Wandering Minstrel

by John Milward

The Boston Globe Magazine, August 23, 1992


"From the time I was 21," says Pat Metheny, "I've been on the road. When I close my eyes at night and ask myself where I live, I don't even know anymore. I was sort of living in Boston, I was kind of living in Rio, I have a place in the country that I get to about one week out of the year. I'm always on the road, but I seem to spend most of my time in New York. The Omni Hotel feels as much like home as anyplace."

Even among musicians, a clique known to make nomads look like homebodies, Metheny, age 38, has the reputation of a frequent flyer. "A lot of people talk about finding a balance in their life," says Lye Mays, pianist for the Pat Metheny Group. "The balance for him is between the recording studio and the concert stage."

This past June, Metheny's itinerary called for him to be in Los Angeles to promote his new solo recording, _Secret Story_, in Virginia to record guest guitar tracks for Bruce Hornsby's next album, and in Aruba to meet the Pat Metheny Group for a concert. Then he was to log two weeks of promotional duties in Europe and the United States before meeting his bandmates in Japan for a 10-day, eight-concert tour to celebrate the group's 15th anniversary. Those festivities will reach a crescendo next summer with a live album, a long-form video, and a major US tour.

In late May, sitting in his New York headquarters, that is, the Power Station recording studio, Metheny said that he was glad to have four days between the last group concert in Hong Kong and the first date of a European trio tour in Ireland. "That'll give me a chance to go to my 20th high school reunion in Lee's Summit," he said. That's Lee's Summit, Missouri, the unlikely starting point of Pat Metheny's world tour.

What makes Metheny run? "We're talking about somebody who was on a mission from about the age of 11," says Mike Metheny, Pat's older brother by five years and a professional trumpeter. Pat Metheny's mission was to put his own stamp on the sound and style of the jazz guitar. He has accomplished this over the course of a career that started in vibraphonist Gary Burton's group and has included collaborations with everybody from minimalist composer Steve Reich to free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Along the way, the friendly, curly-haired leader of the Pat Metheny Group has also become something of a pop star, a situation that lets him operate at a level of commercial clout that is rate for a jazz musician.

Metheny says _Secret Story_ essentially sums up his musical life. But the album's associate producer, Steven Cantor, thinks the most interesting thing about Metheny is that he's still a work in progress. Metheny would be the first to agree, for although he's happy with his musical growth, he cheerfully admits, "My life is a mess." _Secret Story_, he says, was written during a tumultuous five-year romance and recorded in its melancholy aftermath. He sees the record as evoking the beginning, middle, and end of the affair.

Pat Metheny met Shuzy Nascimento at Jazz Mania, a club in Rio de Janeiro where Metheny was playing a rare two-week trio engagement. "She kept coming back," he recalls, "and kept looking better and better." Metheny soon became a regular on Pan Am's Flight 202 to Rio. Five years later, they called it quits. "She broke up with me," says Metheny. "It was very hard for her that I was gone so much and that I worked as much as I did. But I couldn't not work. That's what I do."

Most people who know Pat Metheny say that no matter where he sleeps, he's at home as long as he's working. Not long ago, his parents told him that he was conceived on a business trip, in a hotel across from the train station in Evansville, Indiana. But these days, Metheny's starting to notice the lonely rattle in his pocket. "I carry my keys with me all the time." he says. "I have keys for Boston, New York, and Rio, which is really weird - especially the Rio ones."

Lee's Summit, Missouri, population 2,000, is located bout 30 miles down the Bible Belt from Kansas City. "It was a real _Leave It To Beaver_ sort of existence," says Mike Metheny. Downtown was the intersection of two roads. Metheny's father, Dave, grew up in Lee's Summit; he swept the floor of the local Dodge dealership as a teenager and eventually came to own the business. Dave Metheny played the trumpet, an instrument later picked up by Mike. Pat tried the trumpet but found it difficult when he got braces on his teeth, and he worried that he would never be as good as his brother.

