Pat Metheny: Another Phase Dance

Interview by Doug Collette for All About Jazz
Published: December 11, 2006

Through the course of a career that now exceeds thirty years in the limelight, guitarist Pat Metheny has never ceased to surprise. No matter the context within which he chooses to play-his flagship Pat Metheny Group, in a trio, as a collaborator with figures including bassist Charlie Haden or as a guest in large projects such as the recent NYC tribute to minimalist composer Steve Reich-the Missouri-born guitarist and composer will not allow himself to become predictable.

Given how much Metheny has in common with pianist Brad Mehldau, their recent collaboration may seem like musical marriage made in heaven. Young musicians each with a reverence for tradition but also a willingness to challenge convention, they are both prodigious instrumentalists and only slightly less impressive as composers. While some jazz lovers might have predicted theirs as an inevitable pairing, seeing such teamwork happen and hearing something substantial arise from it can be two different things.

Fortunately for all involved — musicians and music lovers alike — Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006) is remarkable piece of chemistry on every level. The two main players may or may not have planned it this way, but their productivity in the studio will be tested in the live environment when they take to the road together in 2007.

The series of Metheny/Mehldau concerts seems in retrospect predestined and, as Pat Metheny discussed with AAJ contributor Doug Collete recently, the improvisational aspect of the project carried through in and out of the studio itself. As Metheny provided insight into the machinations before, during and after the recording of the studio CD, as well as revealing new information about the project and upcoming work for Metheny himself, his matter-of-fact tone belies his reflective maturity, not to mention a boundlessly energetic creative impulse.

All About Jazz: Had you and Brad ever played together before, informally or on stage, before recording the album last December?

Pat Metheny: We had never really played together until we met in the studio the first day of the session. But somehow the idea of us doing something together was always there between us in an unspoken way. In early 2005 we started talking about it in earnest and finally decided to just set a date-the soonest week we could find that we both had off was in December. As it happened, 2005 was an incredibly busy touring year for me. Between the PMG The Way Up tour in the early half of the year and a trio tour with [bassist] Christian [McBride] and [drummer] Antonio [Sanchez] that came in the fall I was out on the road for close to 200 days that year.

As the recording dates with Brad got closer, the pragmatic aspect of it started to loom. What were we going to play? Duets? Quartet? Brad and I started an intense e-mail exchange leading up to the dates. We agreed we wanted to try both formats and we both started writing like crazy, sending each other lead sheets for each new thing as we wrote it. With the addition of a couple of older pieces that we both picked for the date, we walked into the studio with 24 pieces between us.

It was very inspiring to write for Brad personally and his trio as well. It is mostly new material written just for this date. There were a few things that I had had started that I finished off with those guys in mind, but mostly it is directed just towards their personalities and the incredible abilities that they bring to the table.

All About Jazz: What preparations did you make for the recording in terms of rehearsing and arranging the material?

Pat Metheny: There was really no time to prepare. We went into the studio and started recording. Each tune seemed to be a little world unto itself. When we ran each tune down, we arranged them pretty much on the spot. A few of them from each of us were quite detailed, so that the arrangement was actually pretty well-embedded in the way the chart was written. We played each one enough that it seemed like we had it, and then moved on to the next. In that sense it was a like a documentary type recording which seemed to be the best way to tell this particular story. Brad only needs a few takes and he has it. He is incredibly fast and accurate. He is really one of the greatest musicians I have ever been around.

What was a little unique is that we did very little listening back-we just kept playing. When it seemed like we had it, we moved on. We had an enormous amount of music we wanted to cover, so we didn't allow ourselves the luxury of playbacks, we just kept moving. When the date was all over and it was time to listen to everything, it was almost overwhelming what we had. It took a lot of time to go through everything, but it was also really fun to hear what we had come up with.

All About Jazz: How did you decide on what tunes the rhythm section would appear?

Pat Metheny: At this stage, it is probably a little unclear how that worked because only the first of what will be two records is out. We recorded 12 duet tunes and 12 quartet tunes during the session. This first record focuses mostly on the duet aspect of what we did with a small amount of quartet playing mixed in-the next record, due out in early 2007 before we go on tour, will be the inverse, focusing on the quartet playing with some duet performances mixed in with those.

"There was a special
sensibility right off the
bat that makes the music
have a unique thing."

When we finished recording, as I said, the amount of material was almost overwhelming. Everything we tried worked. Lucky for us, we were able to use Bob Hurwitz [President of Nonesuch Records] as a set of fresh ears. He was great at proposing the best way to present all of this in CD form. The complete session was really way too much to digest in one sitting. And as it happens, the two records have VERY different characters. It came out that way without us even realizing it as we were doing it.

I think some people will definitely have their preferences as to which one is more for them. What was interesting to me was just how easy and fun all the playing was, given the wide range of things that we tried. I think that really comes through in the recordings.

All About Jazz: The album sounds like it has a logic and continuity of its own; did you both envision the album that way from the start, did the sequencing of the tracks suggest that or did it just evolve that way? (Or am I just hearing things?)

