Jazz Forum: The music you played last night at the jam session was pure, unadulterated jazz, as opposed to what you performed at the concert with your group. Is it possible that your own music doesn't completely fulfill you?
Pat Metheny: No. That's a line of thought that I would disagree with pretty strongly. The music that I find myself playing at jam sessions is to me no different from any music that I would ever play. To me, the point of playing music is to make musical sounds and to make things sound good. I mean, I've had a lot of experience; I've spent 15 years -- half of my life -- getting to play with lots of good, primarily improvising musicians in lots of different situations. And I've always felt very lucky that somehow, early on, no one ever told me, "Well, this is jazz and this is that." It was never an issue for me. And yet everything I've been involved with as a musician has had to do with improvising which, from my point of view, has made everything that I play jazz, with no fear of style.
There's one very important element of the jazz tradition that very rarely gets talked about. If you look at the whole history of jazz, the music that's happened at various points has somehow had something to do with the time in which it existed. For instance, when I hear those Charlie Parker records, not only do I hear great music, but I can almost smell what the air was like then. And that's always very important to me.
I think that the music that we have to offer is music that is perculiar to our generation. I mean, we are all more or less around 30 years old. I think ours is a jazz group in a sense that our primary focus is on improvising. But, on the other hand, a lot of our music reflects a certain attitude that our generation has toward just doing something. We are very concerned about the spirit that comes out of music. It is important for us to play honestly the music in which we believe.
It would be easy for me and, in a sense, I would be even more successful, if I were to, say, put on a suit and play only such tunes as All the Things You Are. But when I hear young musicians who play exclusively that way, it makes me wonder where they've been for the past 20 years. If I hear somebody who doesn't have a note of rock'n'roll in their blood, I wonder how they could be on this planet, how they could miss it?
There has always been a certain resistance to change among the so-called status quo in the jazz community. And now the change is not only in the music itself, but in the whole way it's played. I mean, we have instruments that didn't even exist two years ago.
But I still feel very strongly and I would argue till the sun goes down and comes back up again that our group is a jazz group maybe more than jazz groups -- in the sense that the improvising is absolutely what makes it or breaks it. If I play a solo on a tune, it doesn't matter if it's All the Things You Are or if it's one of our more rock'n'roll-oriented tunes. My ability as an improviser is what makes the tune successful or not. If you hear us play the same tune two nights in a row, it's gonna be quite different.
JF: A well-known Polish jazz guitarist said he had listened attentively to several of your records and couldn't hear one jazz phrase or lick in your playing.
PM: Well, I think to a certain degree it's true in a sense that I don't want to play jazz licks. To me the best jazz improvisers don't play jazz licks -- they play music. You know I can't ever remember hearing Miles Davis playing a jazz lick. He's always playing melodies. When I hear Sonny Rollins play, it's always melodic; it's never a lick. I don't think anybody could seriously make a case that my playing is without jazz phrasing -- in terms of the breath element or swing feel. I would be surprised for that guy if he's never heard "80/81" or "Bright Size Life" or actually any of those records.
I mean, the first four years that I played, I was around Kansas City. I got to play with many musicians who grew up with and played with Charlie Parker. That was my foundation. I really played nothing but bebop. From the time I was 14 till I was about 18, that was my world. All those jazz licks -- I played them all. There's just no point in playing them on and on.
JF: Some jazz musicians seem to fear change.
PM: But jazz has always been changing, it has always been in a state of transition. The fact is that it is a little bit more complicated now and, at the same time, it doesn't have the prominence it once had.
To tell you the truth, I've always been very critical of the jazz community. I think jazz musicians are their own worst enemies. There have been many times that I've gone to festivals or gone to see musicians play and they havn't rehearsed, they've maybe never played together, they're tuning up on stage, they don't look like they really want to be there and the audience can feel that the guy is doing them a favor by even being there. And I can't stand it.
