Pat Metheny interviewed by Jeff Charney

February 15, 2002 by Jeff Charney for Contemporary Jazz

Pat Metheny was born in Kansas City on August 12, 1954 into a musical family. Starting on trumpet at the age of 8, Metheny switched to guitar at age 12. When he was 14 Metheny started gigging in Kansas City Jazz Clubs. By the age of 15, he was working regularly with the best jazz musicians in Kansas City, receiving valuable on-the-bandstand experience at an unusually young age. At the age of 18, Pat was the youngest teaacher ever at the University Of Miami. At 19 he duplicated that feat at Berklee College Of Music, where he received an honorary doctorate more than twenty years later (1996). Metheny first burst onto the international jazz scene in 1974 becoming part of Gary Burton's band Metheny released his first album Bright Size Life in 1975. Over the years he has performed with just about everybody that has offered Metheny a musical challenge from Herbie Hancock to Ornette Coleman to Jim Hall to Milton Nascimento. Metheny was one of the very first jazz musicians to treat the synthesizer as a serious musical instrument. Years before the invention of MIDI technology, Metheny was using the Synclavier as a composing tool. He also been instrumental in the development of several new kinds of guitars such as the soprano acoustic guitar, the 42-string Pikasso guitar, Ibanez1s PM-100 jazz guitar, and a variety of other custom instruments.

In 1977 Pat along with Lyle Mays started the Pat Metheny Group that has had many musicians come and go, but these two remain constant along with bassist Steve Rodby. The Pat Metheny Group is the only group in history to win seven consecutive Grammy awards for seven concsecutive releases. Speaking Of Now is the groups eleventh studio album.

JC: You have changed some of the band members, not that you haven't done it before, but you still have the main guys you, Lyle Mays and Steve Rodby, why the rest of the band?

PM: Well the most significant change is that we have this most incredible new drummer in the band Antonio Sanchez from Mexico. I heard him a couple of years ago and incredibly fell in love with him. He is one of the most exciting drummers to show up in the jazz world in many, many years and having him in the band really made me want to get other musicians who had that same level of maturity, individuality and very unique personal sounds. I looked around and wanted to reach out in some other communities made of musicians and I had recently met Richard Bona at a concert and I thought " I'm going to call Richard and see if he knows anybody, he might know somebody I don't know." I was very surprised that he said that he wanted to do it. He had always wanted to be in this band. For people who don't know Richard he is one of the most exciting musicians from Africa to show up in the jazz world in many, many years. He is really kind of a unprecedented musician who actually is quite famous as a bass player. What I told Richard was that I didn't really need another bass player because I've got Steve who is a great bass player. He went on to explain to me that he really doesn't like playing the bass and that he actually is a percussionist and that is his first instrument and didn't I know that he could sing. He didn't really have to convince me because I was already a huge fan of his. So Richard joined us in playing percussion and singing and I'm sure live we will take advantage of his great bass playing a little bit, too. The sixth member of the band is Cuong Vu who is a trumpet player born in Viet Nam. He did grow up in the United States after he was five or six years old. He is a very interesting, very elegant, very unique improviser who has a very unique haunting kind of beautiful sound that I happened to hear one night on an internet radio station and I just wanted to know who it was. I tracked him down and found out that not only was he this unique trumpet player he is also a very good singer and also like Richard and Antonio he had sort of grown up listening to Pat Metheny Group records. This is the first time that we've had three guys in the band that are chronologically one generation younger than the rest of us. Their enthusiasm for the band and the historical meaning of the band also became sort of an inspiration just to hear them wax so enthusiastic about records like Still Life (Talking) and some of those late '80's and early '90's kind of records, caused me to go back and listen to those and say "what were we doing exactly around that time?" We kind of gear the music around those guys particular talents, kind of aimed in that general direction.

JC: You've never had a trumpet player in the band before have you?

PM: Well Mark Ledford who was in the band for a few years played a little bit of trumpet, but I mean Cuong is a real trumpet player.

JC: I can tell by listening to some of the tracks on Speaking Of Now like on "Proof" when he had that real long solo I hear a lot of Miles Davis in him.

PM: Yes. He's got a lot of unique influences in him besides the obvious ones like Miles. I always hear a lot of Kenny Wheeler in his playing. Wheeler is a European trumpet player that's got a very particular kind of sound and to me Cuong represents that. Cuong is an excellent trumpet player, also. The sound that he gets on the instrument, the whole approach to the horn has really evolved. He's a great player.

