The Pat Metheny Interview
History will likely be exceptionally kind to Pat Metheny. The guitarist, after all, is one of the most innovative, influential, and versatile musicians of his generation. During the last three decades, beyond his endless touring, he’s recorded an astounding lot of music in a stupefying array of contexts.
His most enduring – and commercially viable – vehicle is the Pat Metheny Group. With a lineup that currently includes vocalist Richard Bona, trumpeter Cuong Vu, drummer Antonio Sanchez, as well as longtime Metheny collaborators keyboardist Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby, the Group recently recorded Speaking of Now (Warner Bros.), the band’s eleventh studio album. With the record safely in the can, a relaxed Metheny sat down for an interview with JAZZIZ publisher and editor-in-chief Michael Fagien. Over the course of a sprawling conservation, Metheny was unfailingly blunt and articulate, whether discussing life on the road, the sounds in his head, or the mechanics of his art.
MICHAEL FAGIEN: You seem to have always managed a rather hectic tour schedule. I remember meeting with you in a trailer 20 years ago for our first interview. You were on the road then and it seems like you’ve never let up. Do you enjoy being on the road so much?
PAT METHENY: I love playing so much. And you’re right, I don’t think I know of anyone who has done as many gigs as I have over the past 20 years, at least not in the jazz world. For me it hasn’t really been hectic as much as it has been really fun – and an incredible opportunity to learn about music and playing. And it was always a dream for me, the thing of getting out there and playing a lot, night after night. It is what I always wanted to do more than anything else. As much as practicing and thinking and working on music can benefit a player’s progress, I don’t think anything compares to the impact that just getting out there and playing night in and night out has. It all becomes real onstage; there is nothing theoretical about it.
Having said that, the past few years have been somewhat different for me. It’s not that I don’t still love going out and playing hundreds of gigs at a clip – I do. But I have to admit that I have been putting more attention and energy into different things, including the thing of taking the recorded medium itself a little more seriously by taking more time to try to make better records. Also, composing has become much more consuming for me as the standards of what I really accept melodically keep going up all the time. But, beyond that, the most significant change is that I now have a wonderful family life with two beautiful little boys at home and I love being with them so much. I certainly will still do a lot of gigs, but I don’t think [the tours] will be of record-breaking lengths anymore.
MF: Does your music translate better live than it does via, say, a compact disc?
PM: In many ways I see records and live concerts as being connected but somewhat unrelated activities – especially where improvisation is involved. They functionally occur at such distinctly different temperatures that they are bound to bring out different aspects of one’s musical personality.
I have always had a hard time with the way that recordings seem to be perceived as the defining evidence of a player’s career and music – although objectively, I suppose I can see why that is so. Especially in the very early years, I felt the records were really more just like an ad to get people to come to the gigs when we would show up in their town. And it seemed like during that period, there was much more of a difference between the records and the live thing, especially since so many of those early records were really recorded in a day or two with not much opportunity to expand on what they actually were going to be beyond just being a documentation of that particular band on that particular day. As time has gone on, I have been able to take the records themselves much more seriously and feel much more reconciled with their taking a more definitive place in things.
MF: Baseball great Cal Ripken once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” You used to be a practice fiend. Did you practice perfect?
PM: It’s funny, when I look back on my early fanatical period – basically from when I was 13 until I was 19 – it wasn’t that I was that interested in practicing per se; it was that I had a lot to do, a lot to digest. And I really practically and functionally needed to get it together as soon as possible because I was actually working a lot – probably several years before I should have been. When I would get on a stage with older musicians around Kansas City, when I was 15 or 16 or 17, and they would call a tune that I didn’t know, in a key that I wasn’t that comfortable in, at a tempo that was not that great for me, I would get the message in a very clear way that that is what I better get together – and hopefully by that same time tomorrow!
These days, I am sorry to say, when I am not on the road, I barely touch the instrument. If I had more time, I would continue to practice a lot – but it seems my time now needs to be spent addressing compositional and melodic issues in order to keep coming up with things that are inspiring to me. It has been many years since the guitar itself was kind of an end-all thing for me.
However, I really hope that one day I will again be able to really focus on the guitar more. I love the instrument in a way now that I just simply didn’t in the first 10 years or so that I played it. And I do think that if I could spend a year or so now really working on it with the information and general maturity level that I have now, that I didn’t have 25 years ago, I could make a lot of real progress.