I don't care if it's John Coltrane. In fact, John Coltrane never had that attitude. I mean even Miles, who is famous for his thing, really has a sense of presenting his music. Wynton Marsalis is another example that I use a lot. He has a very strong presentation. I don't hear that in many jazz musicians and that's very troubling to me. All the time you hear people saying, "Well, I don't like jazz." It doesn't surprise me, because I don't like most jazz that I hear either, quite frankly.
JF: You mentioned Wynton Marsalis. He is often cited as an extremely new, young musician who can save jazz. Have you ever played with him?
PM: Yeah, we played together, along with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden and Tony Williams. It was great. But there are certain aspects of his thing that I find more than anything kind of funny. Because, you know, like I'm 30 and he's 23 or something, but I feel like I'm one generation older than him in a way. To me his thing is kind of reactionary -- I mean the suits and ties, and playing music that is very '60s oriented. But, besides all that, which I think will change as the years go on, he's got all the things that I like to hear when I hear somebody play: he's got great time, he's got great ideas, he's got an incredible harmonic sense of the whole tradition. I have to say that, of all the musicians I've heard who have come on the scene after me, he's the only guy who I feel has a complete sense of harmony. I mean it's been extremely lacking, particularly in the avant-garde and fusion worlds. Most of the newer young players have been very ill-equipped with the tradition.
JF: How do you understand the role of the guitar in the jazz tradition?
PM: Actually, guitar players have a very strange relationship to the whole jazz tradition because, to begin with, the guitar is an instrument that is off the mainstream. There are a number of basic problems that the guitar has in jazz. It has a very small dynamic range, it doesn't have the percussive impact that a saxophone or drums or even piano has. Guitar players have been wrestling with these problems for 40 years now. Really, there've only been a few people who have managed to transcend the basic difficulties of making it an expressive jazz instrument at all. And I can't think of one of them that has done it through playing jazz licks, in the sense of playing saxophone licks on the guitar, because saxophone licks don't lay good on the guitar. I mean you can play the notes, but they don't feel good.
For me, the major milestone would be Django Reinhardt, who developed a very idiosyncratic, particular way of playing that no one will ever be able to imitate. Charlie Christian -- a very similar thing, although his playing was very reminiscent of Lester Young's approach in terms of real narrative line. For me, the next major one would be Wes Montgomery, whose playing, more than anything, just had incredible heart and was also extremely advanced rhythmically. Jim Hall took the guitar, harmonically, to a point where maybe he was the first guitar player who could function in a rhythm section without a piano and really make it speak. I'm thinking in particular of his records with Sonny Rollins where he filled that role in a way that was extremely musical.
The next one -- and this will be maybe a little more controversial -- was Jimi Hendrix, who gave the guitar a vocal power that I hadn't known before. After that, I would say it was John McLaughlin, who started to bring some of the post-Coltrane types of harmonic ideas and also that kind of energy to the guitar.
So there's maybe five or six people, while if you start talking about saxophone players you could name maybe 30 who were as important in terms of continuing the lineage of their instrument in its relation to jazz as significantly as each of those I mentioned have done for the guitar.
But the guitar has been a tough nut to crack in jazz, for me anyway.
JF: Meanwhile, in jazz-rock or so-called fusion, the guitar went on to become one of the most important and influential instruments...
PM: I hate the term "fusion." In fact, it was developed by a record company -- Columbia Records in 1972 -- to market "Bitches Brew" and all that stuff. Hardly any musicians use that term -- it's mainly press and record companies which do. I don't think I've ever run across a musician who would say, "Well, what kind of music do I play? -- I play fusion." I mean nobody says that. I've never felt as uncomfortable with that hyphenated thing, you know -- jazz-rock, such and such thing. But even that's clumsy. But it's funny to look back on history a little bit. I can remember when I first started reading down beat when I was 12 or 13 years old, and when Gary Burton's first group started with Coryell. At that time there was an incredible controversy about that new thing. What is this? Jazz-rock? This is bad feedback! They're incorporating rock! But when you listen to those records now, 15 years later or whatever, it is a jazz group.
