Don't ever tell Pat Metheny that jazz is good background music.
"I can't stand to hear jazz played at a soft volume," the 37-year-old guitarist says. "It drives me nuts. To me, jazz is loud. All jazz is loud. Even the Bill Evans Trio playing at the Village Vanguard is loud. When I hear people talking about jazz as being mellow -- I don't get that. To me, rock 'n' roll is mellow. Rock 'n' roll is background music. It's music for dancing. It's music for partying. With most of the music I've been involved with, the only way to really benefit from it and to understand it is to sit down and listen to it loud and really try to pay attention to the detail."
No Album in Metheny's wide-ranging catalog illustrates that philosophy more clearly than his ambitious new solo effort, Secret Story (Geffen), a majestic milestone that evokes the warm, melodic sincerity of such Pat Metheny Group favorites as First Circle and Letter From Home but enhances it with sweeping symphonic flourishes and a swirling patchwork of textures and sound effects that include horn sections, harmonicas, harps, accordions, sitars, birdcalls, and even a Cambodian choir. Running 78 minutes and involving 80 musicians ranging from Toots Thielemans to members of the London Symphony, Secret Story is both the biggest-sounding and most intimate work of Metheny's career.
"I love the possibilities of bigness," Metheny says. "People tell me that there's always been a sense of openness about my music and the way I play, even on the trio records. To me, this is like a literal manifestation of that same openness."
"This is a very cinematic record. It seems to have a visual aspect to it, even when you're just standing in front of a couple of speakers. It's almost like it's alive. All the way through the record, there's lots of little noises, things you almost don't even hear, like the sounds of birds. We really wanted the noise floor to be almost continuous. People who listen on headphones will hear all kinds of stuff. We spent so much time placing things around the spectrum that it's got an almost 3-D kind of feel."
Co-producer Steve Rodby, who met Metheny at a 1973 Illinois summer jazz camp and has played bass with the Group since 1982's Offramp, jokes that the new album's multi-layered production is an out-growth of Metheny's "New Density" phase. But he notes that longtime fans shouldn't be intimidated by the expanded sound and extended length. "The reason a lot of people like Pat's music is that at the core of it, there's something very simple, very direct and very beautiful," Rodby explains. "You can either leave the versions like that, or you can add and add to them, and that's what we did on this record. The simple core of Pat's music is still in the foreground, but shimmering around it is a tremendous amount of information that will allow the listener to listen to the music many times and hear it differently."
Despite its challenging concept, Secret Story began with a simpler design in mind. For the past five years, Metheny has been squirreling away compositions for what was supposed to be his first solo recording since 1979's New Chautauqua. He planned to record all the instruments himself via synclavier, and then replace the sounds with his guitars and other instruments as needed.
Some of the material was originally written for outside projects: "Antonia" and "The Truth Will Always Be" were composed for Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal in 1988 (Metheny says that the latter, a haunting nine-minute ballad driven by a yearning guitar synthesizer solo, is his favorite composition of all time). Other songs just didn't lend themselves to a band interpretation. "With the Group, we're still a jazz group in the sense that the songs are always vehicles for playing.," Metheny says. "Even though we might have very elaborate arrangements, it still, 90 percent of the time, revolves around somebody playing a solo. On this record, on songs like 'Finding and Believing', which is 10 minutes long, there's almost no improvising at all until the very end. So it's unlikely that would be a Group-type of vehicle."
"Finding and Believing" -- a compelling three-part suite featuring Mark Ledford's frenetic overdubbed vocalizing and a gorgeous orchestration by noted arranger Jeremy Lubbock -- is the best example of how this album evolved from a simple solo showcase into a risky experiment that includes Metheny's first use of string and horn sections on a jazz album, his first collaboration with a cast of revolving guest musicians and -- on "The Longest Summer" -- a rare display of his talents as an acoustic pianist.
Yet, Rodby says Secret Story actually represents a purer version of Metheny's vision that most Group albums. "When you listen to a Group record, you're hearing Pat's music and Lyle May's music, Pat's arranging and Lyle's arranging. Different people in the band have a very specific impact on the music. Sometimes you're also hearing the effects of us having played the music live. I feel that the music here is closer to what Pat started with. It was not changed by touring, or by the collaboration that he has with Lyle. It stayed in his hands all the way from beginning to end."
Another reason Metheny saved these songs for a solo album is that, taken as a whole, they reveal insights into his personal life, a subject that he rarely discusses in public. From the tender nuances of "Always and Forever" and the glistening "Sunlight" to the longing strains of "Tell Her You Saw Me" and "As a Flower Blossoms (I Am Running To You)", the songs reflect the stages of a relationship. And guest appearances by friends and musicians who span Metheny's career -- from current Group members Mays, Rodby, percussionist Armando Marcal, and drummer Paul Wertico to former bandmates Ledford, Danny Gottlieb, and Nana Vasconcelos -- suggest a nostalgic healing process at work.
"I wanted to get the key important people in my life on there, even if they just did guest appearances," Metheny explains. "Because it is such a personal record, I wanted Lyle to be on there. I wanted my brother [trumpeter Mike Metheny] to be on there. I wanted Charlie Haden, my best friend, to be on there. Those choices were really important to me. Everybody knew what had been going on in my recent personal life. I don't really want to get into specifics. To me, the shape of the record is the shape of a romance, from the way it starts to the way it ends. It's a very romantic record to me, in both a literal and emotional sense."
