May 1, 2002 by Steve Adelson for Twentieth Century Guitar Magazine
Reprinted with the kind permission of the author
Approaching three decades of making music, Pat Metheny still seems the pioneer, the sonic innovator. As a master guitarist, his melodic and harmonic sense combined with a huge sound arsenal, has constantly teased and pleased his faithful audience. From synth guitars and Coral Sitars, to fretless nylon boxes and the 42 string Pikasso guitar both built by Linda Manzer, and his straight ahead Ibanez PM model, Pat paints majestic sound pictures, portraying American landscapes and worldly visions. His mastery of composition and orchestration is unparalleled. His creative work defies categorization. It's not the 64 crayon box. It's the infinite crayon box. The end result is often like a soundtrack to a great movie, offering textures and dynamics that reach deep and provoke emotion. And isn't that the basic function of music? The guitarist from Missouri plays what he hears, plays what he feels and above all creates an art form that connects with the listener while never being compromised.
TCG: Hi Pat. I love the new record. It's very musical.
PM: Thank you.
TCG: Can you describe your feelings about the new tour? The excitement, the energy.
PM: Well the whole thing is built around these three new faces that we have in the band -all of them have been very inspiring for us. We enjoyed the process of making the record with them so much. It's the first time, demographically, that we're recording with guys who are clearly one generation younger than the rest of us. I've played a lot with guys of that generation playing more straight ahead stuff, but this is the first time with the group that it has happened. It's interesting because all three of these guys grew up listening to our records and their innate understanding of what we do has been so useful as we have been putting this music together. That's been fantastic because we've been able to draw upon all our music up till now but also now we can incorporate the very specific and beautiful things that these three guys bring to the table. It's not like they're brand new guys to the scene either. They're experienced, seasoned guys, very developed and far along in their own careers as well. So it's been incredibly exciting to write for this group.
TCG: Why the personnel change from the last PMG?
PM: Well, obviously the drumming change is the significant one. Paul (Wertico) played with us for about 15 years which is a good amount of time for anybody to do anything. It was just time for him to move on for his own reasons and we were also ready for a change in that department. Around that time also I had heard Antonio (Sanchez) play and was completely knocked out. It's worked out well for everybody.
TCG: The last two years or so you've spent working with your trio. Was that a venture to work on your guitar chops?
PM: There's not much I can do about my guitar chops (laughs). I really enjoyed playing with the trio. The Group has been going on 25 years. I know I personally need to do things beyond what the group thing is occasionally, as does everyone else, just to keep it fresh.
TCG: The new recording sounds more like the quartet recordings in a sonic way. There are less guitar synth sounds and no Pikasso guitar type tunes. Was it influenced by the trio years?
PM: I think each record has its own topic or subject or direction. We've had a number of records where exploration of sound or texture or using new types of guitars have been the priorities. This record is much more about the group, and the way these six people play together. There may be something to that point, that the trio experience led to this recording. But if it's there it's subconscious. I will say the records where there were guitar breakthroughs per se were lots of fun. I really enjoyed trying to find new sounds and ideas. I also don't feel limited by conventional guitars. You just have to look at them from different angles. This record was more about the writing and the organizational aspect than it was about the guitar playing.
TCG: We've learned to expect at least one or two experimental tunes on each CD.
PM: I think on this record that happens in the area of form. Tunes like the second ("Proof"), and fourth ("The Gathering Sky") on the record are structurally so unlike anything we've done before. That's really where the focus was.
TCG: How do you name the tunes? upright bass?
PM: I prefer playing with acoustic bass. I sort of always have. It's a more interesting sound when juxtaposed next to guitar, in my opinion. The fact that it's not perfectly intonated, although Steve plays it about in tune as it can be, and that flexibility in pitch offsets the sort of straightness of guitar pitch.
TCG: The drums sound more organic this time.
PM: Not to take anything away from our two previous drummers. They were both great. Antonio's touch and his whole conception of playing is quite different than Danny (Gottlieb) or Paul. He is a totally different kind of player and musician, with very different experiences to draw from.
TCG: Richard's (Bona) vocals, is that any language or just syllables?
PM: He's just making it up. Everybody thinks he's singing something but every take is different. That's his own personal language.
TCG: Do have any new guitars?
PM: I'm trying to stay away from guitars a little bit. I already have too many guitars that I haven't had a chance to work with yet. I'd like to spend six months with this one or that one and really find things that I know are there but literally haven't had the time to investigate.
TCG: How is the Pikasso tuned?
