A Fireside Chat with Pat Metheny
“ Right from the start, one of the major tenets of the group was that we wanted to go beyond song form type material whenever we could. ”
Defying definition and escaping categorization, Pat Metheny's contributions to jazz have been downplayed. But Metheny, relaxed, seems to be at peace and untroubled by his perceived enigma.
All About Jazz: With the suspension of the jazz at Warner Bros., Nonesuch is a fashionable lateral move.
Pat Metheny: My situation was unique in the sense that since 1984, when I left ECM, I started my own production company. Basically, we license our records to record companies. I haven't been in the position of having to deal with a label since ECM. We do what we do and we've been lucky to have three good associations: Geffen, Warner Bros., and Nonesuch. This recent thing that happened is actually the greatest thing that's happened for me. One of my best friends since the early ECM days is Bob Hurwitz. Bob is the person running Nonesuch. It fell right into place.
The best part of it for me is it happened right at the moment where the licensing agreement for all the Geffen stuff is over. All of the Geffen catalog, which begins with Song X and goes through Quartet, comes back to me so I can now put all that stuff out on Nonesuch, which is very exciting. I feel lucky to have one of the good stories in this day and age with all the weird stuff that's going on with the music industry.
AAJ: Licensing material affords you artistic freedoms that otherwise may have been curbed by a label.
PM: The last twenty years of work that I've done is the manifestation of that exact situation. I really have been able to exactly everything that I've wanted to do, exactly the way I've wanted to do it.
AAJ: Autonomy empowers artistic integrity.
PM: Well, my general interest in music has always been one that looked at music in the broadest possible sense. I can't really say that there have been two many places along the way where there's been something about music that I've really, really loved that I have not had the opportunities to address one way or another. I think that whatever my recorded output is, it's a reflection of just a general love of music. I don't worry too much about the fundamentalist principles that are in almost any discussion about jazz. To me, the beauty of jazz as a form is something that had to do with its ability to be malleable by the people that are addressing it to suit their own personalities and their own experiences. I think I probably represent a more left wing view of what jazz is.
If I think about what people say that my thing is hard to categorize, and that is something I hear a lot, to me, that's also reflective of what my personal view of what jazz is. I think it is complicated and requires a nuance definition. It is not something that can be defined through blunt instruments - this, this, this have to be present and this, this, this is not welcome. It is much more poetic than that. To me, the goal would be to always honor the music. That is the most important thing. I try to represent the high standards that have been set.
AAJ: Song X being reissued is welcome news.
PM: It is really exciting and it's what I'm working on right now. I am going back and examining the Song X material. One thing that is interesting is that it doesn't seem that long ago, but it is in fact twenty years ago. It was pre-CD, so we had limits as to how much music you could put on a record. Once you started getting about 43 minutes, you couldn't get it on there and have it sound good.
Those particular sessions were quite intense. Ornette and I had spent about three weeks prior to the recording, working on music and writing stuff. Most of it was just he and I, or he and I and Denardo. Charlie and Jack just kind of came to the date. There is a fairly substantial amount of stuff that isn't on the record that I've been going through that's actually better than what's on the record.
AAJ: There's a scoop.
PM: Back at that time, everything happened really fast. You recorded a bunch of stuff. The next day, you picked a bunch of stuff. The next day, you mixed it and that was that. I remember, at the time, just being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff that there was and making these choices on a balanced program and widest range. Ornette has a strong voice in this too, as do Charlie and Jack. I will have to run it all by those guys, but what I've uncovered in the last week or so has been really, really exciting.
My hope is to put out a really cool, updated version of it. At the very least, I am remixing and remastering it. That was also the very first era of digital recording and things have gotten so much better technically. There is a slight hardness to the sound of that record that with what I've done already, it sounds better. And hopefully, that will happen pretty quick. One way or another, it will happen this year.
AAJ: And then there's the new record, The Way Up.
PM: It's a pretty ambitious undertaking on a number of levels, certainly, compositionally. That level of detail is something that we probably have been heading towards from the very beginning. Right from the start, one of the major tenets of the group was that we wanted to go beyond song form type material whenever we could.
There's always been things going on in the pieces, either little interludes or introductions that take it past the A-AB- A kind of thing. Even if the core of the piece is a song, we always get stuff to take it to another place, either through the arrangement or some textural element of the sound. We've had a couple records along the way that have been continuous feeling records. But when we finished the tour of Speaking of Now, we had really gotten the band to the point where I felt very comfortable that they were deeply familiar with that the band had been to that point. I felt like we could go back to where we were around the time of Imaginary Day and continue our quest. As soon as the tour was over, Lyle and I got into a work situation where we were in the same city and in the same room for about 6 weeks and we wrote the piece.
It was incredibly inspiring and fun to work on. The writing of the piece was exhilarating in a lot of ways. Knowing that we had the band that could really do it is what drove the whole thing. And we're real proud of the result.