An Interview with Pat Metheny

by Allen Huotari
April 2001, All About Jazz

"The power of the moment is what it is all about, and the materials that you use to fill those moments are ultimately less significant that the spirit in which they are offered. To me, the ultimate example of this would be Miles Davis: a musician who in terms of vocabulary certainly had his zone--but he made each note absolutely vital each time out."

Introduction: Communication Through Music

Webster's Dictionary defines the word "communication" as "the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs." However, it also offers a pair of alternative meanings: "an opportunity or means of passage between places"; or "an activity by one organism that has the potential to change the behavior of other organisms." At its best, music encompasses and transcends every one of these definitions.

Music conveys thought, emotion, and spirit. Music possesses a profound ability to change behavior. In a more abstract (and especially satisfying) sense, music can also provide transport across space and time. Music can help one relive experiences, re-encounter feelings--and suggest new meanings for these experiences and feelings. Performers and listeners can forge these intellectual, emotional, and spiritual connections through music. Guitarist Pat Metheny has been communicating with listeners for nearly thirty years. And if you asked ten of his fans to select their favorite Metheny recording, you'd probably get ten different answers.

With his amazingly diverse body of work, Metheny has touched a proportionately diverse audience. Although he's created a lot of commercially successful music, he has not compromised his integrity in order to reach out to different age groups and backgrounds. Rather, he has relied upon his innate and honest ability to communicate within a variety of musical settings--transporting listeners across borders. He frequently offers listeners a new home within his own unique concept of space and time. Perhaps it is this ability to make new musical experiences inviting that has allowed Pat Metheny to reach out to such a broad audience.

Pat Metheny's latest recording is TRIO→LIVE (Warner Bros.). To celebrate the release of this new recording, Metheny graciously offered to answer some questions in this interview, which was conducted via e-mail correspondence in March 2001.

All About Jazz: Over twenty years ago you came to prominence as the "rookie phenom"--full of raw, limitless potential. Today you're the "crafty, seasoned veteran"--with a career that spans over two decades and includes unheard-of notoriety. How do you feel your self-perception as a musician has changed over time?

Pat Metheny: First of all, when I look back at this point on my life as a musician, I am mainly struck by how lucky I have been to be given so many opportunities to be in challenging and rewarding musical environments... right from the very beginning in Kansas City, when I was playing with great and much older musicians at a very young age.

My own perception of my playing and development as a musician has always been kind of odd--in many ways, I was much more confident and sure about what constituted "progress" when I was 19 or 20 than at later points in my life. Some of that is natural; I think you have a certain swagger in that general age range, especially if you are feeling like you may be accomplishing some of the specific musical goals that you are setting for yourself in fairly short term ways. Of course, now that I am a little older (and hopefully wiser), I can see that there are things that I THOUGHT I was doing really well at that, in fact, I kind of sucked at!

But on the other hand, I see that things I was doing many years ago were in fact more effective than I realized at the time (and in some cases, things I didn't even know I was doing at all!)... and ultimately they ended up being significant in developing whatever my thing has winded up being [now]. Perspective on one's own thing is one of the most elusive aspects of self-awareness. In the end, I find myself worrying less and less about perception in general towards music, and just enjoying it... the sound of it, and especially the process of making it and the wonderful community of it.

AAJ: How do you feel your responsibilities as a bandleader have changed?

PM: We live in a time where the broader culture itself is in a state of flux as it regards the kinds of creativity that I value--not just as a bandleader or a musician, but as a civilian. In that sense, I feel like my responsibility is greater than ever to try to pursue something beyond the obvious ways of thinking about sound and musical style... and the basic day-to-day function that music provides. I feel that every effort that every musician makes to try to improve as a player benefits this cause.

AAJ: Charlie Haden has called your sound "contemporary impressionistic Americana." Would you describe your music as being uniquely and unmistakably American?

PM: More and more I am finding myself bugged, or at least uninterested in, the whole notion of nationalistic pride attached to successful music--any music. To me, music is one of the major areas of human endeavor that so obviously transcends our differences. I certainly have had my share of personal pride over the years in that I came from the Midwest, from America, etc. etc... But more and more I realize that all of that is just the envelope: it's not the message, and it is even less about the MEANING behind the message. If it WERE the message, then it seems only fellow Midwesterners would be able to understand it. But in fact I am just as likely, or sometimes more likely, to have an impact on a Japanese girl from Osaka, or a young kid from Bosnia or South Africa, as someone from Lee's Summit. Yes, we all come from different places with our own dialects and experiences and heritages. But for me, those all pale in comparison to something much greater--our shared humanity. It's that humanity that interests me and attracts me to certain players--not where they are from or what ethnic group they happen to belong to.

AAJ: You have a highly distinctive musical voice. Many players achieve this by continuing to refine their own "language"--gradually and determinedly adding to their own "vocabulary." For others, it's about developing a facility at "multi-lingual" playing. Which of these analogies best describes your approach?

PM: For everyone who is going to attempt to address the "jazz language," there is a period of many years where just learning the basic grammar takes up the vast majority of your time. And then for the rest of your life, you continue to work with those fundamentals, trying to broaden and strengthen them to support your ideas. It is, in fact, a language that has evolved to include some somewhat quantifiable matters--the way that "jazz harmony" has evolved, certain kinds of specific rhythmic issues that give weight to the music in most settings, etc. However, there is a danger in getting lost in the study of the language itself. There have been so many incredible thinkers and visionaries that have taken the language to such heights, that in the process of studying their achievements, you can lose sight of what the original goal was in the first place; the goal of learning how to manifest into sound your OWN story.

