Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Mar* Songs: Forward March

Pat Metheny Group: Forward March

It took me a while to adjust to studying in college, because it was different from what I did in high school. The material was significantly more complex, there was much more of it, and my fellow students were almost uniformly incredibly smart. But one thing that was basically the same was that studying was a solitary act.

Law school, though, was another thing altogether. Heading into it, though, I had no idea that I needed a new approach, and fully expected that I’d continue in my accustomed manner. However, early in my first year, I was approached by a friend, who somehow knew that creating a study group was critical to success. And I’m so glad that I did. In some ways, the first year law experience, at least at Fordham Law School in 1983, was remarkably more like an elementary school or middle school experience than college. We were divided up into sections, alphabetically, and were given a set schedule, with no electives. All of my classes were with some combination of other sections, all of which were filled with classmates whose last name was from the first half of the alphabet, except for one class that was just for my section. Therefore, I didn’t really get to know anyone in the second half of the alphabet until second year, and was closest to the people in my section.

This sort of rigid scheduling was ideal for study groups, because we were all taking the same classes. And I quickly found that studying with Dave, A.J. and Bob was not only helpful in digesting and understanding the enormous mass of material that they throw at you first year, but they became my closest friends. We would meet periodically, order some sort of takeout (because we were in New York, and the choices were myriad), discuss our work, and, of course, other stuff. Sometime during second semester, Bob fell off the radar, distracted by his ultimate lack of interest in becoming a lawyer and the ready availability of college hoops at Madison Square Garden, but the rest of us continued to work together. As we approached our finals, we prepared outlines, quizzed each other, and pushed each other hard, while also becoming life-long friends.

I have a strong memory of showing up at a study group session at Dave’s apartment with a new copy of the Pat Metheny Group’s First Circle album—and by album, I mean a large slab of black vinyl.  I’m pretty sure that I picked it up, discounted, at the Warner Entertainment company store. After graduating from college, I worked at Atlantic Records for the summer of 1982, which granted me access to the discounted records, books and other items that were in the employee-only store in the basement of 75 Rockefeller Plaza. By continuing to visit the store periodically even after my employment ended, I remained a familiar face to the security guards who still let me pass into the inner sanctum for a few years.

Metheny had been a favorite of mine since I was introduced to him at WPRB, and I’ve written about him a few times here. I know that Dave, who played the guitar, was a fan (I don’t remember whether the others were, too). So, it was natural that when I showed up with the new album, in February, 1984, I would put it on Dave’s turntable, and that we were excited to hear it.

And on came “Forward March.” It was, and remains, a bit of a headscratcher. A dissonant, ragged march-like song, which eventually turns somewhat less weird, but never really sounding “perfect.” Sort of like the Portsmouth Sinfonia, or even the first rehearsal of an average high school marching band. Allmusic suggests that it might be a parody “directed at a few silly skirmishes of the day (Grenada? the Falklands?).” Another blogger considered the fact that the band opened concerts on its tour with the oddity as showing that:

While the Pat Metheny Group are all serious musicians, this was no hardcore jazz purists’ band. They want to entertain you. They want you to smile (I’ve never seen a musician look as happy as Metheny does). For all its novelty, “Forward March” made its audience smile right from the word go.

But it seems that may well just be overthinking it. Metheny himself, in response to a fan question about the inspiration for “Forward March,” stated that the song is:

really just sound - there was a thing i was messing with with [sic] a new instrument for me at the time, the synclavier, where it was possible to scale the range of the guitar by large amounts - meaning that what would normally be read as an octave could be read as several octaves and the 12 notes in between that same octave were scaled along with the octaves into 12, but now across several octaves, thereby making an "octave ratio" larger than 1:1. this was fascinating to me at the time, and that piece was one of several that came from it. the only one that was recorded. 

I’m really not sure how that really explains “Forward March,” but hey, Pat has never lied to me.

Anyway, the next song on the album is “Yolanda, You Learn,” a much more typical Metheny song. I’m sure that we listened for a while, then got down to studying whatever subject was on the docket, and maybe more importantly, eating whatever food was on the menu.

After first year, we were allowed to take electives, so the three of us weren’t always in the same classes—but when we were, we reconvened the group, and still remain good friends more than three decades later.

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