Pat Metheny: Learning, Teaching & Expanding The Art Of Improvisation.

by J.C. Costa.

College Musician, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 1986, pages 32-36


For Pat Metheny, the night before had been long, full of furious melodic improvisation with fellow "Song X" jazz visionaries Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Dernardo Coleman at New York's Town Hall. The concert was hot, damp, crowded--charged with a special electricity. Many had come to hear exactly what the legendary saxophone futurist and the young guitarist with the fluid, appealing sound would produce in concert.

Ornette Coleman disciples, who span continents and scale great peaks to bask in the master's presence, were grateful for this rare and unexpected opportunity--if somewhat dubious about the collaboration with Metheny.

Followers of Metheny fell into two main camps. There were those who were up to date on his most recent sortie into the outer limits of jazz and were either bravely supportive, enthusiastic, or both.

Then there were those Metheny-lovers who hear only the beautiful melodies in his music, like the sinuous figure coursing through the typically ethereal "Phase Dance." Those folks sat dumbstruck, overwhelmed by the power and non-referential density of the music. Then they started filtering out the exits to the safety of a world where Pat only plays pretty guitar.

Fortunately, the majority of the audience stayed to absorb a musical event of magical intensity and commitment, a reaffirmation of music with no limits, in an era characterized by disposable art.

Today, well into the waning light of an early summer evening, a smiling, casually dressed Metheny attacks his last interview with the same energy and dedication he devotes to his music. At age 31, the gifted guitarist, synthesist, and composer from Lee's Summit, Missouri has already recorded 12 albums in ten years, winning Grammy awards (Offramp, Travels, and First Circle) for the last three years running. He's topped virtually every jazz guitar instrumental poll and collected the plaudits of critics all over the world.

He also sells more records than most other "jazz" musicians. This fact of life has earned him his very own record label, Metheny Group Productions, distributed by the powerful Geffen Records. For a musician whose dedication and precocious ability has already produced firsts like teaching improvisation at Berklee while still in his teens, and starting off his professional career at age 19 with the prestigious Gary Burton, the "Song X" project is another in an unending line of musical challenges. It is also the realization of a lifelong dream to play with one of his most important influences.

Sitting forward on the edge of a couch in the now empty public relations office, Metheny takes the time to choose his words carefully as he analyzes this difficult partnership with Ornette.

"The challenge in this situation is that sometimes Ornette plays and stops, then I have to play," Metheny exclaims, laughing. "The other night in Washington, we did this tune called 'Broadway Blues,' and he played the most perfect musical statement I've ever heard. I gave it my best, but I have no pretenses of improvising at that level."

The fact that Metheny chooses to put it on the line every night with some of the world's greatest improvising musicians, instead of coasting up the jazz charts with another Pat Metheny Group album, says a lot about his priorities. Outsiders might perceive a universe of differences between this latest band and the one that made him popular, but he only hears the similarities.

"This is not that different from the Pat Metheny Group stylistically. Only in the sense that the musicianship in this band is ridiculously high. It has more to do with trying to contribute something on that higher level. What I try to do in any situation is tell a story.

"In the context of my band, what sounds good relative to what Lyle (Mays, keyboardist and co-conspirator) is playing is different from what sounds good in the context of a band where there's no piano and two other people are playing melodies at the same time. It's a minor adjustment, though, relative to the idea of being a musician, which is the same: You always want to give it up."

Here, "giving it up" implies total immersion in spontaneous melodic and harmonic interaction that can only be grasped by the most focused listener. Metheny understands this issue on one level, but, much as he did when he was a young jazz fan, he sees no real obstacles to understanding it.

"I hear this music as extremely melodic. It's not radically different from some of the music I've played with the group. The main difference is that we don't have people at the same level of musicianship as a Jack (DeJohnette) or a Charlie (Haden), myself included. We're talking about some of the greatest musicians who've ever lived. But in terms of what we're playing, it doesn't focus as much on the narrative line. It's much more vertical, which makes it harder for people to listen to for the first time and get it.

"I had records like that when I was young, like Albert Ayler. I'd get the energy of it, but I didn't understand what was actually happening musically. Later on, I finally got the records I'd been listening to over and over.

"Listening is a skill just like playing. I've always felt that the best players were the best listeners. In the sense that, when you're playing, you're basically listening to what you just played. Theoretically, if you could play one really good note, you wouldn't have to play anything else.

"Song X has that function. It's hard for me to imagine someone getting this record and thinking we were kidding around or didn't feel strongly about what we were playing. For me as a listener, that's what makes a record worth having, the fact that what's on it isn't something that's just tricky or gets me to tap my foot whether I want to or not. It's a genuine gesture."

