The Metheny method

Guitar virtuoso prefers subtle interpretation to fancy improvisation

March 21, 2002 by Michael Senft for The Arizona Republic

In the world of guitar gods, Pat Metheny is unique.

The jazz virtuoso, who visits the Orpheum Theatre on Monday, is not given to stealing the spotlight with mile-a-minute solos. Rather, he is constantly finding ways of making his nimble fingers work within the confines of the songs.

Surprising, considering he got his start at the University of Miami, whose music program was a breeding ground for axmeisters in the '70s. "The first two people I met [in Miami] were Steve Morse [guitarist for the Dixie Dregs] and Jaco [Pastorius, late bassist for Weather Report]. I just about got back on the bus and headed back to Kansas City," Metheny jokes in a recent phone interview.

"In the early '70s, Miami was one of maybe three schools that had a jazz guitar program. But in truth, I only lasted about two weeks at school."

Despite the daunting talent he encountered during his brief educational career, Metheny persevered. He is now arguably the most respected jazz guitarist of the past 20 years and is acclaimed as a composer as well.

Throughout his career, Metheny has pursued his playing and writing vigorously, both as a solo artist and as the leader of the Pat Metheny Group, which recently reconvened after a three-year lull.

Metheny is quick to assert that the group is his primary focus, however.

"The group has been the central area of research since I started 20-some years ago. It's never a question of if we will return to the group, just a matter of when," he explains. "All the other things are great and fun, and enhance me in many different ways, but the group is always the ongoing, constant thing."

There are some new faces in the lineup this year, however. Augmenting veterans Lyle Mays and Steve Rodby, both of whom have backed Metheny since the '70s, are three up-and-comers from the New York scene: vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Richard Bona, drummer Antonio Sanchez and trumpeter Cuong Vu.

"We all come from different backgrounds, but the thing that unites everybody is that we're fluent in improvisational music," Metheny says, describing the synergy in his new band. For Metheny, however, improvisation is not the focus of the Pat Metheny Group.

"It includes improvisational aspects, but it is much more specific" he says. "Almost a big-band sort of feel, like Duke Ellington. There is a lot of written material.

"The band members need to [improvise], but it is not the most important part of the music."

Even if improvisation is not so crucial as written material, Metheny is not averse to an occasional bit of fancy fretwork.

"I'm really happy to play some fancy stuff, but I don't really see it as an end in itself. It has to be a component in a larger narrative," Metheny says. "Subtlety is something I value. That is an underutilized aspect of virtuosity - being able to get a lot more with less."

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