I think 15 years from now, when you listen to the early Weather Report records -- it's a jazz group, it's gonna be clear that we are an improvising jazz group. Of course, we are using the elements available to us as young musicians -- and that's natural, that's what people have always done.
JF: The tune that you played as an encore last night, "The American Garage," had an unmistakable rock'n'roll feel to it.
PM: Yeah, that's about as close to out-and-out rock'n'roll as we'll probably ever get. But even in that tune, there's a big chunk in the middle that's like -- O.K., we've done that and now we gotta come up with some stuff, and it's different every time. I think it would be much better to compare our group to a big band than to another small jazz group. Because it's true -- we present a lot of written material, and we also function as a large ensemble. I mean we're the equivalent of about an 11-piece group in the sense of writing. I guess it might be better to compare it to the Thad and Mel band or something like that than with a traditional small group.
JF: A little earlier you mentioned some of the jazz musicians that have been important to you in your development as a guitar player. What about the other side? Who were the most influential rock musicians for you?
PM: It would be hard for me to mention specific people. I mean almost all of my musical heroes on a specific level were jazz guys. You know, I've always liked tunes. I listened to the radio and I would say, "Oh, that's a nice tune, whose tune is that?" When I was about ten, I saw "A Hard Day's Night" I think 15 times. I was always a big Beatles fan, and they're still one of my favorites. But my thing with jazz -- or with any music -- is that when I hear people playing the music they really love and they're playing it as well as they can play it, I'll dig it. I hear that quality in lot of music. I hear it in a lot of jazz, but I don't hear that in most pop music. Most pop music I hear as being as a commercial way of making a lot of money. But I've never believed that all rock musicians are as serious about what they do as a lot of jazz musicians. And, in fact, some of the greediest, most money-oriented people I've ever met are jazz musicians. So that theory just doesn't hold true for me.
JF: Talking about tunes, you've written many pieces that have become hits with instantly recognizable sound and catchy melodies. Could you envisage other groups playing your music?
PM: It's funny, because I've heard other people play my tunes and usually it doesn't sound that good. I also hear many young guitar players trying to sound like me and they almost always don't sound very good. I've kind of come to believe that my thing is very unusual. I mean, it's very strongly rooted in this Kansas City-type of experience, rhythmically. Yet at the same time, I just wanna play whatever I feel like playing. Most people who come to this music don't have that Kansas City foundation and don't have a relationship to bebop and all that. It doesn't have that thing underneath it. I can't really describe it.
JF: An interesting aspect of your music is that it is very hard to distinguish between electronic and acoustic sounds. The overall texture sounds so natural.
PM: You know, the first thing I did when I got a guitar was to plug it in. I've been dealing with knobs and electricity from day one when I started to play music. It's always been a part of my world as a musician. And I don't see the difference. I personally prefer to play as if I would be just sitting here and playing acoustic guitar. I mean, there's a certain power that an instrument has with no electronics or mike or anything. But the fact is that if you're a guitar player and you want to play for more than ten people -- and especially if you want to play with the drummer -- you have to do something, 'cause nobody's gonna hear a note you play.
You know, I've been very lucky to stand next to people like Sonny Rollins or Gary Burton who get great sounds out of their instruments. Even early on, I played with a couple of electric musicians who got very good sounds. I mean there were a couple of guitarists and organ players around Kansas City who really got a soulful sound from their electric instruments. I mean Wes Montgomery had a very strong personality on an electric instrument without it sounding electric. It can be done. To me it's a challenge because it's harder than playing an acoustic instrument. Because there's one more level between you and the listener and your thing has to be even more powerful, but if it's not happening it's just gonna sound loud.
JF: You use several different guitars on stage. Could you briefly describe these different models and what purpose each of them serves?
