Pat Metheny Gets Serious

by Tom Moon for JazzTimes, August, 1993

Pat Metheny is surveing the avenues of inquiry available to the serious music student. None, it seems, are adequate. "We can talk about note choice. We can talk about the rythms somebody played, time, feel. We can talk about superficial things that are interesting on a technical level-they're tangible. But what I like is when all that stuff falls away and you really feel the artist."

"You say 'Miles was a jazz musician. 'But you don't think of bebop or any one particular thing he did, you just think, Miles. No matter who he played with, that thing he had was there. It was a defining characteristic of all the music he played. His whole concept of living manifested itself into the world as music. That personality is impossible to miss. Like Stan Getz-he did lots of things in the course of his life, and they all add up to the instant picture we have of him. That's the thing"

It's somewhat ironic to hear Pat Metheny speak about this undefineble "thing" that eludes formal analysis, because the same phenomenon he ascribes to Miles and Getz also aplies to him. Two notes,and you know it's Pat-not because of the notes themselves, but the spirit with which they are executed and the warm, windblown guitar sounds that carries them. The austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl defined success as "the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself". This describes Metheny, 39, perfectly. He is one the few individual voices of his generation, a restless, roving artist, whose muse operates independently of prevailing trends. He is outwardly successful-given the meager economics of jazz, his Group records can be considered blockbustes-but that success doesn't come from pandering-it's a by-product of an enourmous dedication to the art. Regardless of what the critics say(the jazz press is fond of describing the Metheny Group record as lightweight without acknowledging the crystalline, extraordinaly lyrical compositions), the guitarist is now in an artistic stride that demands attention: At a time when styles are rigidly defined and genre borders more fastidiously observed than they should be, Metheny transcends style and genre. He plays on jazz records and puts more energy into his work than many who toil full time in that arena. He guests on pop sides, and brings to them a harmonic sensibility that is light years from radio fare. He doesn't sit still. He's not casual about music, but unlik his more professional collegues from jazz side of the aisle, he is genuinely receptive to whatever is coming next.

The result: a synergi of complementary experience that is rare in any current endeavor. The Group records have helped him discover a more lyrical identity as an improvisor, which he has applied effectively to various standards projects. Continued investigation of standards an bebop has supplied his composition with a solid foundation. In turn, his more experimental explorations have endangered a healthy contempt for structure, a devil-may-care attitude that enlivens everything that he touches. He is not striving to be well-rounded; the projects force that upon him. and no matter who else is in the room, that vibe, that quality that goes beyond talent, that pure motivation to expand.

"You have to release yourself yourself to the fact that you'r gonna live a life of music", Metheny says, monkish. He is sitting in a lower Manhattan loft, slugging Coke from a liter bottle, explaining why the lull between his last record, Secret Story, and the next one with his name on it is anything but a vacation. "I tell this to all the young cats who come up and say they want to play: The music will be the only real reward. The people I admire are still growing, discovering things. I'm constantly trying to get more information about music. It occupies all of my waking hours. Maybe sometime I'll take a year or two off and just practice, but right now I need the challenge of facing the music every night. It's the only way to get better, the most consistent method of bringing my playing to a higher level".

Metheny is not above trying anything to improve, and the way he seems his journey, that's the main goal. Right now, he's studying Coltrane harmony through the Andrew White transcriptions and plugging himself into as as many different musical contexts as possibel. With the other members of his group, the guitarist has been selecting material for a live album, The Road To You, which was recorded on a European tour (and released in July on Geffen) and preparing a 15th anniversary tour that will play in Japan and Europe. But that's practically a holiday compared with the list of stuff he's churned out these past few months: he produced Lyle Mays' critically acclaimed trio record, which he pulled off by insisting it happen on a short notice; he's been working on the score for actor Rob Murnow's first directing effort, a 30-minute film with no dialogue; he's been producing the U.S. debut of Noa, an Israeli pop singer; he conributed guitar to six songs on Bruce Hornsby's current pop project- and says he hopes Harbor Lights is a hit because it contains "some of the more advanced harmonic concepts" to hit top 40 radio; he is a guest on saxophonist Joshua Redman's second record, as well as on Gray Thomas 'Til We Have Faces, a collection of immaginatevely played standards; he's working on a duet record-all ballads-with bassist Charlie Haden, he's also planning a duet record with Jim Hall; he has recorded a duet with himself, Zero Tolerance For silence, that he doesn't know whether he'll release; he's also scheduled to join John Schofield in the studio for a guitar summit record later in the year. The guest appearances might look like casual afterthoughts, the footnotes to a busy recording career. Not for Metheny. He turns down most requests, he says, and considers everything carefully: he lived with Gary Thomas' music for a year before he felt comfortable making a contribution to it. "I really study the music, try to hear what I can bring to the session," Metheny says, adding that by the time he and Thomas played, he'd digested enough of the tenorman's ideas that the union was "totally there, it felt like we'd been playing for years." With the help of a sparring rythm section, Metheny and Thomas stretch the melodies of "Lament" and "You Don't Know What Love Is" to new extremes. In the process, they avoid the auto-pilot tendency that dooms many standards projects, and concentrate instead on more earthy incantations. Metheny's picky, elusive comping might lead Thomas to a few new places, but just as often, the environment Thomas sets up disarms Metheny-forcing him to abandon the navigational tools all the improvisors lean on from time to time, and react entirely in the moment.

