Modern Drummer, December 1991, pgs 78-84

A Different View - Pat Metheny

by Rick Mattingly


"In any situation I play in," says guitarist Pat Metheny, "the drummer is the most important member of the band. I've been really lucky to have played with some of the greatest drummers in the world. And I've always learned the most from drummers."

Metheny's association with drummers falls into two categories: the drummers in the Pat Metheny Group, and the drummers he has played with in other situations. "It's easiest for me to talk about the Group," he says, "because with both Danny Gottlieb and Paul Wertico, hours and hours were spent discussing the role of the drums in the group, how it related to me as a player, and what specifically I wanted from those guys. The Group requires a real specific kind of playing, and so far I've only found two people who can do all of the things I need a drummer to do: Danny and Paul."

As Metheny sees it, the drummer has more control over the music than any other band member. "I have a highly volatile relationship with that person," Pat laughs. "That's who I have to be in constant communications with about how the set is being paced, the way the solos are going to flow - everything about the way the group sounds is really in the hands of the drummer. If the drummer has a good night, we all have a good night."

Because of the importance of the drums, the Metheny Group sets up very close together so that they can balance their sound from the drumset. "We want to function from live dynamics," Pat explains. "We rarely put drums in the monitors. Even though we are a very electric band, we're still letting the drums control the dynamics. As soon as you put the drums in the monitors, you're balancing against another electronic element, which is under the control of somebody else. So we've always made it a policy that the drums are going to set the dynamic range."

The drumkit itself is also important to Metheny. "With the Group," he says, "the way the music actually sounds is often equally important to the notes we write. I spend a lot of time with the drummers checking out cymbals and giving lots of direction about what types of sounds go with my guitar and the other elements of the Group. When Paul first joined the band, he was already a great drummer, but he needed to work on the details of his sound. For instance, it took us two tours to figure out exactly the right sticks for the dynamic range we were aiming for, the right kind of set for him to use, the right cymbals, the right this and that. To a lot of leaders, those things might seem superficial, but to me, they are essential parts of the whole sound. I can't see spending less energy thinking about that stuff than about which guitar to use for a particular piece. In a way, it's more important, because it's the thing all the rest of us are balancing to. The cymbals and guitar are setting the top level of the dynamic range, so I want those cymbals to sound fantastic. I physically set up so that my left ear is right next to the drummer's main ride cymbal so that I can really blend with that sound. I can also hear when a cymbal is starting to go, or when the stick isn't brand new. Those little details make a lot of difference to me."

Could one accuse Metheny of being a bit too nit-picky about the condition of the drummer's equipment? "I have literally driven both Gottlieb and Wertico crazy," Pat laughs, "over little details that they swear nobody hears but me. But the little details are what make the good stuff happen."

In regards to the playing itself, what does Metheny want from a drummer? "Like many musicians these days," Pat responds, "I'm interested in lots of different styles. As a guitar player, that's difficult, but nothing compared to what it must be like for a drummer, who is expected to play everything from late '50s bebop to the most up-to-the-minute funk beat. Leaders expect drummers to know everything that's gone down in pop music for the past 40 years or so. That's a lot.

"In my case," he continues, "I not only expect the drummer to cover all the bases, but make it his own, too. That's something I've always asked from all the cats in the Group. I don't want to hear the straight studio version of a beat. I want to hear the Paul Wertico version. It's the same thing I ask of my own playing. It's our job to make it new every night, so I really want everyone to have a point of view about the music we're playing.

"The stylistic jumps I ask of the drummer are different than a lot of guys," Metheny adds, "because the other side of my career has been playing with great jazz drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Billy Higgins. So before I would ever hire anybody to do anything, I would play a straight-ahead jazz tune with them and see if that vocabulary was covered. Because regardless of how far away we've gotten from that in the Group, the foundation for everything we do is bebop, and playing on changes, and that tradition from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. I have to have a guy who can do all of that. Paul, in particular, has a deep and thorough understanding of Roy Haynes' breakthroughs, which, to me, are absolutely essential elements of the drum vocabulary. It's hard for me to imagine playing seriously with somebody who didn't have that under his belt."

That brings up a comment Danny Gottlieb once made in MD. He recalled Metheny telling him that the Group's music should combine elements of rock and jazz without sounding like either one. "Yeah, that's true," Pat says. "At the time we started, letting the cymbal carry the groove and yet playing rock kind of beats was something you only found in certain jazz, like '60s Blue Note stuff with Tony Williams. He was an extremely important influence on virtually all the younger musicians I've played with in terms of that incredible articulation on the ride cymbal.