PM: Well, my main guitar is this old Gibson that I play. I mean it's the first guitar that I ever got. I got it for 100 dollars from this farmer out in Missouri where I grew up. His kid went to Vietnam and I bought his guitar. And I still play it probably 70 percent of the time. I mean, if something were to happen to that guitar, I don't know what I would do.
Then I have a number of acoustic guitars with pick-ups on them so you can hear them. They're tuned in a lot of different ways and each one has a particular quality. Like I've got a Guild that's tuned real high and it's got an almost harpsichord kind of thing. Then I've got a couple of regular six-string guitars that this girl up in Canada [Linda Manzer] makes. She's a real good young guitar maker and they have a real big sound. I used those guitars on, say, this trio record with Charlie [Haden] and Billy [Higgins]. They're almost like pianos. They have a really good sound.
Then I have a bunch of these Roland guitar synthesizers which trigger different kinds of synthesizers. One goes to a Roland synthesizer, which is what I use on Are You Going With Me? or on the Offramp ballad.
Then, more recently, I started using this Synclavier guitar which is also played from a Roland guitar system. So there's a couple of those, again tuned slightly differently for different tunes. You don't need to program the Roland. Basically, it sounds one way. You kind of turn it on and that's sort of what it sounds like. Then you can open or close the filter a little bit, you can get an octave up or octave down. In fact, it's hardly even a synthesizer; it's very unsophisticated. But, in a way, that's what I like about it, too. It's got a very raw kind of edge to it that I like.
On the other hand, the Synclavier is incredibly sophisticated. I mean, you program it, you can make it write out what you just played. It's unbelievable. In fact, I find that I use it more as a tool as a composer. I mean, in concert I play it only on two tunes. I mainly use it as part of the ensemble. I think I actually soloed on it in one tune, Dalton Lee, which is the Toots Thielemans kind of thing. Most of the other stuff I do just some Roland.
JF: You said earlier you now have instruments that did not even exist two years ago. Which are they?
PM: The Synclavier guitars and also the Synclavier itself in its new format we just got three months ago. Lyle has also another new synthesizer -- the Kurzweil -- which is a pretty amazing instrument that was just released two months ago.
We now have the reputation among manufacturers of being a good testing group, so they tend to give us things a little bit earlier to try out and also to see, if it would hold up on the road, because we tour so much. We provide good feedback ti them.
JF: You played a tuba-sounding Synclavier guitar on the opening tune "Fowrward March."
PM: Through the computer I came up with this program where you can change the relationship of the intervals. Normally, it would be one fret a half step, and you can get it so it's slightly sharp of a minor third per fret. So that means that just across the fret-board normally it would be two octaves, and you can make it like seven octaves. Within one grip, I've got a whole range of the orchestra as opposed to having one trio down there to get across that way. It's like your hand has to be that big. I can get the whole register across there.
JF: "Forward March" is a rather unusual number in your repertoire, unlike any of your other pieces. Did you write it as a parody of free jazz or something?
PM: Several people have said that, but I didn't think about it as free jazz. I thought about the bad high school band that I was in. [laughs]
JF: Have you ever played with Ornette Coleman?
PM: I have never actually played with him, but we've spent some time together. In fact, I think we're gonna do some playing together later this year in a quartet. When we played at the Vanguard with the trio with Charlie [Haden] and Billy [Higgins], he came down a number of nights...
JF: What is a key to his music as you understand it?
PM: To me mainly listening, really listening. One of the first records that I ever got was "Tomorrow Is. The Question" and my first reaction to it as a young kid was that it was happy. I always saw his music as being very up. I also thought that his tunes were really catchy. They had, like, little hooks to me. It really told me a story within the tune. They reminded me very much of Charlie Parker's tunes, but just a little different. And I also missed all the controversy about Ornette. I mean, it was like, when I found out that he was controversial after I started reading down beat and stuff, I said, "Wow! That's controversial?" It sounded very natural to me. I've since heard stories from Charlie and Billy of the first time that they went to New York and there were fights breaking out in the audience. They were puzzled by it too.
