Twentieth Century Nomad

Straight No Chaser, Winter 1992, No. 19, by Sonita Alleyne


"I've never been bored for one moment in my life and can't imagine the concept." So says the man lounging in front of me in the plush hotel armchair which could belong anywhere in the world, but which just happens to be in London. He possesses the archetypal wild crop of grayish hair, two incisive blue eyes with faint crows feet dancing at the corners, a permanently weathered complexion, and a genuine smile that would cause Liberace to do a belly flip in his grave. A description of a superstar or a musician?

Guitarist Pat Metheny is both. Thirty eight and approximately 5ft 11", depending on whether or not you count the hair, he is the epitome of that rare breed, the jazz musician turned worldwide cult figure. To many guitarists and would be guitarists Metheny is a god. Musicians spend countless hours transcribing his solos and changing the strings on their guitars in a bid to emulate the master's sound.

On first acquaintance it is a pleasure to find that the man I've been trying to interview for the past three years has not got the superstar ego to equal his status. Metheny is a mixture of self-assurance and shyness, tempered with a wariness for journalists about to ask him about the size of his plectrum. Bubbling just below this external ethos is an internal world made up of chords, harmony, dramatic musical landscapes and a leased passion which surfaces when he performs. "For me, the spirit of playing is something that really matters. Every time I play I assume it's the last time."

A statement that touches the borders of romanticism, but in Metheny's case rings true. Examine, critically, the body of his live and recorded work from 'Bright Size Life' (ECM) in December 1975, his first album as leader, to his latest, 'Secret Story' (Geffen), and one cannot fail to notice the acute sense of tension and drama which marks Metheny's playing and composition. "I like music which gets in there and does something," says Pat, "Fearless music."

Metheny was born in a small town 30 miles south of Kansas City. At 12 he gravitated straight to jazz. There was an active Kansas jazz scene but guitarists were about as plentiful as trees in the barren landscape, so he soon got work playing with musicians who had performed with Charlie Parker in Bird's Kansas City days. By the time Metheny reached his 18th birthday, he was playing with Gary Burton and Paul Bley, plus he had a solid grounding in the traditions of jazz. He was a lucky little kid, still copying the giants of jazz but nevertheless progressing.

"At that point I was your basic jazz snob. I didn't want to hear anything except Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall. To get into the ball park and deal with the language of harmony as discovered by Trane is a bunch of work. You have to say, 'Okay, for the next three years this is the world that I'm going to live in."

One of the main elements of jazz is that you have to bring to it whatever is unique about yourself as an individual. Metheny's childhood was spent listening to The Beatles and country music. It was only after he brought these elements into his playing the he emerged from his four-year monastery of Bebop and started developing his style and writing his own compositions.

What makes him so unusual and significant is his global attitude, he soaks up the music of the world by some advanced form of aural osmosis. Despite maintaining a home in Boston where his answer phone lives, Metheny doesn't really live anywhere, his life is that of the 20th Century nomad. One particular continent that plays an important part in the overall Metheny sound is South America where he lived for four years.

"I always felt a real connection with a lot of Brazilian musicians. Brazil's the last place in the world where the pop music was really deeply involved in harmony. Pop music in the last 30 years has gotten increasingly simple harmonically. To the point where rap music doesn't even have harmony."

"I love chords and Brazilian pop music is one of the great vestiges of chordal activity in the world but these days Brazil has MTV 24 hours a day and Brazilian musicians are beginning to sound like Madonna, much like everywhere else. When I ran into musicians like Pedro (Aznar) and Nana Vasconcelos, people who have been in my band who are South Americans, we were all part of the same tribe, even though we were from other parts of the world. It's like a certain kind of musical aesthetic that we all have in common. Those guys sort of enhanced things that were already built into the music. The one thing that is a real direct, overt thing is the way in which we use the voice. Pedro is the only guy who could sing like that."

Metheny is very conscious of developments in music such as the growing link between jazz and rap. "The thing about rap music that really parallels jazz is the sort of individuality factor and the personality thing. It actually gets a little bit lost in jazz because it has become such a tradition and there are so many icons you have to deal with like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Rap is in that stage where it's still being discovered. I also like what's happening now in the hip hop way of there being triplets. There's a kind of swing thing that's happening now that I really like that has been lost in all kinds of dance music for a long, long time. It's one particular groove that you hear all over the place," he begins to tap his denim- coated thigh imitating a hi-hat. "That rhythm just hasn't existed, except in jazz for over, God, 30 years. Whenever I hear triplets as a jazz guy I say, 'I can play like that'. I think people like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas are interested in combining that. I think the problem so far is that jazz guys are going to want to have chords, 'cause we dig chords. Rap is really anti- harmony. The one that's real popular now is using samples that are completely unrelated to keys and all that stuff. I'm not crazy about that. In New York there's a movable club called Giant Steps where jazz guys go and play, I've gone there a couple of times and checked it out. I've a feeling something's gonna come of that."

Pat Metheny; the demi-god, the aural traveller and possessor of that priceless asset - the open mind. A child of the Sixties, he does not pander to the time-honoured traditions of jazz, musically or physically. You'll see no sharp suits on stage and he's not about to cut his hair. "Basically, I don't worry about style, having no style is fine with me. In terms of certain communities of the jazz guys this style thing is very important, I have to laugh at it myself." He does so. "I wish I was invisible to tell you the truth, I don't feel comfortable being physically there..." Just as Pat is about to reveal a deep- seated psychological analysis of his character the door bell rings. A woman appears bearing a huge bunch of flowers. "Wow!" says Pat, grinning sheepishly, excusing the interruption. "It's just one of those god-like things."

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: July 08, 2001