"The sound of my Gibson 175 hollow-body guitar," Metheny elaborates, "is kind of midrange-y, which is in the same frequency range as toms. So if I'm playing with a drummer who's going totally crazy on the toms, I don't have a chance. Around the time I started my band in the late '70s, that was the peak of the heavy tom, Mahavishnu-style fusion. I was sort of reacting against that on an aesthetic level, but there was a practical thing, too. If I wanted to play my main guitar at the volume we were playing at, I had to clear up that upper mid-range area. The solution was to make the time come more from cymbals than from bass drum and a heavy backbeat.

"There were a few drummers at that time - such as Jon Christensen, Barry Altschul, and, of course, Jack - who in a certain form of jazz were putting a lot of attention to detail on the cymbals, and Danny's thing was really an extension of that. Also, a big influence for me - and, I think, Danny too - was Airto's playing on Chick Corea's Light As A Feather, which was incredibly interesting patterns in duple-based music with the groove coming from the ride cymbal. Our basic thrust was to get away from the backbeat - have it sort of be implied, and have it loose the way Elvin Jones and Tony Williams are loose - while playing even 8th-note type music."

Another requirement for a Metheny Group drummer is that he be able to integrate his playing with sequencers. "Playing with machines has been a long-standing issue with us," Pat comments. "Around the time of the record Offramp in 1980, I got the Synclavier, which was five or six years ahead of MIDI. As far as I know, we were one of the first groups to actually drag Synclaviers or sequencers on the road.

"For years," he continues, "nobody had any idea we were doing it because it's really integrated with the band. It's not like we have a full percussion or drum part being played by a machine. it's always kind of notched in with everything else. And Paul, along with Steve Rodby, our bass player, is really good at making those sequencers 'disappear,' as we like to say. Also, because we balance our dynamics from the live drums, Paul can't wear headphones, so he has to lock in with those sequences from the monitors. Although we're not rock 'n' roll loud, we generate a fair amount of volume on stage. So for him to keep everything in sync and still play with a lot of dynamics and attention to detail is an extremely rare ability. Paul is a master at that. I'm never really aware of playing with a sequence anymore because I don't listen to it in my monitors. All I listen to is Paul. So I'd say drummers also have to be able to integrate with electronic stuff and make it feel good."

When the Metheny Group first started, Danny Gottlieb was the sole provider of the band's percussive elements. But with the Offramp album, percussionist Nana Vasconcelos was added to the group, and since that time, there has almost always been one or more percussion players. Has that changed the drummer's role? "Not that much," Metheny responds, "because our reason for wanting Nana had to do with the fact that we were using more and more synthesizers, and I wanted to balance that by bringing in more natural sounds. And Nana's strength is more as a colorist than as a rhythm player. There were times that Nana would lock into a groove with Danny, and suddenly we had a rhythmic power that we'd never had before. But he was as likely to be floating over the time and providing colors as he was to be functioning rhythmically with Danny.

"It's different now with Marcal, because he and Paul really have a rhythmic team relationship. Part of it is that Marcal is more of a rhythm player and less of a colorist than Nana, and part of it is the music we are doing now. But at this point it's hard for me to imagine not having percussion in there."

And how do Gottlieb and Wertico compare? "Danny and Paul each have special grooves that they're good at," Pat answers, "but there are also a lot of similarities between the two. They are both very sensitive and emotional players, and I always take that into account. It's extremely important to me that the drummer be totally connected with the music. Everybody in the Group plays really hard, and everybody - under fairly difficult conditions - needs to be able to draw from a deep place within themselves. That's a quality that both Danny and Paul have.

"Paul is more of a jazz drummer than Danny," Pat says. "There are some things I can do with him that I couldn't do with Danny. But Danny has a touch on the cymbals that is truly magic. I think it's because he used to be a cello player; he has an amazing control over the last 10% of the dynamic range that a lot of drummers don't have. He really can make the drums sound like a musical instrument."

Which recordings does Pat feel represent each drummer best? "Danny's thing was pretty consistent," Pat says, "but I'm remembering 'Sea Song' on Watercolors, where he had to keep the dynamics going without playing time, which he was always good at. Also, on the Pat Metheny Group record, I always liked the way he played this little rock vamp on 'April Wind.' And Danny's playing on the live version of 'Are You Going With Me?' on the Travels album is very good.