When Pat was in the sixth grade, he'd run home from school, disappear into the basement, put Mike's copy of Miles Davis' _Four and More_ on the portable Zenith stereo, turn out the lights, and turn up the volume. Metheny liked the Beatles, but it was the jazz of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane that really made his head spin.

Gary Burton has a theory about teen-age musicians who turn to jazz instead of rock 'n' roll. "They're rebels in a different way than rock kids are," says Burton. "The typical rock kid is rebelling against staid society. The jazzer is rebelling against the rebels. They're rebelling against the kids wearing punk hair and combat boots. They're saying, 'Gee, I like my parents,' and they end up being these young adults, because to be a jazz player is to be hip and sophisticated."

Metheny's parents resisted his efforts to buy an electric guitar. "To them," he recalls, "the guitar represented everything bad; rock 'n' roll, the Beatles, Elvis Presley. Being from a little town in Missouri, the guitar was pretty much an icon of bad thing." They finally bowed to the inevitable, provided that Pat earned the money and didn't plunder what he'd already saved from his paper route (that stash eventually bought Lyle Mays his first synthesizer). Metheny organized a yard sale, cleared $100, scoured the classified ads in the _Kansas City Star_, and spotted a Gibson F-175 for $125. His dad drove him into the city, bargained the owner down to $100, and Metheny came home with the instrument that remains a favorite among his 50 guitars.

Lois Metheny recalls a subsequent rehearsal by her son's rock group, the Beatbombs: "We lived across the street from the superintendent of schools, and when I got home, the garage door was wide open, the amplifiers were pointing out the door, and the superintendent of schools was standing on his driveway with his hands over his ears. It was a rude awakening for the whole neighborhood."

But once Pat tagged along with Mike to a jazz jam, the Beatbombs were history. Metheny began studying music theory from books and analyzing transcriptions of Coltrane solos. "The language of improvisation is very quantifiable," explains Metheny. "The feeling isn't, but the actual grammar is quite clear. Basically, there's 12 keys, and about 14 sets of tones that you have to know in each key that fit on different chords."

Metheny would spend hours practicing his guitar, but his parents' reticence about his chosen instrument was not mitigated by his dedication to jazz. "To my folks," says Metheny, "I still l had long hair, I was still playing the electric guitar, and they still had no idea what I was doing, nor did anybody else in town. I think people were very concerned about me. To them, listening to Coltrane loud in the basement probably seemed weirder than listening to Led Zeppelin."

By the time he was 15, Metheny was landing jobs in Kansas City nightclubs. With his parents' reluctant approval, and a special cabaret card that let him play on the stage but required that he leave the premises between sets, Metheny started to hone his chops where it really counted - on the bandstand. His parents insisted, however, that he be home by 1 a.m., and Metheny always complied, gratefully gobbling down the ham sandwich that his mother would leave on the kitchen table, and whispering goodnight as he tiptoed to his bedroom.

Then he'd climb out his bedroom window and drive back to Kansas City, to catch the second set at an after-hours club called the Casablanca. "We don't find these things out until 20 years later," says Lois Metheny. "Of course, if he had said, 'Mom, I want to go play this club,' I would have said, 'Absolutely not.'" His mom needn't have worried. To this day, Metheny has neither touched a drug nor tasted alcohol - when a Parisian promoter takes him to a fine French restaurant, Metheny drinks Coca-Cola - and his abstinence took root in those Kansas City clubs.

"People were doing all sorts of stuff in those bands," he recalls, "and I could see that as the night wore on, everybody was sounding worse and worse. I was so into sounding good that it made no sense to me."

Playing five or six nights a weeks, Metheny scraped through high school by earning extra credits for organizing a jazz group and playing French horn in the marching band. "Friday nights," he recalls, "I'd have to miss the first set of the gig to play with the marching band. I'd be out there in the freezing cold with this ridiculous uniform and this French horn, thinking, God, now they're playing 'Stella by Starlight.'"