Unlike most stars, Metheny doesn't spend much time discussing his personal life during interviews because his prolific output has kept critics busy focusing on his music ever since he left Gary Burton's band 15 years ago. Rodby calls him "compulsively productive," an apt description for an artist who has worked with musicians ranging from Ornette Coleman to David Bowie; freely explored straighahead jazz on such albums as 80/81, Rejoicing, and last year's Question and Answer at the risk of alienating admirers of his lyrical, more accessible brand of contemporary jazz; and spends his spare time writing, playing, and producing albums for such pals as Burton, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and saxophonist Gary Thomas.
"There's so much to learn and so many projects I want to do," Metheny says. "Also, things are taking me longer now because my standards are going up all the time. Things that I would have excepted as OK five or six years ago are just not OK for me anymore. If there's any kind of anxiety, it comes from that -- the search for a real high level. As I get better at certain things, it makes the next one even harder."
Metheny may soon be adding informal A&R duties to his hectic schedule. As part of his production and distribution deal with Geffen Records, his Metheny Group Productions company may blossom into an offshoot record label. The roster would include Group members -- Mays just completed work on his third solo venture, a straightahead project with DeJohnette -- as well as outside artists like Israeli folksinger Achinoam Nini.
"I never felt comfortable as act number five on a list of jazz artists," Metheny says. "Geffen doesn't treat me like a jazz guy. Even with albums like Question and Answer and Song X, they gave them the same kind of attention they give a Guns N' Roses record. It seems like we've got our own audience that's almost seperate from a jazz audience but includes a jazz audience. That's probably why Geffen signed me. They weren't hiring me as a jazz guy, but as a guy who did this unique thing."
As a result, Metheny doesn't have to worry about pandering to his audiences and measures his success by counting his blessings rather than his record sales. "I always make records for myself. I want other people to like it too, but I can't imagine changing anything just because I thought someone else would like it. That's like genetically impossible for me. I've always been very stubborn. As long as I keep my eye on the music, everything has been very clear for me. Some of the most miserable musicians I've seen are pop musicians, because their success or failure is not only not generated by the music, it's cokpletely arbitrary because it's decided by radio people. If they don't have hits, they're nothing. They're complete failures. I've always been glad that I haven't had that pressure. The first time I had a record sell 100,000 copies, I thought it was impossible. It's like, 'All those people have my record?'"
"My definition of success is Miles Davis. He never made a bad record. Every note he played had his own stamp on it. You can hear that he played just what he wanted to play and was searching within himself to find what satisfied him as a listener. He is the most successful musician I've ever seen. Maybe Bach would be in that same zone. They both had an amazingly high success rate in terms of creatively setting up situations and really filling them to the highest level."
As Metheny becomes a bigger star -- his last five Group albums have won him successive Grammys for best Jazz Performance -- he is finding an increasing demand for his participation in high-visibility events usually reserved for rock stars. He was the lone jazz participant at Life Aid, and he is one of the few jazz players who frequently performs at Amnesty International benefits. Metheny made his strongest political statement in 1990, when he sued then-Florida governor Bob Martinez for using one of his songs, "Last Train Home", in a campaign commercial without his permission.
"I never in a million years would have let him use it," Metheny says. "Martinez is bad news. He's the guy behind the whole 2 Live Crew censorship thing. He said that women couldn't wear certain kinds of bathing suits on the beach. It's unbelievable. It's the kind of stuff I can't stand." The case was eventually settled out of court and Metheny donated the money to an anti-censorship organization in Martinez's name.
But Metheny says he feels more comfortable on stage than on a soapbox. "I know a lot about music, but I don't feel like I could give a speech about politics that would have a whole lot of depth. I'm concerned about the direction our country is headed in. We're in a terrible state right now, and I feel like what happened in Los Angeles [the riots following the Rodney King verdict] is just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much pent-up frustration across the board, so much total dissatisfaction with politicians and the general state of things in America that people are just starting to freak out. Combined with the lack of education, lack of programs, and lack of consideration for people from the government, man, it's like a bomb ticking."
Jazz musicians in particular should be concerned, Metheny says, because "jazz is the music that crosses a lot of the color lines, maybe more than any other form of pop music. I'm very aware of what's happening within the black community and I have a deep concern about that. My inspiration has come from the black community that has developed in America over the last 100 years or so. It's something I feel is a very valuable part of what makes America so great and doesn't get the recognition that it should. What makes America a cool place is that it's a place where all these people from all over the world have come and have worked together and lived together. It's an amazing thing. What's happening, unfortunately, is that there's a huge part of our culture getting swept under the rug to the point where they show a videotape and say, 'This didn't happen.' People are just not going to take that stuff. I'm not going to take that stuff. It's not right."
Metheny sees little hope for improvement in the upcoming presidential election and laments New York Governor Mario Cuomo's decision not to run. "There haven't been any really inspirational leaders in American politics for quite some time," he says. "[Cuomo] is the only politician I've seen in my adult life who I would like to meet. He can speak in sentences. He can make coherent thoughts and make detailed arguments that are based on a point of view."
Of the candidates, Metheny is leaning toward voting for Bill Clinton, not because of his agenda but because "he's a saxophone player. He's pretty serious too. He can play. This is probably our only chance of getting a jazz guy in the White House. Everybody who reads this article should vote for Clinton just based on that, to have somebody who can deeply discuss the merits of Stan Getz versus Zoot Sims. Even if he doesn't dig Coltrane that much, the fact that he's even talking about this stuff to me is a reason to get the guy in there," he concludes with a laugh.
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