JC: Throughout out the history of the Pat Metheny Group the lyrics all seem either to be in a harmonized chant type form or another language, sometimes it's hard for me to tell. Have you ever thought about adding normal English lyrics to your music like Kevyn Lettau did to "Secretly Begin?"

PM: It is something I do think about and maybe someday I will do it. I'd like to take eight or ten of the most song like songs and get a really great lyricist to write some words to it. Who that lyricist would be would be the hard question. A guy named Adam Gutell who is actually the grandson of Richard Rogers who has written a couple of Broadway plays, I really like his words. It's a hard thing to give words to those pieces. People send me lyrics all the time that they've written to various songs. I always appreciate the effort, but writing good words is a very, very particular skill. It has to do with the way certain words sound on certain syllables and the way they land on certain notes and that sort of thing. There are so many considerations that have to work for it to work for me.

JC: Nobody writes music like you. You have such an original sound and consistently the music is awesome. Like a Broadway show or novel. I mean the group is the only group in history to win seven consecutive Grammy's for seven straight releases plus all the other ones that you personally have won. You have written that "when you write music you are thinking about how to get from this chord to that in the strongest, most logical way, how to make the melody have the feeling that it has to be this set of notes and could only be this set of notes. Describe that. I thought most musicians had melodies just pop in their head and they put them into action.

PM: For me I really have to wait it out in a way because there is sort of a top level of stuff that is always there for me that I can always draw from. It doesn't necessarily get down to that inner core kind of stuff that I really love. For me it is a difficult process to write music. It takes a long time and it takes a lot of patients and a lot of work.

JC: If it takes a long time and a lot of patients, the last trio album that you made, Trio 99 >00 when you guys came off the road and you only had a couple of days to put together some music to go into the studio to record you wrote like six songs in two days.

PM: Writing music and playing music in a trio situation is so different that playing in the group. In the group you are kind of required to as the composer not only to write a great tune hopefully with a great melody and hip changes and all that stuff, but you sort of have to create an entire sonic environment for it to happen in. With trio it really is possible to just kind of write very almost sketchy material that then it's going to get filled out with the talents of the people as improvisers. In fact it's kind of desirable to do that. I don't want to say that it's easier to write trio stuff, but it sort of is because there's less required in a way of the material. It's more like you are using the material as a starting place.

JC: A lot of songs that you listen to on the radio there is a pattern to it. You know intro, theme, hook, theme, hook, theme etc., your music doesn't do that.

PM: Some of it does, but not much. There always is for me a desire to create, memorable moments along the way in the tune. Those moments can happen in a variety of ways. It can be a melodic thing, it can be the way certain chords move from one to the next, it can be a sound thing, it can be the way the music changes or breaks or shifts from one meter to the next. I do try to find things that are for me what you would call hooks, I guess. The definition of a hook for me is far greater than just a repeated melody. When I hear Stravinsky, he is one of the most hook composers of all time, because almost every phrase has something about it that you really remember. Same with Bach. I mean it was just like constant hooks for me. Even musicians like Ornette Coleman to me are musicians that really generate these sort of melodic or harmonic rhythmic events that stick with you. That is kind of what a hook is for me. I try to include as many of those things as possibly reoccurring or developing devices as I can.

JC: Do you listen to a lot of classical music?

PM: Yes.

JC: You can tell because you don't write like the typical jazz artist. Talk more about the process that you did for this record, Speaking Of Now. I read that this is the most co-written music that this group has ever done. Do you guys go off separately and then later you and Lyle Mays gets together and compare stuff or do you write all together?

PM: I write a whole bunch of stuff, then Lyle and I get together and compare notes. We pick the best of those tunes. Sometimes Lyle has a piece or two and we pick the best of those and then we sort of go off and work on different sections by ourselves. We then get back together and say "yeah, that works good, this works good." This time after I wrote all the basic sort of melodic stuff we picked through all of those and found eight of those that we thought were the strongest ones. Lyle had one, too. We then kind of sat there and hammered out the reality of what the notes were going to be, filtered through the knowledge that we were going to have this really exceptional group of musicians playing it and we kind of directed the music towards their particular talents and abilities.

JC: So you wrote all the notes that the other guys were going to play then?

PM: For the written part. For the improvised part of course they have to figure that out themselves.

JC: How much of the songs were improvised and how much were written out?

PM: You can usually tell from listening what part is improvised and what part is part of the tune. Even within the rendering of the tunes, the exposition and the melodies and that sort of thing there is a fair amount of improvising going down which maybe the more correct word would be interpretation, but it still involves something that you do on a particular way at a particular time than just that once.

JC: Talk about the actual recording process for this record in the studio.

