Pat Metheny: Pulling It All Together

Lawrence Peryer By

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As the 1970s came to a close, guitarist Pat Metheny was riding high on a wave of well-received albums, from his self-named Group and Trio and as a contributor to works by vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Jaco Pastorius and others. In 1980, he went somewhere else entirely and recorded what has come to be regarded as a landmark album, 80/81 (ECM, 1980). Featuring Metheny, tenor saxophonists Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, this double-album of tracks, predominantly composed by the guitarist, signaled Metheny's arrival at a whole new plane, capable of truly leading some of the best in the business, eliciting transcendent performances of captivating repertoire.

Metheny is now the elder statesmen, albeit one who continues to explore and innovate, ignoring labels like "jazz," never mind the sub-genres and splinter groups, be they avant-garde, fusion, or any other. Pat Metheny has been there, done that, often first—and, more often, better.

A generation after 80/81, 32 years to be exact, Metheny finally revisits a tenor saxophone-driven group with Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012). Benefiting from his ongoing willingness to showcase the best young players, Unity Band is anything but traditional. There are more than enough sonic twists and turns to satisfy longtime Metheny-watchers, but plenty of entry points for newcomers, too.

All About Jazz: It has been 32 years since you last put the tenor saxophone up front on record, yet you do not shy away from playing with saxophonists. Why the wait?

Pat Metheny: Even at the time of 80/81, it was hard to believe that I had gone four or five records without having made a record like that in a more traditional context since that was an environment I had played in so often. In many ways my own records and bands were set up as an alternative way of thinking to the more conventional kinds of instrumentations that I had come up playing in. The fact that it has taken another 30 years to get to it again is kind of a testament to how busy those alternative ways of thinking have kept me.

Also, I have really enjoyed the associations that I have had with a bunch of really great saxophone players that have invited me to collaborate on their projects in the interim. 80/81 set the stage for the five subsequent recordings that I made with Mike [Brecker], Joshua Redman came along and we did his record, Wish (Warner Bros, 1993), and a bunch of touring, Kenny Garrett and I did the Coltrane record, Pursuance (Warner Bros, 1996), I made a couple of interesting dates with Dave Liebman and Gary Thomas, and I played at various times live in different projects with David Sanchez, Ernie Watts and Donald Harrison. And of course, the project with Ornette Coleman, Song X (Geffen, 1986) [reissued in 2005 by Nonesuch, expanded, remixed and remastered, as Song X: Twentieth Anniversary].

But somehow for my own thing, after 80/81 I just couldn't seem to find exactly the right person who would take it from where that started to the next place I wanted to go as a next step with that kind of sound and writing. We all always talked about revisiting that band at some point, but with both Mike and Dewey gone now, that will never happen.

AAJ: How did the stature or legacy 80/81 impact your approach to the Unity Band?

PM: That session became almost a kind of iconic recording for a certain kind of thing. It was such a special record on a few levels for me personally. I have had good luck over the years pairing together bass players and drummers who hadn't really worked together before and believe it or not it was the first time that Jack [DeJohnette] and Charlie [Haden] had ever recorded together. The combination of Mike and Dewey was so interesting and they both played the music so well. The whole "strumming thing" with the rhythm section thing that had not really been done before quite like that set up a really different vibe, and especially the sort of intangible things that happened during the date. It was an especially fun record to make.

That all said, I really did not want to try to emulate any specific thing about that record. It was more that 80/81 had a real vibe that set it apart—and that was the goal with this one, too. There is a kind of generic guitar/tenor thing that you hear a lot these days; kind of a slightly tricky "modern" kind of thing that for me was really something to avoid. I intentionally tried to write things that were pretty direct and had a certain stamp of authenticity to the larger way that I have been trying to describe music in lots of different contexts over the years. I had to write a whole bunch of music to distill it down to the pieces that finally made it on the record to get it to that particular band sound that I was looking for but I am really excited about how it all has worked out.

AAJ: How did saxophonist Chris Potter become known to you?