Metheny describes his response this way: "I always think, "Ok, I'm a fan of this kind of music, what would I like to here in this setting?", and I play that. I don't care about style, or whether anybody plays 1000 notes or 4 notes. Gary made it easy to explore. The language he's developing parallels with what I'm interested in. He's not worried about the relationship between melody and harmony in a horizontal sense. He's into a more vertical way of thinking, which I've been trying to get into my playing". By contrast, Metheny describes his encounter with Redman-whom Metheny first met when he played with his father, Dewey, on the 80/81 album-as an "instant thing-Josh is really involved in the storytelling aspects of music, and that forces you to play with a certain awareness. He'll take the material and just go forever on it. He's one of the few young cats who are thinking about melodic development. It's almost a forgotten issue-we're living in a sound-bite culture, and a lot of these young players get by without really comitting themselves to a melody. I don't here them following through, so many guys are just playing licks. With the teachers I had, people like Gary Burton and Steve Swallow, that was not tolerated." But Metheny admits that at times dhe doesn't have an agenda when he shows up for work. He's not a lick player, but has a tendency to "come up with all these mental notes about what I didn't do last night, what I want to do more." In order to get away from that, he's emulating Herbie Hancock: "Herbie is about the only musicican I've seen who shows up with no agenda whatsoever. He just sits down and deals."

That maybe a bit hard for metheny, who, when he's onthe road, is usually the captain of a large touring unit that aproaches live performances with a rock'n roll mindset. Still, the audience is a serious consideration: "There's a guy who took his girlfriend out to dinner, and the show ate up a good bit of his check for the week. You try to be aware of that. But if you go start worrying about pleasing people with your music, whether it's fans or the record company guys, that's a dangerous road. I invite people to share what I have to offer, and I try to present the music in avery clear way. But from the first note, what I play I'm playing for myself and the guys in the band. Because the only thing I know for sure is what I like, as a musician and as a listener. Everything else is a guess".

What the Metheny Group will sound like when it begins work on new music this fall is also a guess, its leader says. The outfit has experienced radical change before-from the live-to-two-track breeziness of the early titles to the layered, synth-dominated, vaguely Brazilian patina of the last three records, Metheny and his cohorts have found ways to create settings for interactive music that are neither whole fusion or whole tradition, music that accomodates yearning melody and gruff funk improvisation and what Metheny calls his "American heartland-whatever thing".

Though he doesn't know what it'll be, Metheny hints radical change may come again. The musicians are certainly flexible-Metheny marvels at the way keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassist Steve Rodby, percussionist/vocalist Pedro Aznar and drummer Paul Wertico are "available to so much music"-but much of the crdit goes to Metheny's maturing sense as a composer. "I strted writing tunes so that I would have a way to play the kind of guitar I was playing. The challenge at the beginning was to establish a context that included but yet avoided the things I loved about bebop." The presure of live recording gave the early sides an urgent quality: Up until 1984's First Circle, most of Metheny's records were made in two days, with a few overdubs.

