An Interview With...
A jazz guitarist who makes records that jazz haters love, an ingenious musician who has incorporated American folk, Vietnamese orchestral, and even hip hop into his high-flying space bop; a hardcore player and “fan” with an acute handle on history, Pat Metheny has for 25 years been a cyclone of sound, a jazzbo who erases musical borders.
With his latest Pat Metheny Group album, Speaking Of Now, the 47-old-year Missouri native returns with a new band and a revitalized sound. Gone are the orchestral overtures and experimental dabblings of Imaginary Day, or the overt Brazilian cast of Still Life (Talking) and Offramp. Lean, mean and fully recharged, this PMG new edition came purely to play. Longtime collaborator Lyle Mays is still onboard, as is bassist Steve Rodby, along with new hires drummer Antonio Sanchez, west African vocalist Richard Bona, and avant trumpeter Cuong Vu. The result is the most vital PMG group in ages, close in sprit to Metheny’s early, 1970s Bright Size Life and Watercolors recordings, where a trio musicians (including Jaco Pastorious) gathered in the studios of ECM to attend to business and burn on the toothy guitarist’s dexterous, organic jazz forays.
Pat Metheny ground zero is close to New York’s Times Square, a few steps up from hustling Broadway, enclosed behind two large load-in doors and a vague buzzer. Metheny hums with intensity and courtesy, his wide grin and unruly mop of hair bouncing along with an extended hand. His large studio is filled with guitars from every era of the PMG. This is where Metheny and Mays compose the Group’s material and where they rehearsed their new band. A sarcastic George Bush carton adorns one wall; otherwise it’s all music.
To understand Metheny’s remarkable effect on jazz, you must view him as more than simply a guitarist. Starting on trumpet when he was 7, Metheny graduated to guitar by age 13. He was soon teaching at the University of Miami and Berklee by the time he was 20. He made his recording debut in 1974, and spent developmental time in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s quartet, where he beguiled stunned followers awestruck by his liquid lines and ability to burn, whatever the style. Metheny’s trio albums helped made him a jazz star, while the early Pat Metheny Group albums spread jazz-fusion to a new audience. His music defies easy categorization: Fireside jazz? Jazz-rock bop? Wheatfield space music? With its populist melodies and complex arrangements easy delivered, Metheny’s muse has resulted in an convincing body of work.
Speaking Of Now brings the PMG full-circle. This is a return to an intimate, small group sound. The new Metheny/Mays songs are eloquent, with little ornamentation and with a focus on tight compositions and expressive solos. Speaking Of Now is the Pat Metheny Group, here and now.
Enjoy The Music.com™: Speaking Of Now is a very intimate record, like five guys blowing in a room.
Pat Metheny: The change in the rhythm section fundamentally altered the nature of the band. We’ve only had three drummers in the last 25 years and they all were great. But I do feel that the drummer determines the nature of any band. And the decision as to who will play the drums is the determining factor in almost any musical project that I am in. Having a new drummer made it all new again. It is also a shift for us, because it is the first time we have had anyone in the band that are chronologically one generation younger than us. Songs like “Proof” are extremely ambitious in terms of what the structures imply and how the ideas are developed. Normally that would be something that we would have to rely more on by playing with the sequencer or making a model of it in the synth world to illuminate what it is supposed to be. With this band that was unnecessary cause Antonio can read anything. When we did the basic parts with the four of us, it was done. We will do a quartet record pretty soon with just Lyle and Steve and Antonio. We can get lean and mean now in a way we never could before.
ETM: And there is less sonic style experimentation this time.
PM: We had very specific ambitions with a couple records like We Live Here, I wanted to see what we could do with the most garden variety beats. Imaginary Day was a real ambitious search for texture. With that record we made that the focus with all these weird guitars and lots of new ways of using the synths, and on a production level it was quite extravagant. But the goal for this record was to do a PMG record. We got this new band with these great new cats that are very mature, evolved personalities and they are huge PMG fans and they really wanted the gig. How can we reconcile all these things with what they do best, as filtered through our esthetic. The record is simply the result of that.
ETM: Speaking Of Now starts quietly compared to the big chord that opens Imaginary Day.
PM: People say that always scares them when it is on their CD changer. And that is the loudest thing on the record. I don’t think there has ever been a Group record on completion that I have listened to as much as this one. I listen to it over and over again, which is very rare for me. Some of the Group records have been these chunky long statements and people would like separate tracks. But this is one long, continuous statement that evolves over the course of the 70 minutes. It has an internal flow to it that I am real proud of. More than that, one goal I wanted to achieve is a certain melodic weight that the best tunes of mine have, where the kernel of the tune that everything else is built around is sort of inevitable. It has to be that. I am thinking of Still Life (Talking), this record has the most of that. The actual core tunes are among the best standalone melodies and that was a priority for me.
ETM: Are you better able now to articulate ideas than 20 years ago?