MF: You talk about your more “out” playing in terms of “density.” Could you expand on that concept?
PM: Actually, I don’t think I would qualify out and density as qualities that are necessarily connected. For instance, I have always thought that both Secret Story and Zero Tolerance for Silence were both more or less explorations of sonic density – at least compared to something like Bright Size Life, for instance – yet, stylistically, they are pretty far apart.
The whole idea of “filling up the canvas” is one that came much later to me in whatever evolution has occurred in my thing. Early on, it was always as much about space and silence and the spaces in between the notes as the notes themselves. But as time went on, I really wanted to try for a sound where there wouldn’t even be one speck of white left on the canvas. Those two records I mentioned before were probably the apex of that period in their different ways. Since then, I would say that I am more interested in a kind of case-by-case approach.
MF: Are people who appreciate your dense music better listeners?
PM: One of the things that is different in the post-Internet world is that I have a lot more information now than I used to about what people listen to and for in our music. It used to be that you would put a record out and in the six months or so that followed you would get your 100 or so reviews from around the world that would kind of trickle in and a few dozen letters from people with whatever opinions they happen to have and that would be that.
Now a record comes out, and within a few days of its release, there are literally hundreds of nearly real-time appraisals from all over the planet of every aspect of the playing – the tunes, the production … everything. More than anything, what this has done is render all music critics obsolete – a condition that was already pretty much in evidence anyway through the dearth of even rudimentally qualified music writers, but one that is, nevertheless, welcomed by performing artists everywhere. Where there may have once been some influence or importance placed in those quarters, any remaining remnants of that have now been effectively eliminated.
MF: You once told me that a musician is really a good listener who’s capable of hearing what’s inside his head and bringing it to life. What’s inside your head these days?
PM: I would say that for me it has always been a pretty continuous road right from the start. The things that I used to like and study and respond to are all still there, and I still feel close to the kinds of sounds and ideas that I suppose most people have perceived me working on during the various records and tours that I have done for the past 20-some years. I think there are some musicians who totally reevaluate their whole thing on a regular basis, throwing everything out and starting over with an entirely new version of themselves, using all new materials and everything. I’m not like that at all. For me, what I hear in my head now is similar to what I have heard my entire life, even going back to when I was a little kid. The big difference is that now I have a greater capacity to make things sound closer to whatever kind of thing I am trying to get to happen through the manifestation of that particular idea into actual musical sound. The whole thing of getting better, to me, ultimately does revolve around listening skills and improving them. But it is also directly enhanced by just living one’s life and getting more experience and maturity as a person in a kind of general sense.
MF: I hear that on the new album. There’s bits and pieces of the styles you’ve explored over the years, more so than on your other albums. Was there a conscious effort to incorporate your older sounds on the new record or were some of these songs simply written year ago?
PM: I don’t know. Certainly not intentionally, but I think also it may be impossible for me to really see it objectively. I can see the connection with everything that I have done over the years in ways that are based more on specific musical issues. Paul Motian once said something that I thought was great: that every musician is born with one song and they spend their whole lives spreading the seed of that one song in many different ways, but that the core of that one song is always the same. I think that’s true. There is an essence that I feel in most of my favorite artists that is in everything they do, no matter how different or similar it is on the surface to other things they have done. I can’t help but think of my favorite visual artist, Paul Klee. He did so many different things, but they always had something that obviously and immediately attached them to him.
MF: You have a diverse and possibly segregated fan base. Some love your more accessible works like American Garage or We Live Here, but don’t necessarily care for your denser material – Song X or the project you did with Derek Bailey, The Sign of 4 to name a couple examples. At this stage of your career, are you ever concerned about someone who goes to buy an album by the Pat Metheny Group, sees another Metheny CD in the bin – say, Zero Tolerance for Silence - buys it, takes it home, and can’t believe it’s the same guy?
PM: Honestly, I don’t worry too much about people’s perception because it is something that I have no control over and, truth be told, very little interest in. I really just try to play the music that I love and that I feel strongly about. If I were to start worrying now about what I thought someone else likes – first of all I would be guessing because I simply don’t know. Also, whatever success I have had has been really built on just following my own musical instincts and by reacting to the things that I found to be true in music itself. Somehow, I have been allowed to continue and get gigs and play a lot by doing just that. It is something I feel very fortunate about too, and something that I consider a privilege. And with that privilege comes a responsibility that I take very personally. I feel that the ultimate honoring of that privilege is the creation of good music – that is the place where everything resonates or not for me – and it is sort of at that altar of sound that I worship, you could say.