Metheny's be-bop behavior may have stuck out in Lee's Summit - after his jazz group was featured at a school assembly, his father expressed disapproval of the aggressive tenor of the music - but the small town still managed to leave its mark. "The fact that my life is so frantic now," says Metheny, "it gives me a real sense of stability, knowing that I'm from there, and that my parents are still there. Growing up in a very calm environment gave me a lot of room to dream, and to think about things. By the time I left there, I was really anxious to get out, but I also knew what I wanted to do."

Musicians don't necessarily improve in a methodical manner; often, their progress comes in spurts. Mike Metheny says that when his brother returned from a music camp at the age of 15 (he had won a full scholarship after submitting a recording of Wes Montgomery's "The Big Hurt"), he suddenly sounded like a musician who might matter. Pat Metheny says his greatest strides were made between his enrollment at the University of Miami (on a full scholarship) in September of 1972 and his relocation to Boston in January of '74. Within months of arriving in Boston, he was playing guitar in Gary Burton's band.

Landing in Miami, however, was a shock for the whiz kid from Missouri. For starters, the other students taking placement auditions all had cool guitars; back home, Metheny was the only guy he knew who owned a hollow- body jazz guitar. Then there were the players: specifically, Steve Morse, who gained fame as a guitarist with the Dixie Dregs, and a nonstudent bass player whom Metheny quickly befriended, Jaco Pastorius.

"As far as I knew," says Metheny, "there were people like Steve Morse and Jaco in every city of the United States, because this was the first time I'd been anywhere. I was not even close to that level at that time; it was like somebody threw a bucket of water on me."

Scholastics were another shock to his system. "I had just finished faking my way through high school," he says, "and I just couldn't keep it up." After a week of classes, Metheny was ready to drop out. Instead, the school made him an assistant professor of guitar. Metheny taught all day, spent nights backing show-biz acts like Ann-Margret and Joey Heatherton at Miami hotels, and sought out late-night jam sessions with players such as Pastorius.

The following summer, Metheny played a jazz festival in Wichita with the intention of winning an additional slot as the guitarist in Gary Burton's pickup band. Forewarned, Burton made a point of catching Metheny's afternoon performance. "Pat didn't have what we think of as the Pat Metheny style at the age of 19," he recalls, "but, normally, you don't. What he did have was an ease of playing, a good, easy technique without having to struggle."

That night, Metheny played his first concert with Burton, a debut facilitated by years of playing along with the band leader's records. Burton, who was also teaching at the Berklee School of Music, where he is now the dean of curriculum, ultimately offered Metheny a job at Berklee. He began in the winter of 1974. In the spring, the Gary Burton Quartet became the Gary Burton Quintet. Says Metheny, "It was like being asked to be the fifth Beatle."

"The first year I was with that band was pretty difficult," he says, "because I wasn't at the level of those guys [besides Burton, the group consisted of Mick Goodrick on guitar, Steve Swallow on Bass, and Bob Moses on drums]. I also think Gary saw a bit of himself in me and felt that he had to initiate me into the school of hard knocks, so I didn't get a lot of solos, and when I did, I'd get these dirty looks unless they were absolutely perfect."

Following Burton's post-show critique, Metheny would return to his hotel room and practice late into the night. Back in Cambridge, Metheny shared an apartment with Steven Cantor, whom he'd taught briefly at Berklee. Cantor says that it wouldn't be unusual for Metheny to practice eight hours a day, and he recalls waking up in the middle of the night to hear him stroking the strings of his Gibson.

By the time Goodrick left the Burton band, Metheny was feeling considerably more confident, having begun to moonlight with a variety of players at such Boston clubs as the Zircon and Pooh's Pub. The Burton connection also led to a contract with ECM records and his first recording, _Bright Size Life_, a trio album with Jaco Pastorius on bass and Bob Moses on drums. After a weeklong engagement with Burton at Boston's Jazz Workshop, during which Metheny felt he could play no wrong, he was itching to start his own band.

