PAT METHENY: Classic to the Core.

No tricks, no fads, just straight-ahead bebop on a happy groove thing.

by Peter Mengaziol

Guitar World, Vol 6, No. 3, May 1985, pgs 26-33

If you stretch your memory back seven or eight years, you might remember the Golden Age of Fusion--that era when guitarists like John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Bill Connors and Steve Khan playing in a netherworld style between jazz and rock made significant inroads into the hearts and record collections of music fans. And then "disco" happened, followed by "punk," then by "new wave," then by the "new Romanticism," then by "rap," then by "heavy metal," then by "scratch," and "hiphop." A few "fusion" artists like pianist/synthesist Herbie Hancock survived and prospered by an infusion of heavy electronics, scratch and the art of turntable cueing, into their music and flowing with the trends while defining them. Unfortunately for the many fusion guitarists who gained recognition in the late seventies, these trends left them hanging. Many returned to teaching and studio work, or vanished from the scene entirely. A few issues back, GW published a discussion between some of these fusion guitarists that uncovered some feelings of resentment and bitterness about these trends. Perhaps it was the feeling that they considered their life's work had merely been music industry's current hip trend, dropped as soon as sales failed to meet expectations and something new came along.

One fusion guitarist notably absent from that roundtable discussion was Pat Metheny. Throughout the intervening "trendy" years Pat has maintained and increased his popularity. Of all the guitarists who flourished in the late seventies, he seems to have come out ahead of the game but with no serious compromise to the music he loves. This may be the exception which proves the rule, but Pat's biography almost reads like a charmed life: he became an instructor at the Berklee School of Music while in his teens, played with vibist Gary Burton from '74-'77, released his first Ip, _Bright Size Life_ in '76, played in Joni Mitchell's legendary _Shadows and Light_ back-up group, scored a series of television documentaries and won two Grammy awards.

In the past eighteen months, Pat has released two albums, written/co-written and recorded two film scores, visited Japan twice, toured as a clinician for the legendary Synclavier Il guitar synthesizer system and begun a long tour of the US. It's obvious that Pat is not languishing in obscurity; a more pertinent question might be, why has he done so well bucking the trends?

If you look at his music, or rather listen to it, you can find an ever-present optimism there. His use of singable melodies, fresh - sounding harmonies, acoustic guitars, tasteful percussion and bright electronics can convey a sense of _happiness_ that is a lot easier to swallow than the harsh chromaticism, breakneck speed, and hard fuzz-toned sounds that have stereotyped the fusion sound. Years ago, when fusion guitarists were cranking their solid-body guitars through big amps and discovering the power of electricity, Pat took his hollow body Gibson ES-175 "jazz" guitar, and put it through some digital delay to give it "air," thus producing his clean and distinctive musical sound trademark.

We caught Pat just as he was about to start his US tour last fall. What came out in the conversation was a similar optimism about music. As usual, things were looking up.

The news that Pat and his group were going to do a track and perhaps a video with David Bowie had hit the streets just before the interview, so that was the first thing we talked about. While Pat's music and David Bowie's chameleon-like trend worthiness may seem an unlikely combination, it did happen, so we wanted to find out how. Pat explained: "The last two months or so I've been in London working on a score for a John Schlesinger movie, _The Falcon and the Snowman_, which stars Tim Hutton. Bowie happened to be at a screening and really liked the film and this tune I wrote as a kind of theme for the character that Tim Hutton plays. Then Bowie got a cassette of it and wrote words for it. My regular group went to Switzerland to a studio that he uses a lot. We played, he sang and we got this real hip tune. It's called 'This Is Not America.'"

The offer from Bowie was unforeseen and welcome but Pat wanted to emphasize that the Bowie collaboration was but a small part of the entire project, and it shouldn't overshadow the overall accomplishment of having scored a major motion picture, says Metheny. "I've gotten script after script and just never found one I felt strong enough about until this one. I see it on _that_ level but the Bowie thing is getting all the attention. We did that in one day! The other sixty days we did a whole orchestral score with the Group and part of the Philharmonic Orchestra. The score worked out great so I'm actually more excited about that cause that's somethin' real new to me. Maybe when it all comes out my opinion will change."

What was most interesting about the collaboration was that it was Pat's show and he had the directive hand during the recording: "The thing with Bowie was new in a different way. In fact, the part I enjoyed the most was that I was kind of the producer and I had never really worked with the intent of absolutely doing a pop track. We've always had pop influences because of our age, I guess, and I've always liked and incorporated all kinds of music into the Group: But this was the first time I was ever in the studio with the absolute goal of making it into a pop-sounding track. As it turns out, the Group is a mean little rock, pop or whatever it is that we were doing, band! I really liked the opportunity of doing a lot of Synclavier guitar that doesn't even sound like a guitar."

