Nuclear fusion

Pat Metheny is taking jazz to a new level.

June 9, 2005 by John Fordham for The Guardian

The first time I met Pat Metheny, in 1985, he was an unassuming 31-year-old in jeans and battered trainers, with a rag-mat haircut, a Jack Nicholson drawl and an apologetic grin that seemed to say he was still surprised to be a hot ticket. Twenty years later, Metheny has pretty much the same accessories, the same candour, the same unabashed enthusiasm. But he's upped the ante on the musical game in a big way since then. This weekend he's in Brighton and London for two gigs with the most ambitious project he has ever attempted - a crossover symphony of electronics, rock vamps, Latin grooves, classical textures and jazz improvising called The Way Up.

"One of the things jazz has always excelled at is translating the reality of the times through its musical prism," Metheny says. "You can have the performers, living here and now, express everything that matters to them spontaneously. But it's dangerous territory. It means that I don't sleep much, and I'm very frustrated a lot of the time."

Metheny doesn't have the look of a frustrated insomniac, however, nor has the best of his music ever sounded as if it were conceived in small-hours urban angst - more likely under midwest sunsets with a country guitar on his lap, which is pretty much what his childhood was like. A self-taught guitarist who was jamming with jazz stars visiting Kansas City when he was only 14, Metheny was into six-figure sales for his albums by the 1980s.

In that decade he was collaborating with David Bowie, touring half the year, and playing rock venues with audiences bursting into whoops of recognition at the first few notes of any of them. Yet he insists his latest project is not the grandiloquent gesture of a man trying to carve a bigger place in history, but a natural evolution from what went before.

"What we have been working on is expanding the premise of what a jazz group can be in this era," Metheny says. The "we" is a reference to his 30-year composing partnership with pianist, sounding-board, editor and confidante Lyle Mays. Metheny says of the partnership: "We function best as editors for each other. We have similarities about what we think sucks and what we think is cool."

For a musician whose worldwide audience has been won by a knack for writing melodies you can hum in the street, he does count some of the most intractable deconstructionists of melody among his heroes: "The pianist Cecil Taylor is extremely melodic, the guitarist Derek Bailey is extremely melodic and Ornette Coleman."

Coleman, celebrating his 75th year in 2005 by playing sell-out gigs from the Sage to the Barbican, is a hero of Metheny's - the kind of wayward artist some of the guitarist's fusion fans might still find an inexplicable connection. But Metheny can wax lyrical about the mercurial Coleman, whose gifts for spontaneous melody he describes as "like a songbird's". Coleman is the focus for Metheny's other big project for 2005 - the reissue of the great Song X album he made with the legendary Texas saxophone maverick 20 years ago. Metheny had loved Coleman's quirky melodies since he was 12, and he says now he was unaware of the controversy that had experts from Leonard Bernstein to Benny Green arguing over whether Coleman was a genius or a charlatan.

Despite Metheny's own devotion to conventionally harmonised songs and Coleman's wilful indifference to chords, the two sparked a dazzling relationship when they finally met in 1985. Metheny has remixed the material and rescued unused tracks: Coleman even blows effortlessly on a conventionally song-based piece of Metheny's, which is like Jackson Pollock going in for portrait-painting.

Plenty of jazzers prefer the enthusiasms of Metheny the improviser to Metheny the crossover box office property. But criticisms that some of his more accessible work dumbs down his improviser's brilliance just bounces off him: "This general area is more of a culturalpolitical discussion than a musical one. The reality of music itself, which is the fabric of life for me, is where most of my attention is. Also, at this point, I've been around long enough - it's 30 years now - where I've seen the rise and fall of plenty of these kinds of discussion. When I made Bright Size Life with Jaco Pastorius in 1975, there were various reactions to it - from 'Yeah it sounds good, or nice or whatever' to 'It sucks'.

Now 25 years later - this year, anyway - it's supposed to be a classic, something that changed the world." He shrugs. "I wrote a song once called Just Talk. There's always lots of talk about all kinds of stuff."

Pat Metheny plays The Dome, Brighton (01273 709 709), on Saturday [June 11, 2005], and the Hammersmith Apollo (0870 606 3400), London, on Sunday [June 12, 2005]. The Way Up is out on Nonesuch Records.

Copyright ©2005 by The Guardian and John Fordham.

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