San Francisco Chronicle Interview
This is a phone interview by a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer with Pat Metheny.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 1995
by Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer.
You don't find many musicians with the range and energy of guitarist-composer Pat Metheny. His music veers from the lyrical melodies and graceful improvisations that first brought him acclaim in the late '70s to the slashing sonic experiments of his 1994 solo disc, Zero Tolerance for Silence, which suggests Jimi Hendrix on an Ornette Coleman jag.
He has recorded with everyone from Coleman to the London Symphony Orchestra, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes and a spate of other great jazz players in ever-changing contexts. Metheny also has scored a number of films, among them The Falcon and the Snowman, written with his longtime colleague, pianist Lyle Mays.
But, Metheny, 40, is best known for his work with the Pat Metheny Group, which has been together, on and off, for 18 years. The band has recorded a dozen albums, winning six Grammys along the way (Metheny has eight Grammys on his own).
From the beginning the groups distinctive melodic sound - a balance of brilliant improvisation and finely controlled and orchestrated ensemble playing - found a wide audience among pop and jazz fans. The band just released its first studio album in five years, We Live Here, which features Metheny for the first time playing off prerecorded r & b and hip-hop drum loops of the type that now dominate pop music.
But, as usual, he and Mays do it their own way (you can still hear the Brazilian influence in their writing). They've crafted shapely and beautifully orchestrated compositions that build off the beat.
Metheny recently spoke to The Chronicle by phone from New Orleans. His band plays Tuesday... at San Francisco's Orpheum theater.
Question: What was the impetus for making this record and playing off sampled r & b grooves?
Answer: I wanted to use the group, with its history and sensibility, as a sort of camera to take a portrait of the way things look to us right now in contemporary pop music. The basic idea was to filter that music through our aesthetic. those grooves are really fun, and I never understood why you couldn't have detailed harmony on top of them, extended ways of developing melodic information with high-level soloing and the use of dynamics.
Question: So what kind of beats did you sample?
Answer: All sorts. Most of those grooves have specifics names. We wanted to use garden-variety grooves, rather than inventing new ones. The first one (on the tune Hear to Stay) is called a go-go beat, from D.C. But we used lots of combinations of loops throughout. We spent a lot of time working on how the loops were going to feel - speeding them up and slowing them down. Most of the time when you hear them on records they're kind of monotonous. We also had to find a way to integrate the drum loops with Paul Wertico's live drumming so we got the bash factor of his ride cymbal, which has always been the main source of time in our music.
Question: The tunes are complex, mixing sampled sounds with live solos and synthesized strings and horns, with a lot of time changes. How did you work them out?
Answer: One thing about this record that's fundamentally different from everything else we've done is that the rhythm came first. Lyle and I tend to be melody-harmony type guys. For the first time I started writing off these beats that I thought were worth hanging our efforts on. Lyle came down to Miami and we spent about a month trying things. We're fanatical about the melody. It's got to have a certain resonance, a depth. If it doesn't have that, it doesn't matter how cool the other stuff is. We worked out the orchestrations as we went along. Lyle's talents and mine overlap in many ways. We can work on everything together, then edit each other. We usually develop the songs playing them live. This was the first group record we didn't play the music live first.
Question: You've been called everything from a pop-jazz fusion musician to a new age player. How do you feel about being labeled?
Answer: It's funny, because I've been lumped in with contemporary jazz, or whatever the current style is. There's always a new one-acid jazz, world music, new age, fusion. I get stuck in all of them. It's always a joke to me, and says more about the person writing than about me. I've always felt very open to all kinds of music and never limited myself to some purist idea of what jazz is. This is the first record or ours that you could say addresses pop music in a specific way. It's human nature to try and categorize, but to me, the music speaks for itself.
Question: You play in all sorts of contexts - Ornette-inspired free music, in trios with people such as Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes, touring as a member of Joshua Redman's band. What triggers you to move from one to the other?
Answer: It's simple - I love music. I love the idea of playing at a high level with different people and trying to understand things about music that I didn't know before. All the guys you mentioned have something in common: They are very strong individuals, and that's probably the element of jazz I love the most; it's a music that demands you make your own way and discover your own perspective.
Question: How does playing with other musicians affect your work with your own group?
Answer: It adds depth to the whole thing. We all play with other people. When it's not your group, it's like playing in somebody else's yard; you play with their stuff, which can be great. But the group is the only place I can play all the music that I love. It's like home to me.
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