Twelve for the Road is a confounding record.
Fans who love Mike Metheny’s trumpet and flugelhorn, part of Kansas City’s jazz scene for years, may be dismayed to discover that Twelve is an unapologetic keyboard/synthesizer journey. (His trademark horn is only featured on one cut.) On recent records, Metheny’s done wonderful things with toe-tapping rhythms like bossa nova, but here, on many tracks, instead of beats there’s something closer to waves, and the crests and troughs tend to be slow and irregular.
Then there’s that album cover, a late-summer photo of a slow bend in a rural gravel road, two water towers in the distance. That image promises a return to small town roots — a few pastorales, or at least a folk theme or two. Metheny’s hometown of Lee’s Summit, after all, has plenty of those vistas, at least around its edges. But after the first minute of “Prelude,” any listener will realize how jagged the album is — much more gravel than pasture.
And no matter how hard you slice it, there are only ten tracks.
With those obstacles in mind, Twelve isn’t for everyone, not even his most loyal fans, and Metheny knew that going in. In the press release for the record, he describes it as “experimental,” saying it “seems like a good time to try something different.”
In his forty-year career in brass, Metheny has recorded a little bit of everything, including several classical pieces. His most recent recording, A Kansas City Trumpet Summit, featured fellow KC horn players Stan Kessler and Hermon Mehari doing standards like “Body and Soul” and hip-rollers like “Back in the Chicken Shack.”
But there were hints, maybe, that this sojourn was coming. “For Parkville,” a slow, nostalgic melody (Metheny's parents met at Park College), first appeared on Trumpet Summit and it reappears here, melody intact, but as a much sparer keyboard arrangement.
There are melodies in Twelve, but most of the pieces fall into the realm of ambience. And ambient music is often misunderstood as something relaxing, or as background music to play while you wash dishes; at its worst, it’s something to help you fall asleep. To Metheny's credit, Twelve for the Road isn’t particularly good for any of those. The best ambient music is the kind that scrapes listeners just enough to make them think — and help them keep thinking. In that sense, Twelve is a success.
If you take the record at its word, and imagine popping it in as you pull out of Knob Noster, say, and head northwest on 50 Highway toward Kansas City, the “road” of the title begins to make sense.
The arc of the song titles suggests a return from a troubled place. The early tracks suggest turbulence; “Clouds” and “Ostinato” are unsettled and broad, like snippets from Isao Tomita’s electronic reinterpretation of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Gradually, the record builds to the highlight of “Catharsis,” which borrows a conga rhythm from “Sympathy for the Devil” and layers an abrading electronic scrim of synthesized guitar lines on top. From there, the record gradually pulls into the driveway of “Home,” a restful, comforting track, and Metheny’s flugelhorn finally seems to be saying something like “Hey, you made it.” The album closes with the benediction of “Amen,” with evening crickets bringing it all to a close.
Twelve for the Road is not like anything Mike Metheny has done before. But as an experiment from someone who’s paid enough dues to earn a little extra space to work in, it’s worth the side trip.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.