MF: You said that when you did one of your earlier soundtracks, Under Fire, in the early ’90s, it was a great experience to collaborate with the master of film scoring, Jerry Goldsmith. You mentioned then that you picked his brain about scoring and supporting films without intruding on them. You’ve scored a half-dozen or so movies since then, most recently A Map of the World. With those in mind, how would you say your approach to film scoring has evolved over the years?
PM: Writing music for films is something that is quite distinct from the day-to-day life that I have as an improvising musician, but there is an overlap. In both areas, you are dealing with a sort of moment-by-moment unfolding of narrative ideas, and the sense of a larger purpose in the way things add up over time is really important.
I really enjoy film scoring for the collaborative aspect of it. It is really exciting to be around people who are from quite different disciplines who are all working together to try to make something great happen. But it is a rough life, and the people who do it full-time have my utmost respect. In my case, I am happy to do one every four or five years and I hope to do others every now and then. If you are lucky, it all comes out great and it is a positive experience. For whatever reasons, I think many film composers may agree that that is often not the outcome. Each time I do one, I learn a lot, but at the same time, what you learn on one project may or may not apply to the next one. Each one is its own world, literally, with its own cast of characters both on-screen and off. Flexibility, both personally and musically, is probably the single most important quality that you can bring to the table.
MF: Let’s talk about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. I know that Gary Burton was a huge influence on you in the ’70s. Back then, you played in his band and recorded three albums with him. But in the early ’80s when your career really began to take off, you kind of lost touch with each other, and it seemed that the likelihood of collaborating with him again had diminished. What was it that changed that situation and brought about Burton’s later works like Reunion and Like Minds, where you played and even toured with him?
PM: Gary Burton’s influence was huge for me, in so many ways. When I first met Gary and started playing and recording with him, I was really young. I was 18 when we did our first gigs together and I stayed in his band until I was about 22. The early years were great for me because I was able to learn so much just by being around him – and Steve Swallow and Bob Moses and Mick Goodrick as well. To me, Gary is one of the greatest improvisers of this era. There are very few musicians who have the capacity to truly invent new melodies each time out with the kind of harmonic ingenuity that he has at his disposal. And there are only a handful of players on any instrument who have a time-feel that is as steady and developed as Gary’s. I am especially happy that we were able to reunite years later for the Reunion record and, in particular, Like Minds, where I guess I feel that I was able to contribute more effectively to Gary’s thing, being a little bit older myself.
MF: Lyle Mays seems to be your main collaborator. What would the Pat Metheny Group be like without Lyle?
PM: How would the group have evolved had Lyle never been there or if he left after a few years? Many things would be different, but also many things would be the same. The original conception of music and the kind of band I wanted to have and the kinds of sounds and chords and solos and instrumentation and forms that I wanted to explore were already pretty fully formed by the time I heard Lyle for the first time. By then, I was already recording on my own and touring around the world with Gary Burton and already pretty active on the international scene.
When I heard Lyle at a jazz festival in Wichita in 1976, he immediately and totally knocked me out. I had a feeling that we would play great together, and it was just exciting for me to hear someone more or less my own age who had a sense of the music that was that advanced and the ability to improvise at that level. It has turned out that hooking up was one of the best things that could have ever happened for both of us.
Lyle brings things to every musical situation that he is involved in that are extremely sophisticated and really beautiful, and I always welcome the chance to get on the bandstand with him or work on a new piece or a new record. We really enjoy working together and seem to have more and more fun each project, even after all these years. And for me, I could never in a million years have hoped to have found such a fantastic piano player who would stick with me for all these years, where we could both continue to grow and develop our things together. I feel very lucky that we still are going strong and still have so much to talk about, on and off the bandstand. He is simply one of the best musicians in the world.
MF: The different bassists that you’ve used over the years – Jaco, Eberhard Weber, Mark Egan, Dave Holland, Larry Grenadier – have lent distinct flavors to each project. During the last few years, Steve Rodby seems to have assumed a greater role in your productions. You’ve done collaborative albums with Charlie Haden and Marc Johnson. Have you ever considered doing a project with just you and Steve, and if so, what might that project entail?