PM: I have been following Chris since he first came on the scene playing with [trumpeter] Red Rodney all those years ago. I was a fan right away and have enjoyed his playing all along. But I remember hearing him about halfway through his stay with [bassist] Dave Holland and walking out of the performance feeling like he had transcended to a different level. To me, he is one of the most brilliant improvising musicians I have ever been around.

AAJ: So which came first, the actual ensemble of players or the compositions?

PM: First was a conversation with Chris. When he expressed enthusiasm for doing something, then it was a matter of deciding on a rhythm section. I thought about a lot of different combinations and directions we could go in with guys. In a lot of ways, [drummer] Antonio Sanchez was kind of an obvious choice; he has been one of my closest associates over the past ten years or so and has also played a lot with Chris. But I never take Antonio for granted. He is such a special musician and it has been great to see his development up close from the vantage point that I have enjoyed through all the gigs and projects we have done together. He really is a remarkable drummer in that he is kind of in a category of one—there is no one else really like him. There was a certain kind of power I knew that Chris and I would be getting to and I can't think of anyone who could take us to that place better than Antonio.

A few years ago, [bassist] Christian McBride invited me to an event that he was leading with the jazz students at Juilliard. Ben Williams was featured on bass on a few tunes and I had that great feeling that you get when you hear someone for the first time that has something special to say. I used Ben a few times on a couple of gigs that Christian couldn't make with the trio and found him to be a great playing partner and a great person too. He and Antonio had an instantly effortless rapport. Ben is the kind of musician who has a fearless and open-minded approach to what music can be which made him perfect for this band. I really enjoy playing with him and he was fun to write for, too; his whole vibe suggests something to me. He has more than a little bit of a Jaco [Pastorius]'s melodic influence going on in his playing. Finding guys who can really play great melodies has always been hard, and Ben has natural way of using space as well as being able really get around the instrument; a great combination of skills. After winning the Thelonious Monk Competition a few years ago, he has become more and more in demand and I am very happy he is doing this. He brings something really special to this group.

AAJ: How did knowing the lineup impact the songwriting?

Pat Metheny 80/81PM: With everyone in place, I spent a few weeks listening to all the recent recordings I could find of these guys, their own as well as the way they played on other people's records. I kind of made notes as to what kinds of things I thought we could do well together and tried to write towards those things, but at the same time trying to create music that would have a certain identity to it.

AAJ: Ben and Antonio bring such expressiveness and sensitivity to these recordings. Had you played with them both together before?

PM: Antonio, of course, has been one of my main collaborators for 13 years now. We have played together in so many situations and have a great rapport. We had a chance to do a gig in Mexico last year and I really wanted to try someone new and remembered Ben. It went well and that was the first time we played together as a rhythm section.

AAJ: What does the "Unity" in the project's name refer to? How does the meaning inform the music?

PM: "Unity" is a good word for me. The principles of what the word "unity" implies on a conceptual level have always been strong for me. Part of what makes America and the music that has come from here unique is the fundamental reality of our society as a melting pot of the best of so many cultures and peoples from all over the world. But also on an aesthetic level, as much as people have invented arbitrary marketing terms like "jazz" or "fusion" or whatever the next one may be, the undercurrent of my musical life has always been one of reconciliation and unification of all the sounds and ideas that I love as one big singular thing.

This band is a real manifestation of that spirit. We really are using all the unique qualities available to us as individuals and as an ensemble and hopefully creating a greater whole out of all of that to make something true to itself. From the stylistic range of the music presented, which is sort of all over the map, to the instruments used, from acoustic to electronic to even robotic on the Orchestrion track ["Signals (Orchestrion Sketch)"], to the spectrum of peoples we represent as individuals, there is a huge variety of elements to set in motion. But I feel like, at the same time, there is a continuum at work there that connects to the other things I have tried to do as a leader and composer and where the other guys are coming from too. "Unity Band" seemed to be a really good name for this project.

AAJ: What is the likelihood that this band is an ongoing concern or one you will revisit?

