An Interview With ... Pat Metheny

April 2002 by Sam Pryor for Enjoy the Music

A jazz guitarist who makes records that jazz haters love, an ingenious musician who has incorporated American folk, Vietnamese orchestral, and even hip hop into his high-flying space bop; a hardcore player and "fan" with an acute handle on history, Pat Metheny has for 25 years been a cyclone of sound, a jazzbo who erases musical borders.

With his latest Pat Metheny Group album, Speaking Of Now, the 47-old-year Missouri native returns with a new band and a revitalized sound. Gone are the orchestral overtures and experimental dabblings of Imaginary Day, or the overt Brazilian cast of Still Life (Talking) and Offramp. Lean, mean and fully recharged, this PMG new edition came purely to play. Longtime collaborator Lyle Mays is still onboard, as is bassist Steve Rodby, along with new hires drummer Antonio Sanchez, west African vocalist Richard Bona, and avant trumpeter Cuong Vu. The result is the most vital PMG group in ages, close in sprit to Metheny's early, 1970s Bright Size Life and Watercolors recordings, where a trio musicians (including Jaco Pastorious) gathered in the studios of ECM to attend to business and burn on the toothy guitarist's dexterous, organic jazz forays.

Pat Metheny ground zero is close to New York's Times Square, a few steps up from hustling Broadway, enclosed behind two large load-in doors and a vague buzzer. Metheny hums with intensity and courtesy, his wide grin and unruly mop of hair bouncing along with an extended hand. His large studio is filled with guitars from every era of the PMG. This is where Metheny and Mays compose the Group's material and where they rehearsed their new band. A sarcastic George Bush carton adorns one wall; otherwise it's all music.
To understand Metheny's remarkable effect on jazz, you must view him as more than simply a guitarist. Starting on trumpet when he was 7, Metheny graduated to guitar by age 13. He was soon teaching at the University of Miami and Berklee by the time he was 20. He made his recording debut in 1974, and spent developmental time in vibraphonist Gary Burton's quartet, where he beguiled stunned followers awestruck by his liquid lines and ability to burn, whatever the style. Metheny's trio albums helped made him a jazz star, while the early Pat Metheny Group albums spread jazz-fusion to a new audience. His music defies easy categorization: Fireside jazz? Jazz-rock bop? Wheatfield space music? With its populist melodies and complex arrangements easy delivered, Metheny's muse has resulted in an convincing body of work.

Speaking Of Now brings the PMG full-circle. This is a return to an intimate, small group sound. The new Metheny/Mays songs are eloquent, with little ornamentation and with a focus on tight compositions and expressive solos. Speaking Of Now is the Pat Metheny Group, here and now. Enjoy The™: Speaking Of Now is a very intimate record, like five guys blowing in a room.

Pat Metheny: The change in the rhythm section fundamentally altered the nature of the band. We've only had three drummers in the last 25 years and they all were great. But I do feel that the drummer determines the nature of any band. And the decision as to who will play the drums is the determining factor in almost any musical project that I am in. Having a new drummer made it all new again. It is also a shift for us, because it is the first time we have had anyone in the band that are chronologically one generation younger than us. Songs like "Proof" are extremely ambitious in terms of what the structures imply and how the ideas are developed. Normally that would be something that we would have to rely more on by playing with the sequencer or making a model of it in the synth world to illuminate what it is supposed to be. With this band that was unnecessary cause Antonio can read anything. When we did the basic parts with the four of us, it was done. We will do a quartet record pretty soon with just Lyle and Steve and Antonio. We can get lean and mean now in a way we never could before.

ETM: And there is less sonic style experimentation this time.

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