Weeks later, in the midst of a Canadian tour, Metheny told Burton that he'd be leaving the group after the following summer's tour of European jazz festivals. Burton wasn't pleased and replied that he'd find another guitarist for the high-profile dates. Metheny, who was counting on the income to help launch his group, quit on the spot. The mentor and his student didn't speak for years.

Metheny already knew whom he wanted to play keyboards in his group. He'd heard of Lyle Mays, a Wisconsin native, through the Midwestern grapevine but didn't meet him until they were both performing at a jazz festival. Later, when Mays was living in New York, Metheny invited him to Boston to play a show at the Zircon. They clicked from the first set.

"The issue of piano and guitar was always thought of as a problem," says Mays, "because they're both accompanying instruments. So one of the first things we noticed was that we didn't have a conflicting harmonic perspective. For some reason, and I'm still not sure why, we had a natural blend. But what I really remember about that first night was how much fun it was to listen to Pat's solos."

By now, Metheny was developing a smooth and highly melodic style, born of technique and technology. Unlike many jazz guitarists, who pick a sound and stick with it, Metheny was always tinkering with his amplifiers and trying new guitars, a practice that has sometimes been criticized by jazz purists. Metheny also has a distinctive style of picking, avoiding the tip of the guitar pick in favor of the more rounded side. (Before a performance, Metheny says, he goes through 50 picks, to find 20 that are up to his rigorous standards.) The result is a supple sound that supports Metheny's view that his guitar playing owes much to his early study of wind instruments. "For me," he says, "the guitar is like singing or playing the trumpet. One problem guitar players have is that their fingers go crazy, and it doesn't have the believability that phrasing should have. I don't play anything that I couldn't support with a breath."

Metheny and Mays were well schooled in the techniques of be-bop but were determined to downplay their expertise toward crafting a more individual sound. Metheny says a major influence wan an album of duets, _Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett_. The Pat Metheny Group would not aim for the explosiveness of guitarist John McLaughlin's seminal Mahavishnu Orchestra. Instead, it would popularize a subtler style of interaction.

In 1978, Metheny's group toured nonstop, packing its equipment into a van, spreading a mat atop the gear to provide a space for sleeping, and driving through the night. One especially long weekend had the musicians playing Thursday night in Seattle and driving straight to Texas for a Saturday- night show in Dallas. Then it was back into the van to head for a Monday- night gig in Quebec City. By year's end, the van had logged 165,000 miles.

In 1979, Metheny and Mays got off the bus long enough to board a Lear jet to tour with Joni Mitchell (they can be heard on her live album _Shadows and Light_). While Metheny found the experience musically limiting, it taught him the strategies of big-time rock tours. Throughout the '80s, Metheny poured money back into his group, renting and later buying a grand piano after Mays encountered too many bum keyboards, and investing in a top-flight monitor system. He also hired David Oakes to work the sound. Oakes, a full-time employee, mans the boards whenever Metheny plays. During sessions, when it's time for Metheny to record a solo, Oakes is the only person allowed to remain in the studio.

After eight albums, the Pat Metheny Group enjoys a diverse following that is the jazz world's equivalent of the Grateful Dead's. And although Metheny disdains the tie-dyed aesthetics of the Dead, when he talks about his music, he can sound an awful lot like a hippie, not a jazz-loving evangelist.

"I really feel that people need to hear and see people that are trying to push themselves and push the context of their lives to a higher level," says Metheny. "I've always though that I was lucky to be around people like Gary and Ornette, individuals who are constantly trying to expand their own horizons of music and life. I don't see that as a priority among young musicians. I have people come up to me all the time, and they say, 'How can I get a manager?' 'How can I become successful?' I don't hear that many people saying, 'How can I become a great musician?' 'How did you learn about harmony?'"

