability of PMG members to perform as a single unit. While the tracks draw on each artist’s individual talents, they never become disconnected or inconsistent. The musicians work together, playing off each other’s unique style and conception of jazz. Each track successfully combines solo work and cooperation, channeling the talents of the six distinctive men into original and smooth songs.
The second and longest track on the album, “Proof,” is the gem of PMG’s latest effort. The unique percussion of Sanchez and Bona sets the tone for the song and enhances Mays’ keyboard work. Metheny displays his remarkable ability in a guitar solo that parallels some of today’s best jam guitarists, while an emotional trumpet interlude by Vu adds depth and variety to the song. The spirited “On Her Way” blends elaborate instrumental performances with light vocals; the result is a multi-layered and well-balanced composition that draws attention to each musician’s talents.
Despite its impressive roster of musicians, Speaking of Now is not without faults. At times during its 70-minute run, the album becomes uninteresting and complacent. The artists do not maintain their energy and originality throughout the entire album, and some of the later tracks seem boring and repetitive. A rougher or more conflict-driven song might have added a little variety to PMG’s continually cheerful and peaceable tone.
Songs like “As It Is” and “Afternoon” suffer as a result of Bono’s vocals, which provide a distraction from the stronger, instrumental elements of the album. His vocals are uninspiring and overly sweet; they create the impression of a failed attempt to mold light jazz and world music into one.
Speaking of Now does an excellent job showcasing the talents of six phenomenal musicians and exemplifies a successful collaboration in contemporary jazz. While more variation in tone would have improved the latter tracks of the album, PMG still delivers a stylistically solid and technically impressive performance.