PM: We all set up in the studio in kind of a circle and played the tunes. We get the hopefully the best of all the different versions of it on tape and from that build on it. There is a certain amount of extra stuff that gets added later on onto this core original performance. The way this particular recording scheme went down kind of right in the middle of it I had to leave to go do a month of gigs in Europe. We kind of got a break from it all and then came back and finished it up which was actually good, it kind of gave us some perspective on things.

JC: Did you do a lot of changes when you came back?

PM: Not too many actually. We were pretty much on core right from the beginning.

JC: You mentioned tape. The record said it was digital. Did you use analog tape?

PM: I'm using the word as a verb. Like everybody we do everything now with just a computer.

JC: David Benoit was telling me just the other day that what he did was record them on both computer and tape and then he blended them together.

PM: There is a million ways to skin a cat as the saying goes. I mean really how you do it, some people put on the record this was recorded direct to two track or this was recorded all digital or this was recorded analog and bounced to digital. I think that 99.9% of us don't really care how you do it. As long as the musical affect achieves what you are looking to try to get as the guy that is playing the tune in the first place or writing the music. That's all you hope for. I've done lots of different records lots of different ways. From direct to computer to not even 24 track analog, 16 track analog and had people swear up and down that this way or that way was better. Basically if the music is great it doesn't matter how you recorded it. If it is not happening then there is not too much you can do about it one way or the other.

JC: Have you been in those instances where the music wasn't very good?

PM: I'm happy to say not to often. I've been lucky to spend most of my life, even from the days around Kansas City being around great musicians. That's something I wake up every morning and count my lucky stars about.

JC: Growing up in the same community as you I remember the days that you guys use to play live in Brush Creek for the public. Those were some magical days. That was after the Pat Metheny Group album came out on ECM, the white album.

PM: Yes. But my history in Kansas City goes back way before that having grown up in that area. I basically started playing gigs in that area in 1968. I was fourteen years old at that time and got to play with the best musicians in town, some of them are still out there like Gary Sivils, Tommy Ruskin and Julie Turner. I was very lucky to be around those people who effected everything I do to this very day.

JC: They are all still here and going strong. I know you love playing standards, the blues and the group material, which do you like the best?

PM: I guess I like playing music period. I don't really divide it up into categories and sub categories too often. Pretty much whenever I can play with people who are great players who are excited about discovering a certain way of playing or a certain sound, whether it's a standard or one or two chords or playing on something really complicated is almost incidental to me. It's more the spirit of playing and the kind of community that exists when you are playing with other musicians who are also searching for the same thing that's attractive to me.

JC: How much do you play a day?

PM: I don't get to play as much as I would like. I've usually got so many other things I got to do in terms of trying to write music or kind of come up with things. It's not exactly playing for me it's more like writing. Trying to organize ideas and thoughts into something that might be useable or future playing thing. When I'm on the road that's when I really get into shape as a player. In addition to the two and a half or three hours that each concert lasts I try to play a couple of hours before that so sometimes I'm playing four or five hours a day.

JC: If you could only have one part, the playing part or the writing part which one would you rather do?

PM: That's a hard one. The playing part is a lot more fun, but the writing part might be slight more satisfying.

JC: Do you still listen to Clifford Brown a lot?

PM: Oh yeah, I love Clifford.

JC: Talk about Clifford Brown's influence in your music and playing.

PM: To me he kind of defined the way of articulating lines that are completely inspiring to me in it's elegance and logic and beauty and the flow of it. They really affected the way I try to pick. Being a former trumpet player myself I can kind of make an analogy between tonguing on a trumpet and picking on a guitar. So I do try to emulate some of the things I've tried to learn from listening to Clifford.

JC: Your brother Mike is a trumpet player. Does he have the same influences as you do and did you guys listen to Clifford Brown together?

PM: I know he loved Clifford Brown and I think Mike's major influences are Chet Baker and Art Farmer. Those are the guys that he really loves who I love, too for their lyrical beauty and their incredible ability to invent melodies on almost any kind of chord changes.

JC: You've done edits before on your song to maybe get airplay. Are you going to be doing any of these for the new record and how do you feel about them?

PM: I don't have a strong opinion one way or another. Basically I make the music that sounds right to me. Our tunes generally last about nine or ten minutes. That doesn't really allow it to get played on almost any radio station. I don't really think about getting the music played on radio stations ever. Basically we have functioned over the years without getting played on any radio stations. We've sort of are a little bit autonomous in that respect. If I do happen to hear an edit on the radio and it's an edit of a piece of mine it kind of makes me a little bit sick to tell you the truth because I know what the tune is suppose to be and it's kind of sad. I don't exactly understand the reasons why people can't hear the music the way it was intended, but I understand by what I hear about it, it's mostly based on selling commercials. So that's completely out of my jurisdiction. It's something I have no knowledge about and basically no interest in.