When Metheny arrived in New York for a few weeks in late May, his synthesizer was moved to the Power Station from a warehouse in Waltham (a space formerly occupied by Aerosmith). Beside attending to the pre- release details of _Secret Story_, Metheny had three projects on his plate: producing a record with an Israeli singer named Achinoam Nini; working out a live arrangement of _Secret Story_ for a fall tour of the United States; and sketching out soundtrack ideas for a film by Rob Morrow, star of the television show _Northern Exposure_.

One weekend, Metheny interrupted his work to fly to Kansas City to see his brother perform at a local jazz festival, surprising his parents as they were setting up their lawn chairs at the concert. While he was home, Pat helped his older brother mix a tune for his fourth album, _Then 'til Now_. Mike Metheny hopes to have the album released in the fall. He's extremely proud of his little brother but admits, "It's a tricky thing, being a minor-league player with a major-league name."

Pat Metheny is virtually the only jazz artist signed to Geffen Records. "I didn't want to be jazz artist No. 7," says Metheny, who adds that Geffen also understands that the Pat Metheny Group shouldn't be marketed as merely a jazz act. That's a good idea, since 1987's _Still Life (Talking)_ is about to go gold (with 500,000 copies sold) in the United States and has sold that number again around the world; 1989's _Letter From Home_ is proceeding at the same pace. Those are super sales for jazz albums, and part of their commercial strength comes from the fact that the soft melodicism of Metheny's tunes has attracted fans of pop, rock, and New Age music. At the same time, Metheny's straight-ahead jazz projects also move impressive numbers, with _Question and Answer_, a trio album with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes, and the Ornette Coleman collaboration, _Song X_, each selling around 200,000. Geffen has the right of first refusal for all recordings produced under the Metheny Group Productions banner and has yet to take a pass. Forthcoming is a trio album featuring Lyle Mays, Jack DeJohnette, and Marc Johnson.

Metheny pushed Mays to record the album after a brief spring tour found the pianist tearing up the keyboard. Metheny believes that a musician must seize the moment when inspiration strikes. Musical improvisation continually challenges the player to maximize that moment. Metheny has made a study of his personal best by keeping a journal during concert tours that details the circumstances of each show.

"In my case," Metheny says, "I play better if I'm really hungry, and I definitely play better if I've had a chance to jog before the show. I play better if I'm really warmed up, so I get to the hall an hour early so that I can really get loose. I play better if I know the material cold, so that I don't think about the notes but play from a feeling standpoint. And I play best when I'm really in touch with the drummer. To me, it always boils down to me and the drums."

Metheny says that when he's playing at his peak, he's not consciously composing so much as listening for what he would like to hear. When it came time to record the solos for _Secret Story_, he aimed for interludes that encapsulated the whole song. In some cases, snippets of different takes were edited together for the final solo. More often, Metheny would extract elements of his best attempts and combine them in a subsequent take. In that sense, he says, the process combined the arts of improvisation and composition.

The idea, he says, is always to tap into something uniquely personal. "That's one of the things that I like about getting older," he says, "because, compared to when I was 24 or 25, I just have a lot more experience to draw on. I can address a phrase from an emotional angle, or I can do it from a sound angle. To me, it's a given that you're going to play some hip notes - if you're considered a good jazz player, you're going to play some hip phrases - but it's what you put inside of them that makes it have that other thing."

Metheny has spent his life searching for that "other thing"; that's what keeps him at the Power Station until dawn. Metheny paid 100 bucks for his first guitar; his synclavier and its sophisticated peripherals fill up two rooms and cost more like half a million dollars. The circumstances have changed, but the scenario remains the same. Pat Metheny is still losing sleep, climbing out windows, and looking for music in the middle of the night.


Maintained by Thomas Hoenisch TOP last update: July 1998