PM: Absolutely. It is a lot more to the point now, it is much less of a struggle to get the basic idea to speak now. But one’s own perspective on oneself is illusive. You really have no idea how it is sounding; you are just doing your best. If anything, I can play a whole lot better now, but that makes me realize how much better I could be. But the best part is that as a musician you never get it and you are always looking for something that you don’t have. Look at Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes, when they are playing you can see in their eyes that it is the same for them as when they were 12. The guys I admire the most are guys that every time they play they are discovering what it is. You try to hear what is inside you and make that available for other people to hear.
ETM: When you are recording, do you play all the solos live; will you go back and fix things in the mix?
PM: This record, more than ever what you hear is what we played. If we need to change something or we think we can improve something we absolutely have no problem using the studio as a musical instrument to do that. There are a lot of guys, especially in the jazz world, is almost like a macho thing: “No man, I am not gonna change anything! Direct to 2 track! All first takes!” Well, I couldn’t care less. It is a macho thing, who cares? How somebody gets to the musical result that they hear in their head that matches that as closely as possible, that is what I care about. I have many tracks that were done totally as documentary tracks, where the best way to do it is to go in the studio, play it two or three times and pick the best one and that is that. The first three records that I made were like that, that is the way you did records if you were on ECM. Since then it is whatever it takes to get the story told.
ETM: Which is the best of the early Pat Metheny records?
PM: Bright Size Life set the stage that was a very personal record. I had saved up a lot of, basically my whole life into making a statement about what I wanted to say. I had many opportunities to make records up until that point; from the time I was 15 or 16 years old. I really wanted to wait until I felt that I had something that was mine stylistically. That was very important to me. The other good thing about Bright Size Life is that myself, Jaco [Pastorius] and [Bob] Moses really were a band. This was before Jaco became Jaco. He was still J-A-C-K-O. We had very similar ambitions. We were on a mission to rethink the roles of our instruments as improvising vehicles for ourselves. There wasn’t anything quite like that. That record does a fairly good job of capturing what the trio was about.
ETM: Is the key to keeping you and Lyle juiced getting new blood in the Group?
PM: I think we are pretty juiced from the gitgo. Both of us are really curious and genuinely excited about what music is. For me, whether I was a well-known musician or just some guy working as a local musician somewhere, I know for a fact that I would be living the same life. I would be thinking and working on music ten, twelve, fifteen, eighteen, hours a day, every day. That is the way it has been from since I was ten years old. The fact that I have been able to play with so many great musicians, and do so many things with guys who are heroes of mine and stand alongside the best of my generation of players is something that is really an honor and a privilege. I feel very lucky that I get to do this.
ETM: How have Nirvana, Radiohead or Eminem affected your music?
PM: But from my perspective the whole two guitars, bass and drums thing, I am waiting for somebody to just fundamentally change it. The whole thing of bass notes on one, or a constant eighth note on the bass or the drummer playing backbeats has been going on for 50 years. I keep waiting for someone to erase everything and come up with a fundamentally different way of doing it. Nirvana did that, and Radiohead are doing that, and Bjork to a degree. I am not saying that everyone has to reinvent everything. Everyone finds what he or she needs to declare their vision of music. I am not looking to reinvent the wheel myself either. For me, at a certain point, major and minor chords, and fifths, and 4/4 and 7/5 and 5/4 as the building blocks, eventually I want to hear people understanding harmony to a degree that hasn’t happened. I feel the same way about melody and form. It is like those areas in say, western classical music are so evolved, and it is not that long ago, but that has been overtly omitted from the language of popular music for quite a long time now. To deal with those things requires a commitment that is intensive and also really hard. The amount of time and energy I have devoted to understanding the more complex and detailed and abstract aspects of how music has developed over the last couple hundred years has really benefited every aspect of what I do as a jazz player. I would always encourage younger musicians to be curious about music not as a cultural thing but as an entity unto itself. Music is one big thing. I don’t really divide up Radiohead and Coltrane and Stravinsky. To me, these are all examples of homosapiens addressing sound.
ETM: Even many critics only like certain styles of music.
PM: The world has become so stratified, that is the area where I feel fundamentally at odds with the culture that I see myself in. Even in the jazz world people are into their own camps. When I think back to the 70s which was supposed to the time when jazz died, that was probably the most open and one of the most interesting times musically of recent jazz history. There was so much real communication among players and so much curiosity and openness. I am very well known in this small community and very capable of surviving, but almost completely unknown to the other 99% of people.
ETM: What is the essence of what you do as a musician?
PM: The cliche answer to that is if I could describe it, if I could talk about it I wouldn’t bother playing. It is not as simple as that. It all happens in the world of music for me. Also, if you talk to any ten fans that follow my music closely there is a good chance you will get ten different favorite records. To some people it is all about the trio stuff. Other people it is the Group or Beyond The Missouri Sky with Charlie Haden with acoustic guitar. Then others like the guitar synth stuff and other people hate the synth. The message is in the syntax of what it all is.
ETM: Do you have a transcending ideology?
PM: I am doing it and have been able to do it for a long time now. I have been able to not just survive but also do pretty well by following one compass and one compass only, the one of being the kind of fan and listener that lives inside of me. It is really important to stay to the fan that is within you. That is the determining factor for me in everything that I do.