PM: Steve’s increased presence over the years behind the scenes in the studio has been a huge factor in the way the records have been recorded and organized. From Still Life Talking onward, he has had a major voice in the making of all the records, including many of the records I have done outside of the Group that he doesn’t even play on, like the recent trio records, the duet record I made with Jim Hall a couple of years ago, and others. He is one of the best producers out there and an incredible ally in the studio who makes the difficult process of recording so much easier and efficient.
And yes, he is an incredible bassist who has allowed me the possibility of putting a number of interesting and fairly far-flung bands together over the years by providing a rock-solid rhythmic and harmonic platform to build them on. Steve and I have done occasional duet gigs over the years, and I have always enjoyed them. You’re right, we should do more. He is a really great musician.
MF: Most of the drummers you’ve worked with are considered the best in jazz: Jack DeJohnette, Bob Moses, Danny Gottlieb, Paul Wertico, Joey Baron, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes. Are there certain criterion you use to employ select drummers in certain situations?
PM: As I have said many times, the drummer is the most important person on the bandstand, no matter who else is on the stage. If the drummer is sounding great, everyone usually sounds great or at least pretty good. I have been so lucky in this area; I love the drums and have gotten to play with all of my favorites a lot.
Yes, each situation has a certain vocabulary, and I would say that the first major decision about any project is who is going to play drums?. Everything else follows from there.
MF: Richard Bona sings and plays percussion in your new group. Like Nana Vasconcelos, Pedro Aznar, Armando Marcal, David Blamires, and Mark Ledford before him, he brings a certain sound and voice to the group. I predict that Bona is going to be a major recording artist in his own right. Do you foresee working with him outside the group?
PM: Richard Bona is one of those rare musicians that comes along every now and then that is pretty much unprecedented. There has just never been a guy like him on the jazz scene. His talent is truly multidimensional, but it’s his singing that really takes me to someplace special. After I hired [drummer] Antonio [Sanchez], I knew that I wanted to find a few other new musicians who could offer something really unique. And I thought of calling Richard, not because I thought that he would do it himself (since he has this pretty active career going on his own), but because I thought he might know someone who would be good for us that I may not have heard about. When I described what I was looking for, he said, “I’ve got the perfect person: me!”
It turns out that he has been following the PMG thing for many years and had always wanted to do it. The prospect of writing for that voice and having him join us for a tour was so absolutely inspiring that music just started pouring out at the thought of it. I love Richard and admire him so much. And, yes, in whatever form that we can work together, I have a feeling we will whenever we can. And I totally agree, he is a major talent.
MF: You often take on the persona of a pop/rock artist more so than a jazz artist. And yet when you’re placed in the most serious jazz settings, you fit right in. How do you live comfortably in both worlds?
PM: I don’t think about persona. I really just try to find the good notes, try to find the right sound, the right spirit. It doesn’t matter who I am playing with or for. It matters even less to me what the mythology around a particular setting is supposed to be.
MF: I’m going to mention a few guitarists. You tell me what comes to mind. Ready? Wes Montgomery.
PM: One of the most inspired and consistent improvisers of all time and one of the most transcendent inventors of melody ever. My favorite guitarist and one of my major personal heroes. His music sounds better and better as the years go on. I listen to the same records I have listened to hundreds of times and hear details I had never noticed before.
MF: John Scofield.
PM: I love everything about John – his phrasing, his touch, his harmonic sense, his sense of humor – everything. And the best part of his playing is how it is such a natural and beautiful extension of who he is as a person.
MF: Derek Bailey.
PM: Derek is someone who has a melodic sophistication that is unique and very deep. His ability to maintain a certain kind of melodic tension for long periods of time is totally singular. His touch and sound right off the instrument are instantly identifiable, and his genuine curiosity about sound and music is informed with a profound sense of what I think he would term “more conventional” playing, which gives it a special kind of weight and insight.
MF: John Abercrombie.
PM: A guitarist who excels at everything he does. Besides being constantly engaging as a soloist, he is one of the best accompanists in jazz. His work with Jack DeJohnette, Enrico Rava, and recently with Charles Lloyd in quartet settings are some of the greatest examples of what a guitarist can offer as an alternative to a pianist as a primary comping instrument that you could find in recorded jazz history. John always finds something special and central to each of the many situations that he finds himself in.
MF: George Benson.
