Pat Metheny has won plenty of Grammys for his catchy and smoothly song-like fusion music, but he has risked tough challenges, too – withOrnette Coleman, or the late improv guitarist Derek Bailey, or Philip Glass, for instance. This reworking of six pieces from John Zorn's colossal songbooks is performed and overdubbed by Metheny on everything from guitars to keyboards and trumpets, with help only from his spirited regular drummer, Antonio Sánchez. Metheny manages to be true both to Zorn and himself – reflecting the former's respect for traditional Jewish folk music while splintering it with free-improv assaults, but sustaining that creative tension in his own warmer and less abrasive ways. The melodies are wonderful, and variations often inspired – such as the dancing Mastema, which stretches and twists over a bass hook and Sanchez's fierce grooves, or the yearning Albim, which elicits a Django Reinhardt-like acoustic-guitar expressiveness from Metheny. The sharply ripped motif of Hurmiz (like a Cecil Taylor piano figure)becomes a series of surging abstract-improv blasts against the drums, and the shapely chord-melody of Phanuel turns into one of the few orthodox jazz-guitar breaks on the set. Prolific composer Metheny might be, but he's swapped all that for a masterly interpreter's role here.
John Fordham is the Guardian's main jazz critic. He has written several books on the subject, reported on it for publications including Time Out, Sounds, Wire and Word, and contributed to documentaries for radio and TV. He is a former editor of Time Out, City Limits and Jazz UK, and regularly contributes to BBC Radio 3's Jazz on 3