By Jason M. Rubin
Nothing that guitarist Pat Metheny had done previously hinted at this sprawling 1981 masterpiece.
Notwithstanding the Arts Fuse’s yearlong spotlight on the great albums of 1971, there’s a 40 year anniversary that’s equally worthy of celebration. Released on April 27, 1981, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls is the first and only album credited to longtime collaborators Pat Metheny (electric and acoustic guitars, bass) and Lyle Mays (piano, organ, synthesizers, autoharp). Brazilian percussionist/singer Nana Vasconcelos completed the lineup. Why is this recording so significant? The most impressionistic entry in the musicians’ combined and respective discographies, the album illuminates different (and fascinating) facets of their artistic personalities.
Of course, venturing into surprising new territory was par for the course for Metheny. As Falls Wichita was his seventh album. It came right after 80/81, an outing with jazz royalty Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Dewey Redman, and Michael Brecker, and right before Offramp, a Pat Metheny Group (PMG) recording on which Metheny first made use of a guitar synthesizer (Vasconcelos stayed on this and the next PMG album as well). Still, nothing Metheny had done previously hinted at this sprawling masterpiece.
The nearly 21-minute title track comprises the entirety of Side One. This is movie-music, a cinematic composition the meaning of which is ambiguous at best. At various times, this writer has thought it represents westward expansion or sex. Trying to figure this out is, of course, merely an intellectual exercise, irrelevant to the music’s quality and impact. Nothing can replace the experience of listening to the music, but here’s my aural travelogue of the piece.
“As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” begins with muted crowd noise, over which comes a steady pulse on the bass, followed by a gently strummed theme on guitar. From the outset, the listener understands that this music is in no hurry. It starts slowly and unfolds patiently. The guitar theme becomes louder, more forceful, as the crowd noise picks up to challenge it. The two forces seem to fight for prominence until both come to a stop at 2:35.
Now guitar and autoharp, joined by shakers, begin to move away from the theme, but it’s a soft, tentative exploration. This is so unlike the usual blast of bright Metheny notes — none of the speedily picked, highly articulated runs for which he is known. It’s almost like a meditation, sound for its own sake, an amorphous pillow of vibrations that appears benevolent, though one suspects it will lead to a forceful climax at some point.
At some point, but not yet. At about 4:05, a new theme emerges on plectrum guitar, somewhat eastern in flavor. Five minutes in, Mays’s synths contribute layers of harmonic support. At six minutes the theme fades, replaced by a more PMG-like percussive base driven by an electronic rhythm, shakers, and bass drum. The synths hover in the background. There is no melody here; throughout this section, the listener is in a Tangerine Dream-like trance, though the propulsive percussion suggests movement, direction, and intention.
Ten minutes in, the synths are front and center — they seem to be whistling, calling forth some as-yet-unseen power. At about 11:30, Mays comes in with a benediction of sorts on organ; it hints at a procession. Metheny’s bass returns to apply thick globs of Jaco-ian splendor. The anticipation is peaking as various elements begin to coalesce.
Finally, at 12:47, the long, slow musical tension is released. The electric guitar plays a more emphatic reprise of the theme heard at 4:05, supported by synths, percussion, and, for the first time, an actual drum kit groove. Majestic as it is, the segment ends so soon; it fades away after 14 minutes. A darker-sounding synth is all that remains.
Punctuating the stillness is an unexpected sound of numbers being recited: 38, 42, 55, 3. This was a happy accident: it was Mays counting the seconds so that he would be able to organize the layers of synths that would be the foundation for the rest of the tune. Its incorporation into the album’s mix was unintentional; Mays thought it would be muted. Hearing a speaking voice in this quiet section is striking yet also somehow assuring. We have come out the other side.
The last five minutes of “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” is the come-down, the afterglow if you will. Crowd noises return, gradually giving way to the sounds of children’s voices. Gentle guitar strumming, angelic synths, and organ ease us through. Percussion takes a back seat as the chordal instruments lead us to the end. By the 18-minute mark, Mays’s arsenal of synths is out front. The title track concludes as it began, in mists and clouds, shadows and fog. Still, the children’s voices are audible, pointing to future possibilities.
Given the sweeping landscape of Side One, the four cuts on Side Two, ranging in length from 2:41 to 8:17, could be mistaken for filler. But each is a gem unto itself. “Ozark” is a rollicking piano piece punctuated by autoharp. Mays takes an amazing solo on this one. “September Fifteenth” finds Metheny and Mays again on acoustic instruments, paying homage to Bill Evans (who died during the making of the album) drawing on all the lyricism and depth one would expect from Evans himself. “It’s for You” begins with strummed chords on 12-string guitar and synth figures. Vasconcelos comes in at 2:30 to supply a compelling wordless vocal that presages the style that PMG embraced after this recording. About halfway through, Metheny finally unleashes a powerful solo on electric guitar. This is the first time he’s really let loose on the album; it lasts to the end of the track. The final tune is “Estupenda Graça” (Amazing Grace). This is another showcase for Mays, with Vasconcelos on vocals and percussion. It is short and sweet, a fitting amen to a tremendous album.
For trivia buffs, the title, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, is credited to bassist Steve Swallow, with whom Metheny played in Gary Burton’s early fusion bands. Metheny first came to Boston in the early ’70s: at the age of 19 he became the youngest teacher in Berklee history. Now 66, Metheny continues to perform and record. His latest album, Road to the Sun, was released last month. The guitarist will appear at The Wilbur in Boston on November 7. Lyle Mays, sadly, died in 2020 after a long illness. Nana Vasconcelos passed away in 2016.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-centusy English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.