JC: You guys have been around for a long time. You guys, Spyro Gyra, Pieces Of A Dream are the longest running bands that are in contemporary jazz that are still together.

PM: We've been lucky because we've been able to do everything sort of on our own terms. Really play the music that we love and have in our way found an audience that appreciates what we do kind of for what it is without us having to compromise it. There aren't too many people who can say that. The main thing that is great for me is that I feel like that the music that we've been able to offer people has been really honest in a very faithful rendition of what we found to be true and have really loved about learning about music. The research that we've made I think into trying to play good music had benefited all of us as people and as musicians and hopefully has had an affect on the audience as well.

JC: You have been lucky that you get to do your own music and just hand it in and the record company puts it out because a lot of the musicians their company will refuse it if they don't like it. They definitely say they want to have a say in the music. Your label included.

PM: They would never try that with me (laughing hard).

JC: You've been with ECM, Geffen and Warner Brothers everybody has left you alone?

PM: On ECM their was a certain amount of pressure to do a certain thing. When I left ECM I started my own company which is Metheny Group Productions which you see on all of the records down there on the corner. Basically we have two periods of licensing. We've licensed the records to Geffen and now we are licensing the records to Warner Brothers. So technically I wasn't on Geffen and I'm not on Warner Brothers. Technically I make the records for our own company and they distribute and manufacture the record.

JC: Are you going to be putting out any kind of Greatest Hits Records?

PM: I guess if we'd put out a Greatest Hits record it would be blank (laughing again).

JC: I don't know about that. One time I had a talk with you over at your parents house. I told you that my favorite record of yours was Still Life (Talking). You were surprised. You told me you thought it would of be Secret Story. I didn't really ask you why, but it's kind of bugged me ever since.

PM: That's funny because that record, Still Life (Talking) alluded me for a long time. Actually we considered not putting it out when we were done because we thought it was so bad. We had a band meeting and decided it was unreleasable. If we were to put it out it would be the end of the band. It was so completely out of tune. We thought the record was completely out of tune. Sometimes your own perspective on your own thing is truly warped. Now I can hear that record and sort of appreciate it for what it is, but it took me a number of years to get over the fact that we actually did release it.

JC: If you all thought it was out of tune what made you release it?

PM: We listened to some of the previous records and realized that they were even more out of tune. We were in a weird state at that time. We'd been working on it a little too hard.

JC: You said to the IAJE two years ago that we need to move the music forward. Is the jazz world accomplishing that?

PM: Yes, I think that there are individuals out there that are definitely accomplishing that. It's hard to do in the culture that we live in which is pretty much not that interested. Yet at the same time I admire the courage and dedication of the musicians who are seriously working on doing just that.

JC: Of those musicians are there any that you admire that you haven't played with yet, but would like to?

PM: Brad Mehldau and I would definitely eventually do something. He is someone that I would love to do something with and we've talked about it on many occasions. Kurt Rosenwinkle is a great young guitar player and I admire very much what he is doing. Most of the guys that I admire in that way I've already gotten a chance to play with. Younger guys and older guys. There aren't too many people out there that I think "boy I hope I get a chance to do something with." The guys I've always wanted to work with like Herbie Hancock or Gary Burton I've not only worked with them, but worked with them a lot over the years. It's something I feel very lucky about.

JC: Do you ever venture into town, into NY and get into jam sessions to try some different ideas with some different folks?

PM: New York is a little bit of a hard place for me to do that because it's so high profile. I use to do that a lot more in Boston where I can kind of be a little more anonymous about it. In New York if you would do stuff like that it tends to get reported and it becomes almost like a performance. I tend to do those kind of things out of New York more than in New York, usually on the road. When we are out on the road we are always one of the first guys to go and sit in somewhere or go to a jam session or do that kind of thing.

JC: It use to not be that way because you thought you had to have all your gear there?

PM: I kind of got over that about 1985. I sort of crossed the line where I realized that I didn't need my gear to have fun.

JC: Was that liberating?

PM: It kind of was, yes.

JC: Describe what's up with all the pictures on your CD's?

PM: Somehow there is something with collage art that seems to resonate with our thing. It something I really enjoy doing. I'm very active in all the album covers. This one for the Speaking Of Now record I think is one of the best ones because it sort of got to something I think maybe I was trying to get to than someof the other ones which is the idea is a common horizon. There are all these pictures there, but the horizon remains the same. That seemed to finally capture what it is I've been searching for about what the group somehow means to me visually.

