A Fireside Chat with Pat Metheny
“ 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.