Guitarist Interview: Pat Metheny

early, 2002 by Julian Piper for
with kind permission of the editor

One of the world's most innovative guitarists, Pat Metheny is back with his group and ready to test the boundaries of jazz once again

Where are not many band leaders who, when putting a new group together, would happen to hear someone singing as they were surfing the internet, and then track them down through the local telephone directory. Of course, as luck would have it, there weren't too many people listed in New York with the name Cuong Vu, and there aren't too many players out there as dedicated to getting their sound right as Pat Metheny.

Although often thought of as a jazz player, in reality New Yorker Pat has turned out some of the most interesting and stylistically diverse guitar music of the last two decades. On his 1980 album Offramp, the incredible wash of sound that he pulled from his Roland GR-300 guitar synth was truly as revolutionary as Hendrix or Charlie Christian.

His new album, Speaking Of Now, sees him reunited with his old buddies Lyle Mays on piano and Steve Rodby on bass, along with three new members; Mexican Antonio Sanchez on drums, West African musician Richard Bona on vocals and percussion and Cuong Vu - courtesy of Bell Directory Enquiries - from Vietnam on trumpet and vocals.

Julian Piper: It's been three years since we last heard of the PMG. Just what have you been up to?

Pat Metheny: After the last cycle of the group's activity I casually booked what I thought would be just four weeks of work with a trio. As things turned out we had a great time, made a record and as a result ended up doing gigs for about six months, many of which we recorded. The whole thing had worked so well that we put out a 'live' record and what was initially planned as a few weeks of gigs wound up being 18 months of pretty heavy duty playing together. That was how I spent my vacation time from the group!

JP: Do you like the challenge of working with just a bass player and drummer?

PM: I always enjoy playing in a trio situation but, like most people, when I'm doing one thing I wish that I was doing the other. So, much as I do enjoy the freedom of being in a trio, it does make me hungry for the sonic size that only a group is capable of generating. I was really looking forward to writing those large set pieces that only a group can generate. Both things overlap but are very different disciplines. The opportunities that you have harmonically in a trio are completely different; for example you can play things that might have a very full chordal sound, but in reality are maybe only one or two notes.

Once I hear a piano chord, though, it changes completely the harmonic balance; even if the guy plays just one note behind a solo, the guitar's power as a chordal instrument is compromised. A piano player can play a chord that might have only four or five notes in it, but is something that's quite impossible to play on a guitar. The piano has set a harmonic precedent so that even if you can duplicate that chord on a guitar, it just doesn't have the same harmonic weight.

As a result I find that when I play in the group I very rarely play chords; if I do, it's only one or two notes that can sit in with what the piano's doing.

JP: You've said you find the whole process of listening back to your live recordings a pretty painful business. You're also clearly something of a perfectionist and go to an incredible amount of trouble to find the right players to share this pain!

PM: Yes [laughs], pain is a good word! You always imagine before you listen back to a live recording that you're doing much better than you actually are. But when I look for players, the PMG has always had a very odd combination of requirements. First off I need players that have a lot of respect for detail and form, whatever instrument they play, but at the same time I want people who are capable of making everything sound improvised!

It's important that the music can function as jazz and, sadly, it gets to the point where I just can't find many people who are capable of doing that. If I have to look for one common grounding, although playing it in its original form would sound wrong in our band, I would say that it has to be an ability to play bebop - that's the fundamental language.

This time around I've been incredibly lucky in finding some great guys to work with. Of course Lyle, Richard and I go back a long way, but Antonio Sanchez, who I now have on drums, really is amazing. I can't believe that anyone that good can actually get born!

Cuong Vu I just happened to hear by chance on a late night internet radio station; I had no idea whether it was the name of one person or a band! When I found out that he was the trumpet player and living in New York, I dialled the only Cuong Vu in the telephone directory and it turned out to be him. It was all an amazing coincidence.

JP: Most people do think of you as a 'jazz' player; is that a title you're happy with?

PM: Well, if I had to put one word on it, then it would have to be jazz. There are many elements in play on our tunes, experimentation with texture and colour, instrumentation, but everything is set up around the possibility of the improvisers being able to do their thing. So that's the way the musical traffic is directed. There are only a few pieces that we play which you could really describe as jazz, but if I have to be honest, in the back of my mind I'm always relating to Charlie Parker.

JP: You've done some very unusual things with guitars over the years; in particular there was a tune you did on the Water-colours album called Icefire.

PM: I've always been interested in what you can make the guitar be by forcing it into different registers and tunings. To get that sound from Icefire you'd have to buy an electric 12-string, take off all the strings and restring it with all unwound strings except for the lowest, then tune it in fifths to a diatonic major pentatonic scale. That piece was built around not only an odd tuning but also a major restringing.

JP: When you first came on the scene in the seventies you weren't strictly seen as a jazz player, more one of a new wave of experimental guitarists. That doesn't seem to be happening in quite the same way now.

PM: I think that back then, in the seventies, there was a genuine curiosity about things that doesn't exist now; people have become very stratified - they like this, or they like that. It's always happened to a degree, but it's always puzzled me and has been in complete opposition to the way that I view music. I've always seen it as being one big thing, but what you have happening now is more cultural and political segregation.

I find it frustrating; it's been about 40 years now since the bass player plays the root on one along with the bass drum, the drummer's whacking the crap out of two and four, and the guitar player's playing fifths. The variations on Boom Boom, I see as quite limited!

JP: Have you ever regarded yourself as being a kind of jazz missionary?

PM: In the sense that I've come across so many people who have got hip to things that they wouldn't have done had they not heard me playing, then it's nice to think that I've provided a service. It's not a major issue one way or the other, but it's always good to hear that I've helped someone discover Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.

With a lot of young kids these days I think that there is an alarming lack of curiosity; I first heard Miles Davis when my brother brought home a record when I was about 11 years old. I didn't think when I heard it, Oh no - this is music that's going to be too difficult for me to get into. It was just lightning bolts going off in the sky! [Laughs.]

JP: You played at Live Aid with Santana. How did that come about?

PM: The late Bill Graham, who was the promoter, was a very early supporter of my band; he always gave us gigs opening for weird people. He was a very enthusiastic believer in what we were trying to accomplish, and we often opened up for Santana. Bill invited me to go out and play a couple of tunes and I have this memory of him saying, Play good... there's a billion people listening! He was serious too. But Carlos and I are long term friends and I occasionally sit in with him.

JP: You've achieved an instantly recognisable sound. Was that always a goal?

PM: My main hero was always Wes Montgomery, so up until the time that I was 15 or so, I did everything I could to play like Wes; used my thumb and played octaves all the time. One day it struck me that I was missing the point about what I was trying to do, and also being disrespectful to one of my heroes. So I'm still working on it [laughs].

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: June 7, 2002