This "gesture" encompasses an album and tour guaranteed to stir interest and provoke critical response, even if the prospects for making large profits are remote. Pat's successful track record affords him the luxury of ignoring the bottom line and enjoying the boundless excitement of playing with Ornette and the others. Even though his name undoubtedly helps get more mainstream exposure for Mr. Coleman, Metheny is uncomfortable with an attempted analogy to Eric Clapton and other British bluesrockers' attempts to publicize primary influences like B.B. King.

"That's a potential fringe benefit," says Metheny, leaning back on the oversized divan, trying to get comfortable. "But I don't feel that this is like the blues thing in the '60s because I have no interest in playing like Ornette. I'm not trying to cop his licks, concepts or anything else. We have a certain thing in common. We're both trying to define our own musical approach, and he's already done it. You described it as a 'master-student' thing and, to a degree, I'll go along with that. But that's not really what's happening. If that was it, the music wouldn't exist as it does."

Though it took years of careful encouragement and politicking from the superb bassist Charlie Haden, who had played with both men, to get Coleman and Metheny together, the album itself took only three and a half weeks to complete. Pat sublet an apartment in New York and started playing with Ornette seven hours a day, every day. Particular attention was paid to the development of a common musical language for this project.

"Ornette and I did exercises to come up with a vocabulary that would be particular to this instrumentation and really serve its possibilities, kind of like, "Whenever you go up, I'll go down and we'll see what that's like.' Trying to get real specific but also feeling free to change it as it went on. That occurs a lot in Ornette's music. The tunes do that. They set up a particular thing, either rhythmically or harmonically-that's very strong. His songs are very hook-oriented. There's always one moment in each of his tunes that defines it, and that moment always gives you a million possibilities to improvise.

"But in the actual heat of battle, you may or may not use it. It gives you a starting point, as opposed to just playing free."

Once a common ground was established and new compositions had been written, intensive rehearsals with the other musicians followed until a cohesive band "feel" emerged. The proper blend of instrumental timbres was also important: the matrix of Metheny's guitar synthesizer arsenal and Coleman's saxophone serving as the pivot point for the music.

"I had to decide what guitar had an appropriate sound for his instrument. For some reason, I kept coming back to the Roland electronic guitar triggering a (New England Digital) Synclavier synthesizer. It seemed to have the character that fit in best with Ornette's sound. The other sound that blended well was actually a sampled sax sound on the top. When we played a melody together, it sounded like three people together instead of two. Oddly enough, I expected to be using my good old (Gibson) ES 175 hollow body a lot, but I haven't even picked it up yet."

Metheny's sensitivity to the relationship between his guitar and Coleman's saxophone bespeaks a special kinship with horn players in general, including some of the greatest.

"It's not just Ornette. Many other horn players, like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, were also major influences. I always associated phrasing more with the saxophone than the guitar, with two major exceptions--Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. Most other guys, I could hear the 'guitar-ness' of it, and it bugged me.

"Harmonic breakthroughs don't lay easy on the guitar. There aren't too many people who, first of all, learn to play good time with a good sound in the context of a Charlie Christian or a Montgomery, let alone go beyond that.

"When I hear a guitar, I like to hear the other thing. Any guitarist that can transcend the instrument knocks me out. Hendrix is a good example. You don't hear the guitar, you hear the exuberance that goes beyond the instrument and the kind of phrasing he uses. Eddie Van Halen's got that too."

Metheny's musical education was marked by a surprising lack of formal training. His individualistic, non-traditional approach to jazz guitar came from learning solos off records by John Coltrane and others. He also had a lot of on-the-job training with various R&B/jazz organ trios in the Kansas City area.

"The environment I grew up in had no jazz guitar player's to speak of. I got all the good gigs in town totally by default. If there'd been a really good guitar player, a strong influence, I'd probably have gravitated to more 'guitaristic' kinds of things. Somebody would have shown me positions and other stuff, which I still don't know.

"With most guitarists, you hear their fingers get caught in the strings, all of this mechanical struggle going on. When I hear Clifford Brown, I don't hear the trumpet. I hear the notes. That's always been a goal for me. To go beyond the guitar."

To that end, Metheny also bypassed the traditional rock 'n' roll apprenticeship, a nearly automatic part of any young player's musical growth and development.

"I saw A Hard Day's Night and stuff like that. When I first got a guitar, I was in a garage band, and we were doing stuff like 'Wipeout.' Later on, I got into jazz during high school, and the music was so complex, it literally demanded all of my time and attention. I was willing to submit to that."

Pat's first venture outside of Missouri involved an extraordinarily intense year of musical interaction and learning at the University of Miami under the tutelage of trumpeter/saxophonist Ira Sullivan. Whether it was circumstance or just good timing, his studies brought him into contact with other brilliant young improvisors like bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Steve Morse. Metheny recalls that year with humor and affection.

