"That sign cracks me up." He gestures through the window of the bus to the front of Hammersmith Odeon. The letters of the display front blast forth: "The Triumphal Return of The Pat Metheny Group". The previous night, the event had lived up to the billing. Over a richly packed two and a half hour set, Metheny's band worked through every shade of their repertoire, with an audience response that can be properly called ecstatic. it was melodic, plaintive, optimistic music, but nothing in the middle of the road. Hard stuff.
"I guess! Compared to most things. I don't think of it as hard. It's what we play, something that we've worked on for a long time. The hard part is the same thing, whether it's simple or sophisticated music - to make it sound true and right. That's the same problem that The Ramones and Glenn Gould have to deal with. You have to make it sound true, as if it couldn't be anyone but you. It has less to do with the notes."
Pat Metheny must be a hard man to dislike. He has a tremendous nice guy reputation, a stance that his easy manner and smiling, interested voice soon bear out. He has a quick understanding of the way his work could be criticised, and he has the articulacy and swift logic to justify the way he's going.
Physically, he looks much the same as the skinny, ambling kid who got an ECM contract a dozen years ago and began making guitar records that sounded like collections of deferential little tone poems. His hair is now heavily mottled with grey, but still seems to be stuck to his head in the manner of a dandelion clock. His ready smile, a big American grin, is elongated by beautiful bridgework, and it shines out of a deep walnut tan. In his T-shirt and rumpled shorts, he might have just wandered in off some golden western beach.
A slipshod, stoned appearance is firmly at odds with Metheny's conversation. One expects a sort of beatific assent to any line of hippy philosophy, but he has no need for any kind of nostalgia. He is surely entering his most absorbing years as a player. Since last featured in these pages (Wire 15), he's moved away from ECM to a useful major label position with Geffen, and taken his interest in Ornette Coleman's music to its logical extreme by recording last year's superb Song X with the veteran himself. With Still Life (Talking), Metheny is back with his core audience and home diamond band: if it's not quite the electrical storm that he discovered with Coleman, it's still a very satisfying set.
Metheny's band isn't a very charismatic group. They're fluent, accomplished players, not mavericks. His longtime keyboard companion Lyle Mays fills out the background to the high-toned guitar solos with unassuming delicacy and trustiness. The rhythm players and two (wordless) vocalists set up a busy but still discreet undergrowth of shuffling, ticklesome beats, underscoring a melody or counterpointing a particular harmonic shift (bringing in the singers was a simple but shrewd move: they make manifest how hummable Metheny's tunes are).
Their repertoire establishes an expert balance between the detailed improvisations of the leader and the sunny facility of his themes: his writing can be songful as Ornette's, though it lacks any of the latter's cruel edge. One doubts if Coleman would ever come up with anything as good-natured as Pat's Minuano.
In front of all this plenteous activity, Metheny selects guitars and selects guitars. He seems to have a different one for each tune. Glistening, waxed acoustics, squat metal guitars, a little mandolin instrument, another with a button row of dials that look like silver doubloons.
"Orchestration is a high priority in this band," he explains. "We have stuff on the stage now that literally didn't exist five years ago. And as these other things have emerged ... for years, I had one guitar for everything. Now I'm thinking of the guitar as a whole range of things, from classical guitar with no amplification at all to a Stratocaster through 20 Marshalls. You have an amazing dynamic range in all of that. If you know the notes on the instrument, they're all yours. You're right, it's turned into a thing where guitars are coming and going like crazy. Maybe ten or eleven ...
"A tune like Are you Going With Me? I do on guitar synthesiser, which goes up an octave on the notes I'm fingering. If I had to play that on a regular guitar I'd constantly be going right up here, to where there aren't any notes. We're interested in combining colours, as much as that word is overused. The sitar-guitar sounds really good on Last Train Home. Different shades."
Guitars. Fred Frith lays them on the table, Hans Reichel cuts them up. Does Metheny ever feel like fighting the physical shape of the guitar?
"No, I've made friends with the guitar in the last few years. For a long time I wished I played sax or piano, anything but the guitar. I don't know, maybe it's from playing so much, but in the last few years I don't have to think about it too much. When I think of an idea I can play it. Instruments like the synthaxe, I've played them, and I had a prototype of an early guitar-type-thing. I just couldn't use it. I like to feel the vibration of the string under my fingers. If I can't feel it, there's no satisfaction."
No obligation to be state-of-the-art with all the hardware?
"Actually the state of the art was already pretty good a couple of years ago. Now it goes up in small increments. It takes time to learn each new one, and by the time you do it you can be an expert on one and have never written any music for it when the next one comes along. I was lucky in getting involved early on with the synclavier, which is still based on pitch-to-time stuff and has evolved inside its own world. That's plenty for me. I've come up with a lot of music with that. I haven't really followed the Midi revolution stuff."
Metheny's adventure with Ornette was as "modern" as he could get, in any event. Though some considered that Song X and its ensuing tour was more of a compromise for the saxophonist than an advance for the guitarist, the record stands up as a powerful, genuine statement a year later. The blistered lines and split-toned feel of Pat's playing is enough to suggest that this pastoral thinker has enough nerve to hold his own with any Prime Time or Laswell band you could throw at him.
"It was a fantastic experience," he enthuses, "making the record and especially the tour we did afterward. We'll continue to do things. We did a bunch of playing while preparing for the record, Ornette, Denardo and I, which was very different. Very different! Much further out than the record. I've just been listening to some tapes of those things. The record's melodic, it's talking about forms and solos and stuff. This other thing is just sound."