While you might not expect a session with such diverse elements to hang together, as Pat tells it no real artistic compromises were made by either Bowie or the band. "The wild thing about it is that you'll be able to tell, within a bar or two, that it's clearly the Pat Metheny Group-then with him you can tell with the first note that it's Bowie. We just do what we would normally do and he just does what he would normally do. For some reason it works incredibly well. It's kind of a wild combination, not one of those things where you say, 'Oh, yeah, it's David Bowie and The Pat Metheny Group, together at last!' But like I said we played just the way we would play."

Since Bowie isn't usually associated with jazz artists, we threw the question out concerning what it was about that particular track that attracted him as opposed to all the other things he'd done in the past: "I think a lot of it is, there's certain tempo that he seems to really like. If you look at a lot of his hits you see they're all within certain notches of this tempo---it's right in his groove. In fact it's 115-beats-per-minute and it's got a kinda dark mood to it. I think he also really dug the spirit of the movie itself and the words he wrote are really, really great. They're really exceptional. As far as not being associated with 'jazz' artists, well, David Bowie can tell you anything you want to know about Eric Dolphy!"

With some reluctance Pat talked about the possibility of a video, perhaps in collaboration with David Bowie on the tune they did together: "I'm still slightly of the school that it's nice that people sort of make up their own videos but at this point it's such an important part of the whole scheme of continuing to get gigs. The part of videos that I don't like is personally being in them. I just don't like the part of standing there holding a guitar and not really playing. But it may happen."

When you listen to Pat Metheny play the guitar, you find that for all the diverse elements in the music the Pat Metheny Group plays, a real "jazz" flavor remains. Take, for example, "Tell it All" from the new _First Circle_ album: on that track Pat's extended guitar solo pays homage to straight-ahead jazz guitar playing, right out of the Benson/Martino/Farlow school of improvisation. This "jazz harmonicism" was sorely missing from a lot of the fusion players. We asked Pat to explain the essence of his playing style and he came up with this: "Well, my thing is so wrapped up in the peculiar elements of my background having grown up in the country, having that element, and then having played nothing but bebop before I played any kind of 8th note rock and roll. Every single thing that I play is absolutely based on being able to play 'Giant Steps' or 'All The Things You Are' or even blues for that matter but not just blues but blues with the incredible harmonic awareness to have an incredible array of harmonic options available at any point. The other thing is to always play from your stomach out rather than to play from your hands in. Those are the two things from the moment I decided I wanted to be a musician those things worked."

Pat's mastery of jazz harmony has also been aided by other factors, notably a strong sense of rhythmic thrust underpinning his mastery of harmonic movement. "I wasn't able to identify them as scientifically as I'm saying now but I know those two plus always playing with a real good kind of rhythm, whether it's in the time or against the time, those were always the main things for me as a player. I mean I've always loved what I call 'even 8th note' music, like Brazilian music, where the clave under the music is moving in duple field rather than triplet field. If you have all that harmonic awareness it doesn't matter if you are going to play 'Giant Steps' or if you are going to play on F7 for two hours--it all applies. The thing about that harmonic awareness is that there's no short cut, there's nothing you can do to make that four- or five-year process any shorter."

In other words, the foundation of the Metheny style, as modern as it sounds, has its musical roots in the classic jazz of the forties, fifties and sixties. He's the first to admit it, too: "Yeah, I'm a bebopper. The first five years I played, other than the first six months where I was still trying to figure out 'Louie-Louie' and stuff like that, all I played was bebop. From the time I was fourteen 'til I was eighteen I didn't want to hear anything that wasn't Coltrane or Miles or Jim Hall or Wes Montgomery. I mean I was your basic sort of bebop snob kind of guy. I actually think that in order to play that music really well--and there's oddly enough very few guitar players who can--you have to make that kind of commitment for a pretty long stretch of time because it's not only technically quite difficult on a guitar to get that kind of phrasing and time feel but it's a spirit thing, too. You can't just casually do it. You start talking about Charlie Parker stuff, you're talking about some pretty serious business."

Since bebop--"bop" for short--is hardly considered contemporary in these days of harmonically simple songs and music tracks based more and more on technological trickery what does Pat think about the value of studying a style of music like bop was in the present? His success may be a covert testimonial to bop: "Well, it's more relevant now than ever. To me, good music doesn't ever lose that. The con- cepts that bebop is based on are more thoroughly, or more apparently, great now than they ever were to me. Not that it has anything to do with anything else in the music industry, 'cause it doesn't, but more and more when I put on classic improvised records they sound better and better to me relative to things that I hear on a daily basis. In learning to be a good bebop player, you learn in a more intimate way then almost any kind of other music to have an intimate relationship with harmony and rhythm. Somehow you are actively involved with all the elements; you're not just playing a part. You can play bebop a cappella and you can hear all the parts and all the chords, everything. The only other music you can say that about is real good classical music, most notably Bach. Bebop has a lot in common with Bach."

