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A Fireside Chat with Pat Metheny

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The people who can really play solo guitar is less than one handful's worth. It is a very, very difficult thing to do and I am not including myself in that group.
I recall first listening to Song X and marveling at its sheer density. Often noted as what Pat Metheny should have, would have, could have been, Song X has long been an unwarranted foil for one of improvised music's most enigmatic figures. Critical dogmas have long burdened Metheny, whose versatility has liberated him from convention, playing with Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden ( Song X ), Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker (80/81), Derek Bailey and Gregg Bendian ( The Sign of 4 ), John Scofield and Steve Swallow ( I Can See Your House from Here ), Kenny Garrett and Brian Blade ( Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane ), Joshua Redman and Billy Higgins ( Wish ), Gary Burton and Chick Corea ( Like Minds ), and Joni Mitchell ( Shadows and Light ).

Yet his own Pat Metheny Group has largely been critically ignored. A shame since as much as Metheny's past may say, it says little about his future, where once again, he is certain to defy categories, confounding the very critics that have failed to honor his music. But Song X should be reminder enough. Should have, would have, could haves be damned, boys and girls, Pat Metheny, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.

Pat Metheny: Well, my whole family is very musical. My mom's dad was a professional trumpet player his whole life. He was just an incredible, intuitive, natural musician. My dad played trumpet all through his high school and college years and still plays pretty good. My older brother Mike is a great trumpet player and was kind of a child prodigy. He's five years older than me. Really as far back as I can remember, there was trumpet. We were always going to concerts. It was classical music. It wasn't jazz or popular music. At the same time, there was music on the radio that I really liked that I would sing along with. When Mike got to be about fifteen or sixteen, he started to get an awareness of jazz on a larger level through the trumpet and his interest in the trumpet.

One of the records he brought home was a Miles Davis record called Four & More, which for me, hearing that record was sort of like a light switch getting turned on that illuminated this big room that I have been investigating ever since. In fact, I started on the trumpet when I was eight and played trumpet and later French horn all through high school, desperately needing those few credits to squeak out a graduation [laughing].

The thing that affected me most at that time was that Mike was such a great trumpet player and I was constantly being compared to him. As far as I knew, my name was Mike Metheny's little brother. I was playing the trumpet and he was really exceptionally good and as much as I liked playing the trumpet, I didn't have a natural affinity with the instrument at all. Trumpet is a notoriously difficult instrument to maintain your chops. Everyday, when you pick it up, you don't even really know what is going to come out. Even the best trumpet players have to deal with that as a lifelong issue. In my case, that was especially true and particularly true starting when I turned around twelve and got braces on my teeth. It added a pain component to the equation (laughing).

That all coincided with cultural history in the mid-'60s where suddenly rock and roll and the guitar was a sort of iconic symbol of this youth movement that continues to this day that was embodied in the electric guitar. The ironic thing in my case was that I noticed that and was aware of that. I loved The Beatles. I went to see A Hard Day's Night thirteen or fourteen times when it came out.

But as soon as I heard the Miles record, all of that changed. Suddenly this whole other universe opened up that I immediately switched to. Most of my contemporaries started out playing rock and then sort of gradually moved to jazz. In my case, I really had almost a minimal connection with rock guitar and was in to jazz right from the beginning. Ironically, it was only later that I sort of got interested in rock-type things, way after I had been playing quite a bit of jazz.

FJ: I am curious what they are putting in the water at the Metheny household because as much as your brother Mike was a prodigy, so were you. When I was in my youth, I was fiddle farting around with the gals, not teaching at Berklee.

PM: [Laughing] You know, Fred, I do have to give a lot of credit to my parents and being a parent myself now, I get a sense of what that means from the other side that when you are a kid, you have no sense of whatsoever. They exposed us to high level music. We didn't especially like it, but whenever the Kansas City Philharmonic would play, we would go. From a very, very young age, it was part of our life. They always had music playing around the house. The popular music of their era was Glenn Miller and all that sort of thing. That is kind of jazz related music as well. Parents get extra credit of doing a good job of keeping us musically aware.

FJ: You featured Jaco Pastorius on your ECM debut, Bright Size Life.

PM: Well, he was one of my very closest friends, one of my best friends. It was a very exciting period for all of us. Of course, for anybody getting to make your first record is a significant occasion and certainly, in my case, it was magnified by the fact that it was going to be on ECM, which at that time was probably the most exciting music label as far as presenting new musicians and new artists of that era. To be picked by them to do a record and they had very few guitar players at all, to get that opportunity was a huge thing for me and very exciting.

At the same time, Jaco and I were both really on a mission to find a way to play and find a way to present our instruments in an improvisational environment that expressed our dissatisfaction with the status quo at the time. It is funny because our take on things, as reflected on that record and particularly in the trio as it existed around that time, which the record somewhat represents, but doesn't fully capture, was quite a departure from the sound of jazz at that moment in time.

Ironically, I now am classified by people who should know better as a "fusion" guy, but at that time, first of all, that word didn't exist. In fact, I was a violent reactionary to the fusion of that time. I really didn't want to hear backbeats and rock beats and distorted guitar sounds. I really wanted to deal with harmony. I didn't want to play on one chord or two chords.

In Jaco's case, it was the same thing. We were really interested in dealing with a harmonic territory that hadn't really been dealt with much at all. The general reaction to that record when it came out at the time was kind of blasé. People noticed it a little bit, but it seems like every year that goes by, that record has a more higher standing. It is interesting to see how long it takes for the message that you are trying to communicate to trickle down.

