The Creative Genius of Pat Metheny

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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I like to be able to invent a way of playing or writing that seems to be appropriate and resonant (for me) in each setting; something that seems to reflect where I am at that particular moment
There may not be another contemporary composer whose music better reflects the time in which we live, yet remains so misunderstood. Imitators may have watered, and smoothed down his rich, complex and innovative art form, but the creative genius of Pat Metheny lies deep beneath the surface, a place of heartfelt passion and beauty, of melodic depth and spirit.

But that's not all that is important about Metheny. He is a humanitarian and a significant supporter of the arts and once refused to do a feature story for a jazz magazine until they had published a cover story on an African-American musician. His understanding of the creative process is extraordinary, and though he is one of the few musicians that can be identified with a specific sound, his explorations as an artist are without boundaries. As is the case with most forward-thinking work, it may be years before the essence of his art form is fully understood.

Lloyd Peterson: Our culture today appreciates art, but seems to have difficulty with creativity that is not easily explained, understood, or identifiable. Have we become a society without the patience to be challenged, open only to things that are easily accessible?

Pat Metheny: As much I am concerned with the general downward spiral of culture that we all seem to aware of and experiencing at the moment, I also think it is important to remember that there probably never has been a true "golden era" where everyone everywhere was hip to the best stuff that was available to them. I think throughout history, the very best in art was most likely appreciated by a minority of the general population, either because of limitations forced by economic access, or because of general lack of interest resulting from limited educational opportunities. My feeling is that we are still at a fairly early stage in our evolution. It may be hundreds of years before we reach a point where everyone has the kind of listening skills to really appreciate the level of music and art represented by a musician at the level of Johann Sabastian Bach or John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. But the value of their music exists regardless of the cultural context that it is perceived in—that is really important to remember.

LP: With all the information available today, cultural music influences are becoming more visible in jazz composition. Are we having a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American," now has international and diverse aspects within it?

PM: To me, I have always had some misgivings about the whole of idea of emphasizing the American-ness of jazz to the point of exclusivity. While as Americans, we should be proud of its heritage as a key component of American culture, the nationalistic celebration of it being something MUST represent it's American roots can also limit the incredible implications of what the form offers, and therefore in fact somewhat diminishes its glory. To me, the form demands a kind of deep representation of each individual's personal reality. One of the many things that makes jazz unique is how well suited it is to absorb material and styles and infinite shades of human of achievement so well.

LP: There also appears to be a younger crowd, open to being challenged and checking out new music today. Could it be that we are at a cultural low point and people are starting to look for things that have more depth or creative and artistic value?

PM: Young people seem to be especially well suited to explore. I really believe that there is a period in most musicians' lives where they grow at a much faster rate and I think that that is true of listeners too. It doesn't have to be when you are young, but it often is. I think throughout history, you would find a large youth movement interested and surrounding the development of the best stuff in jazz.

LP: If societal events can influence the creative process, is it possible that a new type of creativity might come out of the strife and turmoil happening in the world today and does it affect you and your work?

PM: Everything that happens around you affects you as a musician. However, it may not happen in overt way. For myself, I often think of the whole thing of being an improvising musician as being kind of like a reporter—you talk about the things that are going on inside and around you. But I think each persons response to the events of their time are very personal and unique. One of the great things about jazz, and in fact any kind of instrumental music is the poetry that it offers. There are ways of discussing things in the syntax of sound that just cannot be expressed any other way.

LP: Many musicians have talked about how 9/11 affected them when it happened. Some were not able to do anything creative for months, yet for others, getting back to music was the only way to move forward. What impact did it have on you personally and as an artist?

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