"It was incredible! Here I was, coming from a place where I ruled the roost. No one else my age in Kansas City even had a hollow body guitar. So I walk into this gym, and there're two hundred guys with jazz guitars. And the first guy I hear auditioning is Jaco! I thought, 'This is it; I'm finished.' I figured I could always go back home and work at my dad's dealership. Later on, I found out that Jaco was 'the man.' All of us ended up playing together a lot in different combinations. Jaco and I did regular band gigs in Miami Beach, backing up singers like Lorna Luft.

"Playing taught me that I had more potential as an improvising musician than playing parts. Whenever I had to play the same thing over and over again, I'd invariably mess it up. I could tell pretty early on that I was more geared to changing the stuff as it was happening." Improvisation is clearly his forte.

A realistic evaluation of one's talents early on is something Pat feels strongly about. His struggles to pursue a jazz education with the intention of forming his own group have tempered his outlook.

"Since this discussion is supposedly directed at college musicians, that period in a musician's life is extremely important. I've always felt that places like Berklee, Miami, or North Texas, schools with a strong jazz department, serve a valuable function. If you're at a school like that and you're still at the bottom of the heap after three or four years, I think it's okay to realize that it's not going to work out. These places function as a microcosm of what the real world's like. And, you can find other outlets for your interests as a jazz musician without going through the frustration of forming you own band and taking it on the road.

"The fact is, as difficult as it was for me to do that in 1977 after having won a few polls and played with Gary Burton in a 'major' group, I couldn't do it now. Unfortunately, the support system for jazz musicians is getting worse, fewer clubs, fewer radio stations playing the music."

As hard as it might have been, nothing could stop Metheny from creating the unique sound that sets him apart from every other guitarist and composer. From his first Bright Size Life album with Bobby Moses on drums and Jaco Pastorius on bass (featuring an Ornette Coleman composition) and the embryonic Metheny Group LP Watercolors (with writing partner Lyle Mays on keyboards and Dan Gottlieb on drums), Pat has produced an unbroken string of darkly melodic albums characterized by endless invention and experimentation.

The Pat Metheny Group brought his soft, ambient guitar and May's evocative keyboards into the public consciousness, setting the basic style for what was to come. New Chautauqua and As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls broke new ground with a seamless blend of six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars mingling with synthesizers. Haunting soundtracks for the films Falcon And The Snowman (where he and Mays worked with David Bowie) and Twice In A Lifetime made his music even more popular.

Not content with the near-universal acceptance of his own group, Pat also recorded more "experimental" music on 80/81 with Haden, DeJohnette, Dewey Redman, and Michael Brecker. This and the more recent Rejoicing, featuring Haden and Billy Higgins on drums, not only proved that Metheny could not be easily typecast, they established the groundwork for the project with Ornette.

Because Metheny spent a good part of his life preparing for Song X, he has little patience for those who superficially characterize Ornette's music with obtuse terminology like "harmolodics."

"Unfortunately, I hear a lot of musicians throwing around the term 'harmolodics,' and they're using it as a shield. It bothers me. Ornette's playing, however he chooses to describe it, which can be pretty abstract at times, doesn't imply chaos or lack of respect for the power in a diatonic scale. Fact is, Ornette plays diatonic to the key most of the time, phrase by phrase. He modulates a lot and he does have an unexplainable way of playing diatonic to the key without ever outlining chords. It's sort of like defying gravity.

"It all comes down to Ornette's incredible insight into melody. His thing is simple. The lines he plays are not complicated, but he never plays anything that's less than fresh. He's got about three 'licks' I hear him play every now and again. Usually when someone else in the ensemble is distracting him. The rest of the time he's playing pure melody. That's beyond any kind of stylistic or technical description. It's a bottomless pit of ideas."

It's dark out now, and the interview draws to a close. Metheny points out that he will be getting together with Lyle Mays, Steve Rodby and Paul Wertico for the next Metheny Group effort in the fall. But he doesn't differentiate between that and what he's doing now. No rationales for using the popularity of his name to test himself and his audience with new musics. He instinctively trusts himself and other musicians he works with, but, most of all, he trusts those in the audience who care for his music.

"I have a lot of respect for the audience and I always go into any playing situation with the idea that they're at least as hip as I am, and probably hipper. I often feel that musicians are underestimating the potential of their audience to follow or enjoy things they themselves enjoy as a listener.

"Now, having made ten or twelve records, if there was any one record that was overwhelmingly agreed upon by everyone, I might wonder. But each person I meet has a different favorite Metheny record--it's almost evenly divided among all of my records."


Copyright 1986 - College Musician

J.C. Costa is the editor of College Musician, plays guitar and has contributed to music publications such as Rolling Stone, Musician, Creem, and others.

College Musician

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