PM: I have several different tunings that have evolved. I've kind of settled on one that I used for the last few years that's on the live trio record. There's a solo piece "Into The Dream". It's basically a big C minor kind of sound. I'm also using a lot of chromatic tunings. The guitar neck that sits in the middle of it all has a baritone guitar tuning, low C to C with the same relative pitchs as conventional guitar tuning.
TCG: Any new electronics or the same setup?
PM: All the same. I didn't use the VG8 (Roland guitar processor) on the record. I use it a lot with the trio. The GR300 (synth) is on the first tune on the record. That's a unit that's very unique. The newer units use a completely different technology. The GR300 still has a certain kind of funk, you don't get from any other synth. It also responds in an organic way that I think other synths usually don't.
TCG: Most jazz guitar players are happy to get a gig in a small smoky club. Describe the level your at with the larger halls and highly acclaimed appearances.
PM: The things that surround the music itself are things I'm roughly aware of but I don't worry about them too much. We have to be aware of these things that you have to do to survive in the music world. However, these things are insignificant to me compared to what it takes to make the actual music. And we are one of the longer existing music groups and I feel very fortunate about that. I'm amazed that we've survived all these years, without really having to make any compromises at all. The fact that we built such a solid base of fans that supported our music early on, by doing 200-300 gigs a year for 10-15 years is the key. The thing that we did that I don't see too many people willing to make the sacrifice and commitment to the road, is to basically not make any money for a long period of time and work really hard and build up an audience. The only other band that I've seen do that is Medeski, Martin and Wood. They're having a similar experience building a fan base while playing uncompromi sed music. It bothers me that the younger audience, for the most part, is oblivious to jazz. They don't have that many musicians of their own generation to look to as leaders. I think it's important for younger players to see other young players out there actively making an impact. When it does happen, the younger players seem to be playing to a much older age group. I'm still looking for the younger guys to come along and reintroduce the beauty of improvisational music to their own peer group in a way that's not a guise in a wash of history. It should be in the spirit of now. I'm looking for that young guy that's got that vision of what jazz can be, not something you see on PBS. It's in the street, real life, informed and activated by unique spirit and events of the present.
TCG: Sometimes the music is presented as educational and not entertainment.
PM: To me, there's a war to make jazz classical music. I see jazz as popular music. It's music that comes from everyday life. It's not formal, in the sense of "concert hall" music. I still struggle to play in a concert hall. I've had to learn how to do it. This music is at its best in clubs and smaller environments.
TCG: What about jazz radio? Where will they play your new CD?
PM: Our tunes will go nowhere. We don't fit anywhere. It's sad that jazz has become fully segregated stylistically. For me, as a fan, I listen to everything from Cecil Taylor to Sidney Bechet to David Sanborn. Jazz is a process that allows people to find things about themselves through the spirit of the music. There was a time when there was a segment of the jazz community that embraced that philosophy, but right now it's very polarized. The radio situation in America, and not just in jazz, makes it unusable for me -and I think there are many other people out there like me. If someone were to start a New York radio station that just played the mixture of music that people play on a given night in New York, I bet that station would be really successful. They could play the NY Philharmonic and then showcase a track by a local band at Irving Plaza. Most people listen to a lot of different things. At least I think there's a very significant demographic of people that are curious about music in a g eneral sense. That audience is not being served at all. In jazz radio, the mainstream stations don't play the full range of jazz any more than any other so called "jazz" stations do. It's very specific. They play the same mid tempo kinds of straight-ahead things, no real burn out stuff. They certainly don't play the avant garde or anything with an electric instrument except possibly a very traditional sound. So, this is formatting too. It may be that these satellite stations such as XM that are showing up are going to be the saving thing. I do feel that there are millions of people that can't listen to the radio, the same way I can't.
TCG: Sometimes, I do hear your tunes on the radio and they're edited down.
PM: The new tunes are 8-10 minutes, so if they play them at all, they fade them out -they haven't even gotten through the melody. They've done that to us in the past. That smooth jazz thing, it's not even on my radar any more.
TCG: What are the future plans?
PM: The immediate plans are just this major tour that's going to last a year or so. We'll be all over the world. I have a million ideas. One of them is to do a quartet record with Lyle (Mays), Steve and Antonio. It's the basic core of this band that I feel is so special.
TCG: The Pat Metheny Songbook is great. How does it feel to document your work, and have you now heard other players doing your music?
