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Pat Metheny: Another Phase Dance

Doug Collette By

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There was a special sensibility right off the bat that makes the music have a unique thing.
Pat MethenyThrough the course of a career that now exceeds thirty years in the limelight, guitarist Pat Metheny has never ceased to surprise. No matter the context within which he chooses to play—his flagship Pat Metheny Group, in a trio, as a collaborator with figures including bassist Charlie Haden or as a guest in large projects such as the recent NYC tribute to minimalist composer Steve Reich—the Missouri-born guitarist and composer will not allow himself to become predictable.

Given how much Metheny has in common with pianist Brad Mehldau, their recent collaboration may seem like musical marriage made in heaven. Young musicians each with a reverence for tradition but also a willingness to challenge convention, they are both prodigious instrumentalists and only slightly less impressive as composers. While some jazz lovers might have predicted theirs as an inevitable pairing, seeing such teamwork happen and hearing something substantial arise from it can be two different things.

Fortunately for all involved---musicians and music lovers alike---Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006) is remarkable piece of chemistry on every level. The two main players may or may not have planned it this way, but their productivity in the studio will be tested in the live environment when they take to the road together in 2007.

The series of Metheny/Mehldau concerts seems in retrospect predestined and, as Pat Metheny discussed with AAJ contributor Doug Collete recently, the improvisational aspect of the project carried through in and out of the studio itself. As Metheny provided insight into the machinations before, during and after the recording of the studio CD, as well as revealing new information about the project and upcoming work for Metheny himself, his matter-of-fact tone belies his reflective maturity, not to mention a boundlessly energetic creative impulse.

All About Jazz: Had you and Brad ever played together before, informally or on stage, before recording the album last December?

Pat Metheny: We had never really played together until we met in the studio the first day of the session. But somehow the idea of us doing something together was always there between us in an unspoken way. In early 2005 we started talking about it in earnest and finally decided to just set a date—the soonest week we could find that we both had off was in December. As it happened, 2005 was an incredibly busy touring year for me. Between the PMG The Way Up tour in the early half of the year and a trio tour with [bassist] Christian [McBride] and [drummer] Antonio [Sanchez] that came in the fall I was out on the road for close to 200 days that year.

As the recording dates with Brad got closer, the pragmatic aspect of it started to loom. What were we going to play? Duets? Quartet? Brad and I started an intense e-mail exchange leading up to the dates. We agreed we wanted to try both formats and we both started writing like crazy, sending each other lead sheets for each new thing as we wrote it. With the addition of a couple of older pieces that we both picked for the date, we walked into the studio with 24 pieces between us.

It was very inspiring to write for Brad personally and his trio as well. It is mostly new material written just for this date. There were a few things that I had had started that I finished off with those guys in mind, but mostly it is directed just towards their personalities and the incredible abilities that they bring to the table.

AAJ:What preparations did you make for the recording in terms of rehearsing and arranging the material?

PM:There was really no time to prepare. We went into the studio and started recording. Each tune seemed to be a little world unto itself. When we ran each tune down, we arranged them pretty much on the spot. A few of them from each of us were quite detailed, so that the arrangement was actually pretty well-embedded in the way the chart was written. We played each one enough that it seemed like we had it, and then moved on to the next. In that sense it was a like a documentary type recording which seemed to be the best way to tell this particular story. Brad only needs a few takes and he has it. He is incredibly fast and accurate. He is really one of the greatest musicians I have ever been around.

What was a little unique is that we did very little listening back—we just kept playing. When it seemed like we had it, we moved on. We had an enormous amount of music we wanted to cover, so we didn't allow ourselves the luxury of playbacks, we just kept moving. When the date was all over and it was time to listen to everything, it was almost overwhelming what we had. It took a lot of time to go through everything, but it was also really fun to hear what we had come up with.

AAJ: How did you decide on what tunes the rhythm section would appear?

PM: At this stage, it is probably a little unclear how that worked because only the first of what will be two records is out. We recorded 12 duet tunes and 12 quartet tunes during the session. This first record focuses mostly on the duet aspect of what we did with a small amount of quartet playing mixed in—the next record, due out in early 2007 before we go on tour, will be the inverse, focusing on the quartet playing with some duet performances mixed in with those.

When we finished recording, as I said, the amount of material was almost overwhelming. Everything we tried worked. Lucky for us, we were able to use Bob Hurwitz [President of Nonesuch Records] as a set of fresh ears. He was great at proposing the best way to present all of this in CD form. The complete session was really way too much to digest in one sitting. And as it happens, the two records have VERY different characters. It came out that way without us even realizing it as we were doing it.

I think some people will definitely have their preferences as to which one is more for them. What was interesting to me was just how easy and fun all the playing was, given the wide range of things that we tried. I think that really comes through in the recordings.

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