JC: Is there a particular art artist that you really dig?

PM: Yes, Paul Clay because he has an infinite range of personal ways of viewing his own style. He always has his own voice not matter what he is doing. Whether it's painting or sculpture or soe unique material, watercolors or pencil it always retains his stamp, but it's always different.

JC: They are going to be releasing a double CD that you had a hand in Jaco Pastorious The Early Years. What did you contribute to that and talk a little bit about your relationship with Jaco?

PM: I've been real close to the Pastorious family for almost thirty years now. I met Jaco in 1972 and we were best friends for many years. Our careers paralleled each other in many ways. Even though we kind of went on different paths in terms of lifestyle at a certain point we were always very good friends. I've stayed real close to all of his kids and everybody in his family and have helped this guy Bob Bobbing, who is the guy putting out this CD that you are talking about organize some of his material over the past six or seven years. It's been a long time coming and there has been a lot of work getting this thing done and it looks like it is close to being done and I think that fans of Jaco are really, really enjoy.

JC: You are getting ready to tour. Is that a hard thing to travel with all your gear? You do have a lot of gear don't you?

PM: We have a lot of gear because we are lucky enough to have a lot of consecutive nights in places that are driveable. So that allows us to bring the piano, to bring the sound to bring everything with us rather than have the promoter have to rent those things everyday. So instead of renting from a local place he rents it from us. That gives us a sort of consistency, but it does mean that we have to schlep all this stuff around. That part of it I'm very use to now, I've been doing it more or less at that level for 20 some years. Going out and playing gigs night after night after night is something that I still get very excited about. I'm really thrilled that we are going to be able to do a long tour this year. I hope we will be able to come to Kansas City at some point. I know that the Blues and Jazz Festival has now condensed blues and jazz into one thing, which means they had made an offer for us to come there, but took it back. So we won't be coming to Kansas City I'm sorry to say to play on that thing. Maybe we will get to do some other concert at some point along the way.

JC: They took it back?

PM: They offered and took it back. Isn't that cold?

JC: Ah man! Now you got me upset. This just came out in the paper about a week ago. My wife was asking me about it and I received an email about it. They are different crowds at this event. You've been there!

PM: The last gig that we played there was one of my best gigs that I've ever played in my life. Mike came out and played with us. There was a great crowd there, I don't know how many thousands of people were there, but it's a drag. I was really sorry to hear that.

JC: On the tour will you be playing mostly the new stuff or old stuff , too?

PM: We will be doing old stuff, too. The challenge is to keep the set under five hours. We have so much music that we would love to play. Of course we will be focusing largely on the new music, but we'll be playing old stuff too, definitely.

Selected Discography

Bright Size Life - ECM (1975)
Watercolors - ECM (1977)
Pat Metheny Group - ECM (1978)
New Chautauqua - ECM (1979)
An Hour With Pat Metheny - ECM PRO (1979)
American Garage - ECM (1980)
80/81 - ECM (1980)
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls - ECM (1980)
Offramp - ECM (1981)
Travels - ECM (1982)
Live - ECM (1982)
Rejoicing - ECM (1983)
First Circle - ECM (1984)
The Falcon and the Snowman - EMI (1984)
Song X - Geffen (1985)
Still Life (Talking ) - Geffen (1987)
Letter From Home - Geffen (1989)
Question and Answer - Geffen (1989)
Works I - ECM (1991)
Works II - ECM (1991)
Secret Story - Geffen (1992)
Under Fire - Alex (1992)
Zero Tolerance For Silence - Geffen (1992)
I Can See Your House From Here - Blue Note (1993)
The Road To You: Recorded Live In Europe - Geffen (1993)
Dream Teams - Bugsy (1994)
We Live Here - Geffen (1994)
This World (1996)
The Sign Of 4 - Knitting (1996)
Quartet - Geffen (1996)
Beyond The Missouri Sky - Verve (1996)
Imaginary Day - Warner Brothers (1997)
Passaggio Per II Paradiso - Geffen (1998)
Like Minds - Concord Jazz (1998)
All The Things You Are - Fruit Tree (1999)
A Map Of The World - Warner Brothers (1999)
Jim Hall & Pat Metheny - Telarc (1999)
Trio 99>00 - Warner Brothers (2000)
Trio Live - Warner Brothers (2000)
Move To The Groove - West Wind (2001)
Parallel Universe - Starburst (2001)
Sassy Samba - TIM (2001)
Speaking Of Now - Warner Brothers (2002)

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: March 2, 2002