Sounds mouth-watering. But perhaps Geffen are not so excited about such "sound". Pat smiles and spreads his hands, which are unexpectedly small and neat. Somehow one always thinks of guitarists as people with huge tree-trunk fingers, like Tal Falow.
"They're cool. Song X, I didn't know what it was going to do, but it's sold about 200,000. I began working on it before I signed with Geffen. I went to California and played them the record to see if they liked it. If they didn't, that was it! I went in and said, OK guys, here it is! And I played Endangered Species (about the meanest thing on the LP). They said, great.
"When I decided to leave ECM, it was kind of funny. Like Duran Duran or something. All these labels were sending me fruit and stuff! I got it down to three or four labels I thought would be possible, and I met David Geffen and he said, we want you to do what you're doing, not a collaboration with Wang Chung or something."
Metheny's staunch popularity with an audience that isn't much of a jazz crowd seems to balance him on a populist precipice. It makes one imagine record executives who scent a market that only wants quiescent, untroubling music. For all his venturesome instincts, Metheny's natural inclination is to play cool and calm, like Bill Evans or Jimmy Giuffre or Gary Burton, the guitarist's old boss. Does he see himself as any kind of educator to the large numbers which such gentle persuasion can draw in?
"I'm aware, especially in America where we do a lot of college concerts, that this is the first time a lot of kids are exposed to even an instrumental group. To me the whole thing is pretty simple. First of all, you play for yourself. Every night I go home and write myself a scathing review. But it's also a matter of being considerate - these people might listen from my point of view, but there'll be some who'll be listening for the first time.
"There's a way to play out. Not like with a lot of jazz and rock guys, where it's like this (mimes complete introversion). I like to play conversationally, and it works. I've had letters where someone says, I never went to a jazz concert before but now I have every John Coltrane record, or something. Or if they say, you suck, asshole - that's OK too!"
Laughter. But he hardly speaks at all on stage.
"Less all the time," he agrees, "and I'm trying to get to the point where I say nothing. I feel a thousand times better for it. I used to be a real chatterbox, but it doesn't seem like my job now."
The one moment of "group improvisation" in Metheny's set is rather less than astounding. His band are good players, but at the point towards the end of their set where they try and create a natural rustic soundscape they sound like chess champions struggling through a pool game.
"The style that this group specialises in - it's not the same thing as playing with Ornette or The Art Ensemble. I played with Gary Burton for years, and I saw him the other night - he's playing the same tunes as he was ten years ago. And playing different every night. Stan Getz, the same way. Miles is playing the same solo, whether it's Decoy or Four And More. But I see more change in the way Gary's playing Como In Vietnam than I see in Miles, even though the whole thing around him has changed.
"Each song is real specific. Say, on one song, it's fish. You can say anything you want to say, as long as it's about fish. The next song, potatoes. It's that way, as opposed to talking about any subject you want. Only a handful of players can play in an absolutely improvised situation, night after night. Maybe I can do it in 20 years. This seems to me to be the best path to get there.
"At the best moments, I'm not thinking about anything. On really good nights, if you get the first note of the solo - you've got it. You have that one, it tells you what the next one is. It becomes literally like you're listening to it. Maybe 70 per cent of the time I'm coming up with natural melodies now, where I have less to do with it."
If Metheny seems unbothered by his all-embracing good guy image, it's because he seems to have worked his way to a position beyond that. His explanation is genuine, and a much-needed revision of the simple differences between soft and sharp, between tough music and submissive music. The easy emotional interpretation won't do.
"I mean, 'tough' and 'abrasive' to me is a style. If something has no reverb on it, and it's raw, and it's played by guys who can't really play - that's often seen as good. To me, most of the time it's not good, it's just tough and abrasive, which is a style the way country and western is a style. It's just part of the vocabulary of pop music, and it's not a style I'm close to. I'm close to invention, and things that are happening from a point of view, rather than a sound. It's not that I'm not interested in sound - I've got tons of junk in there - but I like the idea of things that are developing over a long period of time.
"The way I'm playing is within a specific stylistic range, but there's a whole lot of room within that range I haven't dealt with yet. What you're talking about is whether it fits in with the music industry. Will I offend this guy or that guy? Honestly, I don't care. I don't think about that. Some people hate Song X - my mother, for instance. She practically didn't speak to me. That's not the point. I'm doing it because there are sounds I want to hear, and I don't hear anyone else playing them."
Such quiet cussedness is probably the key to Metheny's survival in a faddish area. He has built his career slowly and methodically, taking the occasional opportunity but not much given to each month's flavour. He crosses his sunburnt legs and ponders on his status.
"I've been fortunate to survive. I've been making records for ten years, and it's been a very slow, gradual thing. I've seen guys like Stanley Jordan, who weren't here one day, and the next day - he's the cat. It won't be easy for him. I could grow at my own rate. Even Wynton, though I think he made a very good job of it, it would have been easier if he'd been able to play with Art Blakey and somebody else for a few years instead of having to become a leader right off the bat.
"But the system doesn't really exist in jazz, not any more. I was in the same boat. I had to start my own band after leaving Gary. The only other place I could see myself in 1977 was in Jack DeJohnette's band, and John Abercrombie had that sewn up for years. Didn't want to play wah-wah with Herbie Hancock, or pretend I was John McLaughlin. I had to start my own band."
And it worked out pretty well. That night, it was another triumphal return.
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