How does that bop fit into the modern commercial world, then? After all, no one ever seems to have hit records based on bop jazz harmonies. Many of today's popular songs are comparatively simple, harmonically speaking (with the notable exception of a Stevie Wonder) when compared to the complex chordal structures and movements that typified the bop era. Pat further explained the value in the contemporary context: "The thing about playing harmonically simple music is that it's fun and everything but it doesn't expand your harmonic horizons. It doesn't help your ear that much. After you learn Dorian mode, you've got it. The thing about bebop is that there are certain principles those bebop cats found that apply to everything, to country and western or whatever. If you get those principles down you can go play with anybody playing anything and it'll sound good. I have to say the best rock guys I've known are jazz guys. For instance, the Police. I mean Andy Summers and I have played Wes Montgomery duets for hours. Andy knows all that stuff. When I hear the Police they sound like a jazz group to me."

While Pat has been a successful player, his reputation has never rested on prodigious technique (not that he's ever been a slouch in that department). Much of his success rests on his skillful playing and compositions, not speed or mechanical prowess:' "You see I've always approached the whole thing of being a guitar player/leader from a certain reluctant point of view. To me the music is high on my list of priorities, being a guitar player and a guitar star and all that stuff, has always been near the bottom of the list of priorities. I do want to be a good guitar player but it's definitely not Number One. If people wanted to say something about me after was dead I would rather that they said that he was a good musician or that what he played sounded musical, rather than 'Wow, he sure could play fast!'"

Pat charted the growth of his technique from the early days: "On a technical level as far as guitar playing goes, at the time _Bright Size Life_ was made I had been playing for about five years and I couldn't really play that well relative to what I can technically do now. I'm probably, in terms of guitar talk, three times faster than I was then and definitely a lot more accurate. Three years ago I'd show up every night before a gig for about an hour and warm up and practice. All of a sudden I'm finding that I can play just about anything. Before, I used to hear guys like John McLaughlin and say, 'Man, I could never do that!' but can sort of do it now. I mean I can't play like some of those cats but it's much, much, better than it used to be. It's nice to have that option because before I was constantly finding ways to sort of fake it or give the illusion that I had a lot more chops than I actually did."

While there are many "stars" thanks to the magic of records and, just recently, videos you might think that the availability of such media would lead to an increasing awareness on the part of musicians and fans alike of serious artists. Pat echoed a common feeling among many serious musicians on the increasing lack of awareness in music circles: "I have to say in the rock and roll world that sometimes I'm shocked at the lack of awareness that there is of every other kind of music. It seems like everybody's worrying about playing like Eddie Van Halen. I hear people talking about various guitar players and they've never heard Django or Wes Montgomery or, for that matter, contemporary people like McLaughlin or even me. There seems to be a very conservative self-indulgent lack of looking around."

Despite Pat's remark about rock and his admission about starting out as "a bebop snob kind of guy," he isn't as much of a traditionalist in his musical listening as you may think: "To tell you the truth, I think Eddie Van Halen is one of my favorite guitar players. Eddie Van Halen sounds like a post-Coltrane saxophone player to me. What's happening to him is unfortunately what we saw happen to McLaughlin: his thing which is so great is getting watered down by all his imitators. After McLaughlin came out every single band had a guitar player that sounded just like John McLaughlin, especially in the so-called fusion world. Everybody just got sick of it--nobody ever wanted to hear that again-- ever! It's the same thing now; you can't turn on a rock and roll show without seeing some guy with both hands fumbling over the neck."

Pat also talked about the press' ironic tendency to separate musical styles based perhaps more on attitude or dress than on any musically substantial basis: "The other thing that's striking to me about the sort of rock scene at the moment is that the heavy metal guys claim to really be against the punks and of course the punks don't want to hear anything about the heavy metal guys. When you actually listen to the music that they're playing, they're practically identical. You know we're talking about some guy banging out 5ths on the 5th and 6th strings and some drummer whacking out 2 and 4!"