"When the opportunity came along to use the studio as another instrument, "Metheny says, "I was totally captivated by that challenge." he added keyboard and guitar synthezeisers, then ballanced them with human voices because "it seemed like the music needed some air." For the past three group albums (First Circle, Still Life Talkin', Letter From Home), Metheny has written both tightly compressed songs-without-words and sprawling suits, each distinguished by imaginative orchestration that draws upon a range of textures (mallet instruments, hand percussion, strings). It's easy for him to sit down and write what could be considered a prototypical Metheny song-and much more difficult to create something wholly new. As a result, he's grown less interested in simple tunes. He's working on "enviroments" that set a mood. "We went back through the songs for a folio that's coming out this year, and there were over 150 songs-which means that it's a real challenge to avoid repeating something I've already written. One solution is coming up with these moods that take you in before there is even a melody. The guys in the band are calling it "The new density", which is right, because it's totally thick. There are at least four levels of activity going on all the time-melodies, counterlines, some sort of harmony, the rythm, and usually improvisation. Secret Story was the first time I really started thinking like that-and there were places on that record where I wanted to fill every whole, to make it completely dense."

Secret Story was "the culmination point for me of lot of stuff I'd been dealing with personally and as an artist. I never worked so hard for anything in my life-it was a mammoth undertaking. But if I had to pick, the last 20 minutes of Secret Story is about the favorite I've ever recorded. I don't know what it is-it's very written and orchestrated and yet it has some of the best improvised playing I've ever gotten on record." Reaction to the solo project told Metheny just how misunderstood he is: "The general conception is that Secret Story is more mainstream, and the other records are more experimental. To me, it's exactly the opposite: Secret Story was far riskier, in terms of piling layer upon layer of sound, than anything I'd done before-as you'd get involved in the details, you think about one moment and that changes what you thought of the next moment, and you end up changing more than you originally intended. Pretty soon it spiralled far away from what you were originally working with". Since Secret Story, Metheny has continued his density explorations. He recorded a guitar duet with himself, "Zero Tolerance for Silence", that he describes as not at all like Bill Evans' "Conversations with Myself": "There's some compositional elements, but it's more just playing. It's very thick".

At the opposite extreme, he's been playing some of the Secret Story material in the guitar solo setting. "Playing something like the "Finding and Believing" solo is a trip. I can leave so much space, because I'm hearing so many of the other parts in my head. I'm learning maore about density, and it's really powerful-how to make something dramatic with just these little hints".

There it is again-taht willingness to learn, the desire to push beyond whatever is necessary to get some fresh plateau where the art can grow. If Metheny is resigned to the fact that his work is not always apreciated, or viewed seriously by a jazz press ready to dismiss anything that's not traditionally acoustic, he doesn't register any bitterness. But he knows what time it is: "We're in a cultural period where wisdom, insight and evolutionary development are not rewarded", he says. "Doing something thoughtful and full of art is not as important as shocking people. So we're getting a lot of stupid music-I like some rock and some thrash metal, but why do they always have to play in 4? I've reached my lifetime tolerance for backbeat oriented rock and roll".

"The vibe right now is, "I'm stupid and I'm proud of it". I'm not saying everyone has to be virtuoso, but no synthezeiser, no drum machine, no amount of reverb, will shield the reality of musical ignorance. The problem with th industry the way it is right now is, there's no sense taht you have to sustain something year after year, the way I've always thought of it. Everything is geared to the hit".

"You have to give people the presence of soul in the music, and that rarely happens", he continues, adding that the difficult times in his life have come when he allowed other concerns to overtake musical considerations. A child of the record industry since the age 19, Metheny could be synical by now, sour on the prospects for the improvised music at a time when one Guns n' Roses album sells more than the catalogs of any twenty jazz artists combined. And yet he sounds totally earnest, driven by the urge to test that undefinable character print in new surroundings, convinced that music is both his calling and personal savior: "Music is the only thing I've ever committed myself to. I approach it with a lot of humility and respect. It's the truest thing I've found".

Side Note by Jorgen Asklin:

I can't but help to get very touched by what Pat expresses about his views on todays culture "where wisdom, insight and evolutionary development are not rewarded". Unfortunately, today we are seeing the climax of the trend that brings forward, and accepts statements such as "I'm stupid and I'm proud of it" which is a result of that society has been under the influence of the ideas of one Immanuel Kant, the dominant trend of philosophy for the last 200 years, the destruction of man's mind, of his confidence in the power of reason.

There is a person that provides you with the weapons to fight this trend - Ayn Rand, who's philosphy Objectivism, in essence, is the "concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute". For me, Pat Metheny - his life - his work, personifies these ideas.

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: October 14, 2001