Fifty years ago this week, one of the great standards of the modern era was recorded … as a folk tune.
The story behind “The Sound of Silence” is fairly well known – how Paul Simon composed its haunting tune and alienation lyrics at 21 and recorded the folk version with Art Garfunkel for the duo’s debut album, “Wednesday Morning 3 a.m.” Months later, after folk-rock took off in 1965 with the Byrds’ success with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Columbia Records grafted a rock combo onto the original Simon and Garfunkel recording and a hit was born, to say nothing of the career of one of the world's leading singer-songwriters. (Simon is on the road these days with Sting.)
Jazz artists picked up on the song’s potential fairly quickly; Nina Simone recorded her take in 1968. There also have been many instrumental treatments, such as Stanley Jordan’s from 1986. My favorite version, however, belongs to Pat Metheny and is included on his 2011 collection, “What’s It All About.”
I cannot recommend this album strongly enough; it is simply superb and, for fans of these tunes in their better-known pop incarnations, packs plenty of harmonic revelations. Here is the AllMusic.com review.
Put simply, “What's It All About” is a collection of tunes that are important to Metheny, songs that were in the Top 40 during his teen years. These are songs that impressed Pat at a time before he'd written his first note. Some in fact, came before he learned to play an instrument. We all have songs like this, songs that stay with us as the years go by. Obviously, Pat Metheny is no exception.
Played mostly on baritone and nylon-string guitars (with one notable exception), the presentation is quite intimate. Metheny cradles the melodies and extracts unexpected chords from the (seemingly endless) harmonic avenues. He plays with the tempo and, in some cases, toys with the song's structure. This isn't just Pat turning out well-behaved versions of vintage pop tunes, it is instead a tour of Metheny's pop music past by way of his entire career's arc.
The album opens with a haunting take on Simon & Garfunkel's “The Sounds of Silence." Played on the 42-string Pikasso guitar, Pat takes that sense of space found in the original and leverages it to maximum effect. Chiming arpeggios accent the stated melody lines, and shimmering chords paint the in between-note shadows in varying hues.
I had forgotten about quite a few of these songs, but Metheny's readings of radio nuggets such as The Association's “Cherish," Carly Simon's “That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," and the Carpenters' “Rainy Days and Mondays" made me remember just how powerful those melodies and hooks were (and continue to be!) Those songs hold a lot of musical information, with verses taking so long to unwind that the chorus to follow doesn't feel separate from the rest of the tune. Maybe that's why they hold their power so many years distant.
Metheny had this to say to an interviewer regarding “What’s It All About.”
I felt like making a record that addressed some of the specific music that was on my radar before I ever wrote a note of my own, or in a few cases, even before I played an instrument. I kind of wound up choosing tunes that targeted that impulse. I was born in 1954 and all of these songs were songs from the Top 40 during my childhood and early teen years. It was a period when harmony and melody were still important and viable elements in popular music. Every one of these songs has something going on that is just hip on a musical level, no matter how you cut it. These are all pieces that have stuck with me over the years.
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