PM: In both cases it's been a very positive thing from our side. It was very difficult to get that book done. There are some errors, and we're in the process of fixing those and adding new tunes. And yes, I've heard many people playing these tunes with the right changes and that's so heartwarming. When I hear someone playing these tunes, I like to hear the right chords. It really makes me happy. As far as the documentation aspect, more than anything, it's useful just for myself. For instance, when we had auditions, I didn't have to write out "James" for the one millionth time. I just said turn to page such and such. Almost all the tunes are there. The book process was like cleaning your house. When it's finished, you're just glad that's over with. Getting that book done was a major house cleaning.
TCG: Over all the years of music, is there anything you'd like to change?
PM: There's a billion things I would change. It's always easy to look back. Generally speaking, though, I can say I did the best I could. It's always good to feel that way instead of having regrets. Being a musician is hard. It's not easy to play year after year and come up with new ideas. Actually putting the songbook together was one of the few times I actually had to assess the situation up till now. I had to go back and listen to all my records. I was glad to hear the youthful energy that I heard on those records back then. We were in the time that we were in, so I can't say I have any regrets. I always wish I'd played better. I wish I played better right now. That's always there but generally speaking, no regrets.
TCG: How do you balance your time and juggle guitar playing, composing and all?
PM: My guitar playing has unfortunately taken a distant back seat. Touring is actually when I usually get to the guitar. All the other things are done and at that point that's when I become the guitar player. The rest of the time that I'm not touring, I'm a composer or an arranger or an interview giver. There's nothing like going out and playing three hours a night. You can practice ten hours a day and it's not the same thing. I really do hope that some time in the next 5-10 years, I can take a year off and just work on the guitar. I really feel that I could make some major progress. I would need the time to really focus on this.
TCG: Who are you listening to these days?
PM: These days I'm listening to Barney and Teletubbies and J.J. The Jet Plane since I have two little kids at home. That's high on the rotation right now. But I love listening to Trane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans. And of course Keith (Jarrett), Herbie (Hancock), Brad Mehldau. I'm a big fan of Kurt Rosenwinkle. He's a very welcome and positive force in the guitar world. He especially excites me. He's got a little of myself and Sco (John Scolfield) and Bill Frisell but he's also taken it to another place. It's fulfilling to hear this. Maybe it's the way Jim Hall feels about me and Sco and Frisell. Just to hear a little bit of your thing in someone who's actually trying to get to something, It's a nice feeling.
TCG: What about your general perception of creative music, where's it going?
PM: Creativity, the way I view it, is not valued that much in this culture right at this moment. That's no reason to stop or even alter what you are doing, but it is a fact. I mean, most of the greatest jazz groups ever have played to half filled houses. The kind of pervasive impact that music has in this culture is so massive, and yet, so much of it is so bad. That worries me. Everywhere you go there's music. You're constantly barraged. I think music used to be a more rare and precious commodity. Now it's just product. Yet at the same time, as a musician in this culture, I'm obligated to deal with it. In my case, it's always a matter of keeping a perspective on what the end result is. And the standards that have been set by the great musicians throughout history are always the compass that I go by. One of the beauties of being alive right now is that there are recordings. What Bach did as a composer is now well documented in sound, not just the abstraction of notes on a piece of paper. You can go to the record store and buy many examples of the standard that was set through this incredible brilliance of a single human being. You can say the same thing about Coltrane or Charlie Parker. You can hear examples of this high standard in many places and that won't go away. That's the thing to keep in mind.
TCG: As far as new technology in music?
PM: It's an exciting to time to be a musician right now. Maybe a little bit overwhelming. A lot of musicians are sort of shell shocked with all the options. The anxiety factor is probably more prominent than many of us realize. Sort of like "I can do anything". With ProTools at home you can play 500 Sticks at the same time doing twenty part counterpoint. The only thing stopping you from doing it is you. That's true for all of us. There's no more excuses about anything. I think that's a little intimidating. I went through this a little earlier when I started with the Synclavier. It was able to do anything I could dream up at the time. I think there will be a period of time till we get used to the potential that we have to create music on our own terms.
TCG: Do you think some of it dilutes the musicianship?
PM: I don't think it dilutes anything. But I do think there will be a new breed of music maker out there who aren't exactly musicians. There more like a collage artist. So far, the musical results coming from that area are not that compelling, at least in terms of having a lasting impact that compares with the highest standards that musicians have set through the centuries. They can come up with some sounds that can be immediately interesting sonically - but that lasting eternal impact has happened that much yet. But I suppose it will.
TCG: I guess that's plenty. Thanks.
PM: My pleasure. Could you play a little something on the Stick for me?
TCG: Of course! (WOW!)
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