"Paul's entire performance on Still Life (Talking) is spectacular, and somewhat underrated. That was a very unusual set of music. There is practically no bass drum on that record because that's not what the music needed. The bass didn't need to be reinforced that much. In fact, it needed quite a bit of room. So it opened up some possibilities for Paul to do some cool things between the snare and the cymbals - kind of Roy Haynes-ish, but modern. In particular, there is a 6/8 tune on there, and I remember when they did the basic track. I got total chills listening to how burning this thing was with very little bass drum. So I would cite that entire record for Paul."

Besides his playing with the Group, Metheny has done a variety of projects with some other distinguished drummers. "I've played a lot with much older guys," Metheny begins, but then checks himself. "Well," he laughs, "not really much older, but established musicians who were heroes of mine.

"The first drummer I really played with," Metheny says, "who, to this day, is one of my favorites, is Tommy Ruskin. He's been the main drummer in Kansas City for the past 25 years or so. I was incredibly lucky to start playing with Tommy when I was about 14; he was in his late 20's or early 30's. Tommy taught me everything I needed to learn about playing bebop and getting a feel happening. And it wasn't because he sat down and told me how to do it; it was by example. Since leaving Kansas City, I've gotten to play with all kinds of great cats, but I go back and play with Tommy, and it's at the same level as anyone I've played with. He's not as fancy or complex as someone like Jack, but he's got the same intense inner groove and pulse that all the great drummers have."

Metheny's first major gig was with Gary Burton. Bob Moses was the drummer when Pat joined, and when Burton wasn't working, Metheny and Moses would gig around the East Coast with bassist Jaco Pastorius. "Moses is probably the most underrated drummer that I know," Pat says. "It's so rare to find a player who truly has his own voice, which Moses does - and not just as a drummer. Moses has his own way of hearing music in general.

"Moses was the first drummer I played with who did those kinds of 'New York' things like changing the rhythms up and kind of messin' with you a little bit. Playing with Moses wasn't a free ride. As he saw it, the drums were right up there in the front line to make things happen. Moses and I used to play duo for hours and hours, and he did a lot to open me up as a musician.

"I also have to say," Pat adds, "that Moses was one of the first guys who really cleared up for me just how important Roy Haynes was in the evolution of drumming. Moses' playing, while totally original, is also an incredible tribute to Roy's breakthroughs. And going back to the Group for a second, Danny and Paul are very much descendants of Roy's thing, and so is Jack DeJohnette, each in his own way. It's similar to the way that Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Mick Goodrick, John Abercrombie, and I are all descendants of Jim Hall. None of us sound exactly like Jim Hall, but he is in every note we play. And it's the same with those drummers and Roy."

Metheny's next few albums were with his own band, but then he made an album called 80/81, which featured Jack DeJohnette on drums. They have gone on to work together in several different settings. "What can you say about Jack that hasn't been said before?" Metheny asks. "He's an incredible natural and one of the genuine all-time giants. Jack has so many different angles that he can approach everything from, and he also has unbelievable experience. You'd have a hard time finding another musician who has played with the variety of people he's worked with. and it's not that he just played with them; he has really helped them and been part of their best work. I've seen him make people sound better than they really sound.

"Also," Pat says, "he's the best session musician I've ever seen, even though he's not generally considered that way. But I had an interesting experience with Jack on the first Mike Brecker album, which was one of the few times I've been a sideman who just walked in, rehearsed the music once or twice, and the next thing you know you're recording. I was amazed at how quickly Jack figured out the form of the tune and how he was going to play it. And everything was so right, instantly. I was still trying to figure out if this was the first ending or the second ending," Metheny laughs, "and Jack was like, dealing. So I was completely impressed."

Metheny's next project away from the Group was a trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. "With Billy," Pat says, "you can't separate the musician from the person. Anybody who has ever seen Billy play for 30 seconds can see that this is another of the truly great souls in music. For him, music is a manifestation of the best part of his soul and being. And every note he plays is covered with his Billy Higgins-ness.

"With the drummers I was used to working with," Pat explains, "the general scheme of things was to start medium, build a little bit, build a little bit more, and by the last chorus be really bashing. Billy is unique in that he doesn't ever bash. He always keeps things crisp and under control. His way of building things is through absolute musical construction. It's never through a cavalier use of volume. And it made me realize that I had become sort of dependant on the drummer going nuts at a certain point in order for me to finish my statements. It was incredibly valuable for me to be in a situation where there was a level of discipline that would stop the music from going into quadruple exclamation-point mode. It was always very intense, but much softer than what I had usually played with."