So, anyway, as I started to learn hsi tunes, I started listening closely to the way they were improvising. It seemed to me that what was happening was that, rather than playing on harmony in the normal sense of the word, you played on harmony, but you just could keep going rather than having to stop when the chord changed. I've had a lot of talks with Ornette about it. He has wild theories about everything. I mean, have you seen any interviews where he describes his harmolodic approach? You can't understand what he's talking about. I mean, it's like somebody reading in Sanscrit or something. But yet when he plays, there's a definite logic to it. And a lot of the responsibility for making that music sound good is on the bass part. And, of course, Charlie is the greatest of the great for that. By playing a lot with him over the past few years, I've learned much more about the whole approach. Basically, you're playing in time but without changes. It's a very difficult way of improvising. In many way, I have to say, it's the most challenging.
JF: Was it through your fascination with Ornette's music that you hooked up with Haden and Higgins for concerts and recordings?
PM: I was always a big fan of Ornette's group with them in it. But I've in fact known Charlie for 11 years or so. He's from Missouri too. We were from towns close to each other. And I got to know him during the days I was playing with Gary Burton and he was playing with Keith Jarrett and Dewey Redman. We used to play concerts opposite each other a lot. I was only 18 or so, but I still got to know them a little bit. And then we toured with the 80/81 band a lot for a year. Charlie and I became very close friends. I mean he's probably my best friend now.
Then I met Billy through Charlie. I had sort of known him from festivals, but I had never played with him. And one time I was out in California and Charlie organized a little trio gig. You know Billy is the greatest. I mean those guys together, they're fantastic. In fact, I would love to bring that trio to Poland, 'cause I think we're going to do a tour of Europe sometime next year maybe.
JF: Do you often teach?
PM: Occasionally I do, but it's very rare. I taught a lot when I was younger. I found myself in a funny position as teacher, because I didn't feel like I was providing the things that I should provide for the students. I was teaching myself and if they were there, I'd say, "Well, this is what I'm working on now."
JF: Why did you get associated exclusively with the European-based ECM label? Didn't you have any attractive offers from American companies?
PM: I've had many offers for many years. But I've always been happy with the ECM situation and also very grateful to them for giving me the opportunities that they gave me when I was very young. I mean I've been able to make many records for them. That may have been difficult to make in America, given the corporate mentality that exists in record companies. ECM is also a community of musicians that I am proud to have been involved in. Many of my favorite musicians are in ECM. The ECM thing is now changing slightly. I don't know what's happening exactly, but a couple of key people have left over the past year. But I've always been a big ECM fan in addition to everything else, so it's been nice to be with them.
JF: There were moments during your concert where you seemed to be inspired by some supreme force or spirit. Are you religious?
PM: Oh, yeah. I don't think you can be a musician and not be aware of those things. I don't have any name for anything. I hear many musicians say, "Well, this is what I believe in, this music is representative of so and so." Myself, I don't know any answers to it. But I do know, after playing 200-300 concerts a year for many years now, that some nights you can play better than other nights. And that's always fascinated me. Why is it that, on this night, I can play anything and it all feels great, and the next night it's like trying to keep my fingers from getting caught in the strings. It has to do with inspiration, spirit and all those things that are indescribable.
And I've learned over the years ways of trying to relax and to let myself be open for whatever's gonna happen. And that's quite a difficult discipline. Being an improvising musician, you have to face your stuff every night and you have to really be ready to just let go. As the years have gone, I'm glad to be able to say that I've improved in terms of being able to let it happen. But it's an amazing phenomenon because, in fact, when you're playing your best, you're not really playing it, you're just listening. And that's pretty mysterious.
Special thanks to Petr Lysonek from the Czech Republic, who provided me with a copy of this interview.