FJ: Through the years, you have stymied writers who have tried to pin a category on you by playing with free jazz icons Dewey Redman and Ornette Coleman, while playing an audible musical spectrum with your own groups classified as everything from "folk" jazz to "contemporary" jazz, and then throwing in the critical monkey wrench, playing with avant superhero Derek Bailey.

PM: Every new little thing that comes up, there are these different terms that are used that are foreign to me. Fusion would be a good example, or world music, or even avant-garde. What does that mean? All these terms kind of come and go. It is weird. I have been around a long enough time to see the ebb and flow of all of the things that swirl around thing and they are largely political. I have been able to just keep my eye on the music and have watched with a certain kind of amusement over the years as people try to struggle to fit whatever my thing is into whatever their thing is.

For better or for worse, there is nothing even remotely like it. It is kind of not connected to other things. I have occasionally gone over to somebody else's yard for a while and I enjoy that, but the larger day to day stuff that I'm working on and trying to get good at, doesn't really connect with the larger trends and the larger issues.

FJ: The current Pat Metheny Group features new additions, Cuong Vu and Antonio Sanchez, as well as Lyle Mays and Richard Bona.

PM: It is a very particular thing. We don't all, in the context of the group, do everything that we all like to do as individuals. The group thing has evolved to the point that it is a wide open opportunity to explore areas of form and sound, but it doesn't allow everybody to do everything they do. That is the nature of anything that is as long running as this band's history is. It kind of has a life of its own.

I wouldn't have somebody come into the group that wasn't extremely aware of what the group is and what it has been and where it can go. In the case of Cuong, the guy is a complete scholar of ours. He knew everything about everything, all the records, all the tunes. In his case, it was a goal for him to be in the band at some point. Antonio Sanchez, our new drummer, is just a musician. I can't even believe somebody like that was born. He is really one of the greatest musicians I have ever seen. Same with Richard Bona, he had heard us a bunch of times and had always wanted to do it. With those guys, in a way, it is a first for me, to have guys from clearly one generation younger come into the band that had a very strong sense of the band and its history and knew all the tunes before we even started.

Having said that, there was a fairly long period of orientation. For almost any guy I've played with, what you think these tunes sound like and what they actually are when you have to play them, they are much, much harder and require an awareness of lots of things in the area of dynamics and the specific harmonic details of it. We really needed a record and a tour to just get everybody on the same page. That has allowed us to get to the point where we are at now and the record that I am in the studio working on now that will be our next record with the same lineup.

FJ: One Quiet Night is a solo guitar record, a challenge to avoid the trappings of predictability.

PM: It is an incredibly hard thing to do, but it is something that I never had a burning ambition to make that a central part of my thing. I have always enjoyed doing that a little bit, but I certainly never thought I would be doing an entire album of solo guitar. This one came about because I wasn't really trying in a way. It just kind of came out and I think that is part of what made it releasable to me. It really is just a documentary of a particular kind of sound and a particular way of playing that just kind of showed up and seemed worthy or pursuit. Next thing I knew, there was the record.

The people who can really play solo guitar is less than one handful's worth. It is a very, very difficult thing to do and I am not including myself in that group. To play a truly varied and fully expansive solo concert on the guitar is probably the hardest thing I can imagine doing. It is not just a baritone guitar, but it is a baritone guitar in a tuning that this guy in my hometown showed me when I was about fourteen years old. I had tucked it away in my mind and used variations on that tuning through the years. The tuning itself is a variation on what they call Nashville tuning, in which the bottom four strings of the guitar are tuned up an octave. It is a baritone guitar, but at the same time, it is sort of functioning in the same register as a conventional guitar where the middle strings are tuned up an octave. It really opens up some very interesting voicing possibilities.

FJ: The Ahn Trio, a classical supergroup, recorded one of your compositions.

PM: I heard something about that. We are getting lots and lots of people recording the tunes these days. That's great. I think for somebody that writes a tune and gets the chance to hear somebody else play what they've written is a special compliment, that somebody has found something of their own in a tune you've written.

FJ: You are currently in the studio, recording the new group album. Without letting the cat out of the bag, give me the scoop.

PM: I don't want to say too much, but I will say that compositionally, this takes everything to an entirely new level. This is certainly the most ambitious writing project that Lyle [Mays] and I have embarked on. It is coming out really, really well. We are really, really excited about it. It is going to take a fair amount of time to finish. It is very complicated and probably won't be around until sometime next year. This has been refreshing because usually we are in the studio with the tour already booked and not only are we worried about how we are going to play it live, but how we are going to get done. This time, we are not worrying about either thing. We are just letting the record be the record.

FJ: You have come full circle, from being influenced by a Miles record to becoming the primary influence for a generation of guitarists. Alas, the circle of life.

PM: I have been very, very lucky through my life as a musician to be around musicians that were much older than I was and playing in Gary Burton's band with Swallow and those guys. Then getting to be around great older musicians like Sonny Rollins and Ornette and Derek Bailey or Billy Higgins and Charlie. But also, I have enjoyed, now, being in the middle. I am happy to have a relationship with Antonio and Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, and Kenny Garrett.

It is nice to be part of the ongoing thing. I just want to find the good notes and try to play the music that I really love that has some kind of meaning to me as a listener.

Visit Pat Metheny on the web at www.patmethenygroup.com .


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