PM: We are about a third of the way through the tour now—and it has really been a lot of fun and the music has continued to develop as often happens in these kinds of things when you go out on the road like this. I could definitely see us doing something again at some point along the way. It is a really excellent group and a very nice mix of personalities. I think we have all enjoyed the experience of being together and getting to know each other and the concerts have been so much fun.

AAJ: At this stage of your career and craftsmanship, what do you look for in the musicians you work with, beyond proficiency. How have your hopes and expectations in this regard changed?

PM: It is pretty simple. Mainly I love being around people who are great. I have been in a lot of situations with lots of different kinds of musicians over the years, but my favorite is being with people who are confident and professional and don't need a lot of handholding, people who can just get out there and play great and in a way that is appropriate in every way to the musical environment that is being set up for them to perform in. I have noticed that the people who are the best musicians are also usually the ones who complain the least and take care of business the most. There are a few exceptions to that, but it is really nice when that is the case—and that is really the way it is with everyone this band, so I love that about it.

Beyond that, I do look for people who one way or another have achieved a certain singularity. I don't think I have ever had a band where it was just kind of "anyone." All through the years whenever I have put something together a lot of effort is made to find just the right people for the idea at hand.

AAJ: You bring some very tasteful and interesting sounds to what could have been a very straightforward set. Your work on "Roofdogs," in particular, is really dramatic. At what point, between conception and recording, do you determine the sonic palette you will employ for a song?

PM: It all goes together. To a certain degree, the particulars of the setting and the tunes themselves always wind up calling the shots in terms of orchestration, but I think I always go into things with a certain willful desire to push things and keep things interesting in terms of sound. To me, the sound of things is the first and foremost aspect of what it is to be a musician. So often I run across guys who play all kinds of hip stuff but don't really have much of a sonic identity. Musicians always appreciate the hipness of the lines, etc., but to other folks it just doesn't sound that good or that distinctive. Your sound is kind of the first impression that you give a listener.

AAJ: What instruments did you compose these songs on and is that different from how you typically write?

PM: Whenever I compose it has been kind of the same for decades; an acoustic piano, a guitar and a computer. I sort of am throwing things around between the three languages and looking for the best result I can get from whatever the initial idea suggests. In a setting like this that is slightly more guitar-intensive, a guitar trio might be another, I might lean slightly more on the guitar aspect of things, but often just the opposite works great too. The main thing I would say is that I write a large quantity of stuff to choose from. For every tune that winds up being on a record I usually have written four or five others that didn't make the cut for one reason or another. Sometimes they are useful for other things but mostly they just go into the heap of unrecorded tunes that I have laying around.

AAJ: What will the live sets for this band consist of?

PM: We are focusing on the music from the record for now, but we do have more than 100 sets to play together over the course of our tour. I have been foraging through all the old tunes finding ones that I thought would be a good fit for the band and also provide some contrast to the kinds of things that are on the record. We have even dipped into some of the 80/81 material.

AAJ: Assuming it will not be another 30 years before a saxophonist features this prominently on a Pat Metheny project, which reedmen might you be interested in recording or working with?

PM: What is interesting about getting older is the realization that whoever that person may be, he or she may not even be on the planet yet! Talent is an amazing thing and someone really great can appear quite suddenly. I am always on the lookout for people who can really play and can tell me things that I hadn't thought about before.

AAJ: The Unity Band tour dates currently take you well into autumn. What is on the horizon for you after that?

PM: There will be a soundtrack album to the Orchestrion (Nonesuch, 2010) Project film that will be out next year, which is a great wrap up to all the events of that really unique project. After that, stay tuned!

Selected Discography

Pat Metheny, Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012)

Pat Metheny, Orchestrion (Nonsuch, 2010)

Pat Metheny/Christian McBride/Antonio Sanchez, Tokyo Day Trip (Nonesuch, 2008)

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman, Song X: Twentieth Anniversary (Nonesuch, 2005)

Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005)

Pat Metheny, 80/81 (ECM, 1980)

Photo Credits

Pages 1: Jimmy Katz

Pages 3, 4: Lisardo Francisco Maggipinto

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