Missouri state of mind

Jazz legends Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden have journeyed into the mid-West. Phil Johnson listens in
It was like a re-make of some ancient H.M. Bateman cartoon about a scandalous drawing-room faux-pas.The launch of Beyond the Missouri Sky, the long-awaited collaboration between two famous American jazz musicians - bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Pat Metheny was a solemn affair.The technician had pressed play and the album had boomed sonorously from the hugely impressive stereo system. Then silence fell. The audience said nothing and the duo wriggled in their seats. Until, at last, I hesitantly made an enquiry. They weren't worried, were they, I said, that the album was a bit like muzak. It was that exquisite Bateman-esque moment of social embarrassment: "The Man Who Mentioned Muzak." Jaws dropped, heads turned, Charlie looked infinitely pained. Then he spoke: "I've never, ever, felt in danger of making muzak." And that was that. But, of course, Beyond the Missouri Sky is a bit like muzak. A duet for bass and guitar, with a few synthesised orchestral string-choruses, the music is so limpidly beautiful, so soft and compliant, that it could quite happily serve as sound sculptures to be heard in a lift or a pizza restaurant. There's the tune that sounds like the theme from The Deerhunter, the one that reminds you of the theme from Chariots of Fire, and there really is the theme from Cinema Paradiso. It's a great album too, perhaps the ultimate Sunday morning slobbing-around soundtrack, it's just that there's more sense of conflict and tension in an episode of Home and Away.

It wasn't always thus, and Haden's present peace of mind, as expressed in the lyrical beauty of the album, has been a hard-won thing. In 1957, he left his home in Forsyth, Missouri, to attend music college in Los Angeles. After becoming the bassist in the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet, helping to create free jazz, he went through a long bout of heroin addiction, which, unlike many of his peers such as Art Pepper and Chet Baker, he survived. He met Metheny, who grew up a hundred miles away, in Lee's Summit, Missouri, in 1973, at an Ornette Coleman concert. The guitarist, who is 17 years younger than Haden, became a star of fusion in the Seventies, and he remains one of the most commercially successful of all jazz musicians, mixing the guitar heroics of his own bands with occasional excursions into the experimental. When Haden married his present wife, Ruth Cameron, in 1989, Metheny was best man.

They had planned to make a record together for years and when the chance came, Beyond the Missouri Sky was recorded in a few days, on a low budget like most jazz albums. "It's about the country," Haden says when we meet again later. "It's about the mid-West, the heartland.'' Metheny, who has a striking frizzed-out hairstyle, a kind of jazz version of a Michael Bolton, concurred: "Missouri was about a time in my life when there was space to think about music." It's also, says Charlie, about wood. Come again? "I really play the wood of the instrument," he says. "When they made basses in the old days, they really had to find the best wood, and I think of the wood and the varnish as a musical sound, as an extension of the instrument's vibrations. "

The warmth of the album's sound is an effect that Haden, Metheny and their engineer strove to achieve (the album was recorded using a new, completely digital, process) in an attempt to recapture the feeling the two had when they played together in Haden's living room one New Year's Eve. When you listen to the music - and true muzak, of course, doesn't need to be listened to - it's like gathering around the campfire as Metheny's Huck Finn, and Haden's Mark Twain hunker down to tell their tales. Sure, they've all got happy endings, and there's a touch of Walt Disney in there somewhere, but it really is a beautiful record. Just don't mention muzak, right? n

'Beyond the Missouri Sky' is released on Verve