We asked Pat if he had any other favorite guitar players and what it was in their playing that was appealing to him. It might be compressed into a nutshell "personality": "I dig guitar players where it sounds like it's them, where it sounds like it's coming from the inside out and with any kind of non-wind instrument that's a real accomplishment. Whenever you hear some non-wind instrument player who's got some personality it's a real good sign. Jeff Beck, he's another one of my favorites. He's got that same thing. I love Alan Holdsworth. He's brilliant and he's got the thing that you hear people imitating all the time but that nobody can do. The other thing I dig about him is that he's just fearless and I love to hear fearlessness in music. I feel the same way about Adrian Belew. When I hear him I'm just literally on the floor laughing. It just cracks me up 'cause it's great but it's so funny, I mean the guy is a riot! Another guy that I really dig, again not really a rock kind of thing, but for the same reason that he's just sort of messing with it, is Bill Frizell. When I hear those guys what I hear is people talking, personalities and experience. I don't hear some guy playing the guitar. They're soulful cats and there's another way to put it: they got some real music in them."

Pat mentioned the Synclavier II guitar synthesizer several times. He has appeared as a clinician around the country and has been a very visible--and audible-user. Take the first track on the new _Forward March_ album, most of that brass band is the Synclavier system and many synth solos are Pat's on the other cuts. We asked him what synthesis meant to him as a guitar player and why he sometimes preferred to sound like anything _but_ a guitar and that at certain times no one is sure who was playing: "Yeah, but then again it gets into another thing: is it important _who's_ playing it? It's interesting since this is a guitar magazine, and there's some wild stuff happening right now that's starting to surface. I've been around it because I've been working with getting New England Digital over the last three years to develop that ax, which is a Roland guitar that you can just plug into the Synclavier and talk to the computer. I can only speak for myself but I've never felt a particular loyalty to one instrument or another.

"When I first started playing I was thirteen years old, around 1968, the Beatles were happening then and guitars were everywhere. But I've always dug the flute and the piano and I play a very-limited-keyboard-facility-arranger-style piano. When synthesizers came along there was a whole new level that you as a musician could get involved with because you could actually design the sound. From my standpoint synthesizers increase your range of what you can bring to life as a musician from your imagination by increasing your palette of sounds."

For those unfamiliar with the Synclavier II system, as impressive as the sounds it may make, its total cost can be as much as if not more than buying a German sports car--in other words, as much as $100,000 if you get _all_ the options. Not exactly a mass market item, you might say! Might there be some element of overkill to the synthesizer race? "I do think that there is a point at which it's _too_ much," was Metheny's reply. "In fact, synthesizers in general, no matter how sophisticated, still have some basic problems of which I'm extremely aware of. I find the deeper I get into the Synclavier synthesizer, the more I'm getting back into acoustic guitar because I'm finding myself saying I can stand here for nine hours twiddling around to get this sound that _sort of_ sounds like something. I can go pick up an acoustic guitar and just by like playing an open chord it sounds about a thousand times better."

Guitarists in the eighties are in a peculiar position, technologically speaking. Because of their traditionally conservative attitude towards synthesizers, it seems that all the price reductions that have benefited keyboard players have passed the guitar world by. While keyboard players can buy a full-featured polyphonic keyboard like a Korg Poly-800 for $800, the current going rate for a polyphonic guitar synthesis system considerably less elaborate than the Synclavier will cost about $3150 (for a Roland GR-700 system). Basically, guitar players are paying about four times as much to get in the electronic door. The big difference in price can pay for a lot of piano lessons. It's no wonder to people who are in the musical instrument business say that there seems to be a worldwide shift in sales from guitars to keyboards.

Since Pat is active in the musical instrument technology aspect of things, we wondered whether he had any feelings or comments on a seeming downturn in the popularity of the guitar as a mass market instrument: "I've heard that, too. I think it's actually a good idea. You know, there are things about the guitar that are incredibly great but there are also things about the guitar that are a pain in the neck, so to speak! You know there's a better way to do it than whoever came up with the traditional tuning of the guitar. You have to keep your fingers down in order for something to sound unless you're going to play open strings and that's a drawback harmonically because you wind up playing in those keys a lot. The thing about a keyboard is that it's very, very logical. Also, there's an incredible amount of material written for the keyboard. With guitar it's a very limited amount and because the guitar is laid out the way it is, the best written-out pieces are incredibly difficult. You could just spend years getting one of them together, while on a piano, once you get a basic command of piano technique, it's not that difficult to, like, sight-read something. With guitar it takes some pretty major decisions in terms of fingering and stuff."

Of course the added work needed to get guitaristically proficient does have its benefits. Rather than imply that the course of his personal career will veer away from the guitar to some keyboard/synthesizer hybrid, Pat emphasized the expansiveness of the guitar, even more so now than before: "On the other hand with the guitar you have your fingers from Segovia or the sound of the classical guitar un-amplified to Motorhead in terms of your possible dynamic range as a guitar player and that's really great. For a long time, quite frankly, during my bebop years I always said that if I had to do it all over again I might not be a guitar player but I have to say, especially with the development of these new guitar synthesizers and everything, that I'm really glad I'm a guitar player. I really dig it."


Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Hoenisch TOP last update: July 1998