PM: The sleeping giant. If George made a guitar-trio record every year, the world would be a better place. As far as I know, he has never even done one. We really need him. He is one of my favorite guitar players of all time, right there with Wes, Django, Kenny Burrell, and Jim Hall. In addition, he is one of my favorite singers. If I could sing like that, I probably wouldn’t play that much either. I don’t think I would even talk; I would just sing all the time!
MF: Jimi Hendrix.
PM: To me, Jimi was a lot like Albert Ayler or Dewey Redman or Pharoah Sanders – a genuine storyteller that could use raw emotion in extended doses, for extended lengths, with a core that was always natural and real. Like Wes, he is another musician who sounds better and better in retrospect. Everything he played was so true.
MF: Django Reinhardt.
PM: Along with Wes, the best pure improviser ever on the instrument. And the sound! Just glorious, and so personal. Again, like with all of my favorite players, it all comes down to improvising melodies. It is the most difficult thing about being a jazz musician, and there are very few players who can generate melodies that approach the level of the songs that they are improvising on. Melodic playing is one thing you can’t simulate or fake; it has to be real. Django had the kind of conviction and power in each phrase that made his solos add up to more than just a string of ideas. They all seemed to be of one piece.
MF: Any young players caught your ear?
PM: I have not really been with my ear to the ground that much in the last couple of years. Most of the guys that I would call young are not really all that young anymore. I am even a little bit concerned. Practically from the dawn of jazz, there were teenagers and people in their early twenties really putting the pressure on the music by keeping it changing and overtly challenging the status quo of jazz. For a couple of generations now, the young guys have been playing great but more or less adopting the fundamentals and sticking with the tried-and-true, messing with things around the edges rather than going right at the core. The good part of this is that we have so many more fundamentally solid improvisers around. There are now hundreds of guys around the planet who can play well on changes and really deal with form and structure with a kind of fluency that was, while not rare, not found in previous eras in the abundance it is now. But I keep waiting for some kids to come along and really make me, for instance, rethink everything I know. And that hasn’t happened for me since I first heard Jaco. But I bet it will soon. I just have a feeling about it.
MF: There are few artists who manage their own companies. You of course control Metheny Group Productions and all of your business dealings – the imaging and positioning of Pat Metheny as a product. I know this requires a lot of discipline, vigilance, and organizational skills. Most musicians don’t like dealing with the business side of things. What’s your story?
PM: Actually, compared with the thing of dealing with the music itself, that aspect of things is just barely a blip on the radar screen of the activities that occupy my time and energy. I don’t mind talking about music or working on the details of how music is presented at all. And taking responsibility for how things go down in all of the aspects of how the music is finally put out into the world is a big part of what the stuff you are talking about entails. It is just kind of natural to follow through on everything.
MF: There seem to be a lot of Pat Metheny live bootlegs floating around. Obviously piracy is alive and well with your fans. What’s your take on piracy and bootlegs?
PM: The fact that people care enough to tape and trade and catalog all the live things that they have that I know are out there is equal parts puzzling and flattering to me. The bootlegging and piracy things are fairly major irritants. However, there are a few instances where pirates have peeled the soundtrack off of video performances and put it out as things that appear to be sanctioned albums that are just out-and-out theft.
MF: Do you see any difference between traditional bootlegging and the Internet technology that allows for free distribution of music?
PM: Honestly, they are basically the same thing. Having said that, like everyone else, I am having to relearn the social context of what it is to be a musician in this new culture: what our function is, how people do or do not value what it is we do, and what purpose we actually serve to the communities that we live in as musicians, or artists, or authors, or whatever.
MF: It’s possible that you’ve covered a wider range of styles in your career than any other jazz artist. With that in mind, I can’t imagine what you’ll do next. Any desire to go where no Metheny has gone before?
PM: Again, I don’t exactly think in those terms. There is a place you go every time you improvise that is essentially a journey of discovery. You really don’t exactly know where you are going to wind up. You have done a lot of research, maybe you have a plan or a map – some changes or a vibe or something that you know is going to be an element leading you towards a goal – but you still are ready and willing for anything to happen in your quest to bring sound into the air for other people to check out as well. That process is the most fun thing there is. I just want to spend as much time as possible in that search for those moments where the question morphs into the answer as it is being posed, where the idea itself takes you to a place that you always knew was there but had never quite been able to get to before. That is what it’s all about for me.