Neither Burt Bacharach nor Hal David was interested to write the song that would be used to promote the 1966 British film directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Michael Caine. After all, the title character’s name, Alfie, was considered a tad too pedestrian to be built into the lyric. In fact, even after the theme was written, Cilla Black, who was invited to record its vocals, reluctantly accepted to take on the job, exclaiming: “Alfie? You call your dog Alfie!”
But it was the movie’s message and how the story’s events compel an uncaring egotist to question his solitary life and very existence that moved Bacharach and David to complete the project. Lifting a line uttered by Caine’s character in the film, David opens with the question, “What’s it all about,” and Bacharach weaves in the music that he would soon call his favorite from among his body of work. The song title would ironically be the controversial name, ALFIE.
About 45 years later and who knows how many covers, jazz guitar great Pat Metheny recorded ALFIE in his 2011 solo album, WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT. Metheny recounts about the project which for the first time carries none of his original work, “Each tune has a real meaning to me musically. Of course, I am aware of the lyrics, but my focus is really on the actual notes and harmonies that make these pieces interesting to me as a musician. It is mostly about the way the chords move or the kind of feeling that I loved about the melody.”
While all the tracks in Metheny’s album speak to me, ALFIE seems most eloquent. Maybe Bacharach’s haunting raw material is to blame. But so is Metheny’s quiet reinterpretation, which succinctly captures the song’s introspective mood sans lyrics. Dreamy and ethereal, with multiple modulations and some reharmonization, Metheny makes ALFIE his own, but gives the music the power to provoke us all to do as the character in the movie does– rethink ourselves.
On February 12, 2012, Metheny’s WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT received a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.