The most recent side project for Metheny is his trio with drummer Roy Haynes. "The first thing you have to ask about Roy," Metheny says, "is why is this guy not more recognized by the general jazz public? So many musicians have been directly affected by his breakthroughs. They should give this guy the Presidential Achievement Award, because it's rare to find somebody who's stayed current through five decades of any single music's development, which Roy has, and it's hard to find somebody who consistently sounds so good. I recently did two months of touring with Roy, and it was a total mind blower in terms of music. He would play a long solo each night that you could transcribe and make a percussion ensemble piece out of. His conception of form is so advanced. He's the greatest."

Earlier, Metheny spoke of drums being in the same register as his hollow-body guitar, which is why Metheny Group drummers use cymbals so much. What about drummers such as Haynes and DeJohnette, who are very interactive with their snare drums and toms? "With Roy," Pat replies, "it's not a problem, because he tunes his drums so high that there is no conflict. With Jack, it's something we've talked about a lot. Of all the drummers I've played with, Jack easily plays the loudest. As much as there is an element of Roy in Jack's playing, there is also a very strong Elvin thing in there. With Jack, you almost have to have a tenor sax approach; you have to be able to really get in there with him. If I start to play in the low register of the 175 guitar with Jack and those Sonor drums, there are potential problems. So with Jack, I often find myself playing a solid body, because it cuts a little more in the low register."

Besides the drummers on his own albums, Metheny has worked with other prominent players over the years. In 1990, he and Peter Erskine appeared together on Gary Burton's Reunion album and tour. "I've known Peter for years," Pat says. "I first met him when he was with Kenton, and then, of course, Jaco used to talk about him a lot. In fact, Peter and I played duo at a benefit for Jaco after his death. Peter has just kept expanding his world. Working with him on Gary's project was a total treat.

"Two drummers I've played with but haven't recorded with are Billy Hart and Al Foster," Pat adds. "They are both real favorites of mine. I've always loved Jon Christensen, too. I've only played with him a few times, but I've often used him as a model for guys, like 'check this guy out.' I did a tour with Paul Motian in the early 1980s that I loved. Recently, in Brazil, I've been playing with Paulinho Braga, who is one of the most important figures in Brazilian music. He was one of the first to integrate the 'samba school'-type rhythms into the drumkit. He is also a great jazz drummer."

When first approached about doing an interview for MD in which he would discuss drummers, Metheny said that he would be happy to, as he frequently reads Modern Drummer. "Knowing what's happening in the drum world," he says, "is an important part of what I have to do as a musician to improve. Many of the best musicians I know, like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, or Michael Brecker, can sit down at the drums and make some stuff happen. There is a funny picture floating around of Jack and me playing at a jam session in France, where I'm playing drums and he's playing bass. We used to sit in as that rhythm section whenever we got the chance. I can't play the drums like a real drummer, but I can make the stuff swing a little bit, and I think it's important for everybody to be able to sit down at the drumkit and make a little bit of stuff happen.

"By the same token," Metheny continues, "I feel it's extremely important for drummers to know at least a little about how harmony works. It's really great to work with drummers like Bob Moses or Peter Erskine, who have made it their business to learn about that stuff.

"I have a lot of sympathy and respect for what the drummer in 1991 has to know," Pat says. "It's hard for any musician to come to terms with all of the music that has led up to this point, but I think it's a little bit harder for drummers, because the drums are so important in popular forms of music, and there is so much to absorb. When I think of kids who are just now taking up the drums, man, they've got their work cut out for them. There's a lot to know. So my hat is off to drummers, that's for sure."


Pat's Pals

Listed below are the drummers who have recorded with Pat Metheny, and Metheny albums on which they appear.

Bob Moses Bright Size Life (ECM)

Danny Gottlieb Watercolors
Pat Metheny Group
American Garage
Offramp
Travels
(all on ECM)

Jack DeJohnette 80/81 (ECM)
Song X (Geffen)
Metheny also appears on DeJohnette's album Parallel Realities (MCA)

Billy Higgins Rejoicing (ECM)

Paul Wertico Falcon And The Snowman (EMI)
First Circle (ECM)
Still Life (Talking) (Geffen)
Letter From Home (Geffen)

Roy Haynes Question And Answer (Geffen)