The "multi-lingual" idea may apply to many musicians who, like myself, don't really buy into the idea that jazz is a "style of music" (or even an "idiom"), as much as it is a process. Through jazz you are able to learn things about your own musical sensibility. That comes from improvisation, as filtered through the prism of all the work that the thousands of musicians that have preceded us offer through their accumulated wisdom. To me, it is only natural to try to honor the music that I love through my efforts as an improviser and as a composer--the issue of "style" really has very little to do with it.

AAJ: Developing an immediately identifiable style can be accompanied by the hazard of lapsing into cliché or predictability. How do you maintain freshness in your music?

PM: If you have played for many years--it doesn't matter who you are--you certainly develop a kind of "accent" within the language. Your own harmonic and melodic preferences become evident by the fact that you seem to gravitate towards certain options over others. You have a place where you like to put the beat, or you have certain tempos that feel better to you than others. And in some ways, I think there is a certain naiveté about improvisation itself, even among somewhat knowledgeable critics or listeners.

For me, improvising--whether you are talking about the AEC or Oscar Peterson--is less about making up absolutely brand new ideas each time out (actually, I have never heard ANYONE who can do that) than it is about illuminating each moment in time with a particular musical gesture that somehow enhances the eternity of that moment. The goal is to play something that is so real to that moment that it has the capacity to remind people of something that they may have forgotten, or didn't realize they knew in the first place. The power of the moment is what it is all about, and the materials that you use to fill those moments are ultimately less significant that the spirit in which they are offered. To me, the ultimate example of this would be Miles Davis, a musician who certainly had his zone in terms of vocabulary--but he made each note absolutely vital each time out.

But having said all that... yes, I do work hard to keep trying to come up with new approaches to things, to try to find new solutions melodically, harmonically. I just wish I had more hours in the day to practice--that zone of research is where I find I can make a lot of progress at expanding the actual materials I have to draw from.

AAJ: Many musicians limit their musical growth or contributions by avoiding risks. What advice would you give to musicians to help them get around this problem?

PM: Well, my playing has always been ruled by one thing: I always wanted to simply play the music I really loved. Somehow, if I felt close to and strong about a certain way of playing, or a certain kind of harmony or sound, any "risk" involved in addressing that slid so far down the priority scale that it became insignificant. I have seen that kind of attitude in most, if not all, of the best musicians that I have been around.

AAJ: Based on your own experience, what advice would you give other musicians in learning to follow their instinct?

PM: I think that if you really examine what you love in music--MUSIC, not just "jazz music"--you can find a lot of clues about who you can become as a jazz musician. Every player has a story to tell that is theirs and theirs alone--and each one is really valuable. The challenge is to develop your skill enough that you are able to share your story in a coherent and compelling way... so that other people will be able to understand what you are trying to communicate. On a more specific level, I also always recommend that players try to seek out playing situations that include the best musicians they can possibly find. I always say, "Try to be the worst guy in every band you're in!"

AAJ: When it comes to learning, do you find you gain insights suddenly and unexpectedly, or slowly and gradually?

PM: Over the course of years of studying and playing, a certain rhythm appears in each player's growth. In my case, it has been more in the slow and gradual way that you describe. But there are often bursts of progress stimulated by a new instrument, a new playing partner, or maybe a new piece of information from transcribing a solo by a master musician. When those bursts come, I always try to really pay attention to them. They are sometimes short-lived--although while they are going on, it seems like they will go on forever. And I always try to document as much as I can during those periods by recording or writing.

AAJ: Does the term "modern jazz" work for you?

PM: I like the term. It has resonance with me because I feel that it's a way of addressing "jazz" through the day-to-day aspects of our modern lives that can give the form the nourishment that it needs to keep growing and evolving. The other approach, viewing "Jazz" as a style of music exclusively defined by the mythological details of its past... relegated to a certain set of stylistic boundaries and prerequisite conditions that MUST be there in order for it to qualify as "Jazz"... that view of the music has always failed for me.

AAJ: Technology has been an integral part of your music. But considering non-music technology, what have been the best and worst aspects of the Internet for you?

PM: There really is no "worst" for me when it comes to increased potential for communication. The fabric of our lives is different now than it was before the internet... that much is for sure. And the fabric of our lives was certainly different--and in very short order as well--upon the invention of the telephone, or the fax machine, or the telegraph system, or whatever. But again, the mode of communication is less significant to me than what people are actually communicating. I do think that the general amount of information changing hands between people is significantly higher now than at any point in human history. And everyone is really just getting used to that increased potential, and what it can mean to all of us. The result so far is, mostly, a lot more junk than ever on pretty much all fronts. But I think that the long term impact of the "internet"--or whatever it winds up being--will be huge for us as musicians. It is really going to change a lot of things for us.

AAJ: Many of your peers, and most of your devoted listeners, feel that you have much more to offer in your career. What do you feel you have yet to accomplish?

PM: I still want to play A LOT better! There is so much to do, so many things that I have just scratched the surface of... compositionally, as an improviser, in all areas of music. But on the other hand, if I never played another note of music again in my life, that would be OK, too. I have gradually gotten to the point that playing and just hanging out are kind of the same thing for me... and I really enjoy everything. I try to make each moment count for what it is, and I try to bring the things that I have learned from music into all aspects of my life, and vice versa. It has all become the same for me--and I really just dig being here.


maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: October 7, 2001