Pat Metheny: As much as I have done collaborations over the years I am actually kind of a reluctant partner. There has to be a very strong reason or impulse to do something with someone for me. With Brad, it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world-and I could say the same about the duet record with Charlie [Haden], the projects with [saxophonist] Ornette [Coleman], with [saxophonist] Mike Brecker, with [guitarist John] Sco[field], with [drummer] Jack [DeJohnette] and [pianist] Herbie [Hancock] and on down the line. Each thing has been somehow an organic outgrowth of a connection that goes pretty deep.

In this case, I agree that the connection with Brad and I has a real organic quality. When I first heard Brad on the radio one night on Joshua Redman's record MoodSwing (Warner Bros., 1994) I literally had to pull off the road. I immediately recognized him as one of my favorite musicians ever. I became a huge fan of his right away. I then got the trio record he had made on Fresh Sound from Barcelona [When I Fall in Love (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1994)] and listened to it all the time.

When I read an interview with him where he listed me as an influence I was incredibly flattered. But at the same time, it somehow made sense to me. He seemed to be interested in the same kinds of things that I have always aspired towards-especially in the area of melodic development, an area that for whatever reason seems to me have kind of fallen out of favor as musical priority among younger players.

I think that the melodic piece of the puzzle in music is the most esoteric and difficult to quantify. One the early things about Brad that struck me was the way he would keep each idea going until it organically led to the next thing. He wouldn't abandon things midstream. And I think that that same level of detail and narrative flow is at work harmonically and rhythmically with him.

Those are all qualities that I have also always tried to aspire towards and have always tried to invoke as an in improviser, so in the unspoken way that I described before, the idea of us doing something together was a real natural fit. It seemed like we were both coming from the same tribe somewhere. There is a certain listening awareness that comes with this territory. When all three elements (melody, harmony and rhythm) are being addressed with a high level of consideration of the other musician, you can start swapping them around-a melodic phrase can be comping; a rhythm becomes a melody. As much as the term "free" gets thrown around, that level of mutual listening is always liberating. That quality of listening is what I feel like Brad and I were able to offer each other. With the shared melodic interest there, there was a special sensibility right off the bat that makes the music have a unique thing going on.

All About Jazz: How do you envision next year's tour together?

Pat Metheny: I am really excited about the upcoming chance to play together next year. I don't think either one of us knows exactly what shape the actual performances will take. No doubt we will play both duets and quartet, but everything beyond that is sort of yet to be decided.

I have loved Brad's trio since they started, and of course Larry Grenadier and I have had an association in the past [Trio 99>00 (Warner Bros., 2000) and Trio>Live (Warner Bros., 2000) with drummer Bill Stewart]. I loved playing with [drummer] Jeff Ballard on the recording and I know that we are going to have fun together playing each night. With just the tunes that we have already recorded, we have a pretty big book. But the idea of playing other stuff might be great too. It will be exciting to see how it will unfold.

All About Jazz: What's your next project: another Group effort? A trio or solo recording and/or tour?

Pat Metheny: We have just released a live DVD of The Way Up that we are very enthusiastic about. That was a special piece that developed a lot as we played it live and I have a feeling that people who didn't exactly understand the record will have a much easier time as they actually see how it works live. That seemed to be true throughout the tour; we could see it registering in people in a way that was really fun to experience from a player's perspective.

I referred earlier to the trio with Christian and Antonio, which has been an ongoing group for the past few years. We have tons of material in the can and I am working now on finally getting a release together of that band. We are way overdue and it has just sort of worked out that way inadvertently. That is a one of the best trios I have ever had and we have had such a great time together playing all over the world with more stuff coming up.

We recorded a bunch of the gigs on a recent [vibraphonist] Gary Burton Quartet Revisited tour with [bassist] Steve Swallow [and Antonio Sanchez on drums] and it was fantastic. We hope to put out something from that in the next few years.

And there is a very special upcoming project with one of the major figures in the community that I was honored to be a part of, but I will let him announce it when the time is right.

Selected Discography

Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau, Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006)
Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005)
Pat Metheny, Trio 99>Live (Warner Bros., 2000)
Pat Metheny Group, Imaginary Day (Warner Bros., 1997)
John Scofield/Pat Metheny, I Can See Your House from Here (Blue Note, 1993)
Pat Metheny/Dave Holland/Roy Haynes, Question and Answer (Geffen, 1989)
Steve Reich, Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint (Nonesuch, 1988)
Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman, Song X: Twentieth Anniversary (1985, reissued Nonesuch 2005)
Pat Metheny Group, Travels (ECM, 1983)
Pat Metheny, 80/81 (ECM, 1980)
Pat Metheny Group, Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978)
Gary Burton Quartet with Eberhard Weber, Passengers (ECM, 1977)
Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life (ECM 1975)
Gary Burton Quintet with Eberhard Weber, Ring (ECM, 1974)

Related Articles

The Way Up Live (DVD Review, 2006)
Pat Metheny: Quantum Musician (Building a Jazz Library, 2006)
Pat Metheny Trio+1 (Concert Review, 2006)
Pat Metheny Group In Potsdam, NY (Concert Review, 2005)
A Fireside Chat with Pat Metheny (Interview, 2003)

Pat Metheny at All About Jazz.

Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2006 by All About Jazz and Doug Collette

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