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Artist Profiles

Pat Metheny: One Man's Band

By Published: May 19, 2010
In an email exchange in the midst of his European tour in March, Metheny fielded a number of on-the-fly questions about his music in particular and his life in general. On the topic of craft, he noted that he gets most involved with the guitar during a tour, a period when he plays more over the longest periods of time, usually about two hours of practice during the day followed by three hours on the gig. "I tend to use the intense touring periods as a kind of research and development zone for furthering my vocabulary and refining things I might want to do on the instrument itself."

In the 35-plus years since he started playing in vibraphonist Gary Burton's band, Metheny feels he has improved "quite a bit" and "can really get to many layers of detail in the way that I express ideas that are new for me. Each period seems to bring new things and, as I get more facility with the materials that I am interested in on the instrument, that in turn sows new possibilities for improvising and composing." Another important aspect of being on the road is that he develops a "deep connection to playing" from frequent performances in front of live audiences. "That gets you playing in a way that is just different than anything else," he notes. "I thrive on that."

Listening to Metheny's music, one is struck by his ability to construct floating, singable melodies that belie the complexity of his harmonic and rhythmic ideas. He suggests that, while it may be possible to analyze the harmonic and rhythmic aspects of jazz in a fair amount of detail, "the melodic aspect of things is by far the hardest to articulate and in many ways the most esoteric and elusive to develop." About other musicians he observes: "I hear great harmonic improvisers and great rhythmic improvisers many times more often than I hear great melodic improvisers. It is almost like it is not even on the radar for many people...[T]here is also a way to think of harmony and rhythm in a melodic way too and that is even harder to find." Metheny considers melody a "huge issue," something that keeps him constantly awake and on the alert for what can only be approximately summarized as "the good notes."

On the subject of composition, the guitarist states that he is always writing, but that he has to do a lot of it to get what he wants because much of it will end up in the Mac trash bin. "The past few years have been especially interesting," he says; "I feel like I am getting to a new level of understanding as a composer that is starting to parallel many of the things that I have worked on as an improviser. I always felt like I was way ahead as a player relative to the writing side; lately that is evening out." As far as avoiding ruts and germinating fresh ideas, Metheny has learned to accept his own affinity for certain harmonic moves and rhythmic grooves. "I realized one day that I could play on the changes for 'Are You Going with Me' for hours and hours on end and never get even slightly tired of it." Additionally, he continues to experiment with extended forms and structures, especially on his last two records.

One glance at the Orchestrion project video (available at Metheny's website) will convince viewers that a considerable learning curve is required, first to understand the machine's workings and then to manipulate its considerable capabilities with flexibility and finesse. While he is intimately involved in the hows and whys of his Rube Goldberg machine, he is quick to stress that it is only a tool, a mere "envelope" for ideas; mastering this "ax" is only a step in the process. Ultimately, as Charlie Parker is alleged to have said, a musician has to forget all that shit and just play. Metheny has his own analogy: "It is like someone who sees a beautiful house and wonders, hmmm, did the carpenter that built that place use mostly a Phillips screwdriver or flathead? It doesn't really make a huge difference to me as long as it is a really great house."

So where's the rest of the band? Is Metheny worried that deserving flesh-and-blood musicians are being replaced by semiautomatons? How is he going to have a conversation with this contraption? These are non-issues as far as the guitarist is concerned. In the first place, it's supposed to be a solo act. No one ever faulted Joe Pass for developing the ability to play melody, chords and basslines simultaneously. In answer to the second question, Metheny counters: "Did the cartoon version of Bambi put a real, live Hollywood deer out of a gig?"

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