Q&A with...


© 1995 Mike Metheny

JAM talks with the Grammy-winning guitarist about KC roots, global notoriety, and jazz: past, present and future.

Mike: There is a noticeable "midwestern flavor" to a lot of your music which, some might say, can be traced to your beginnings right here in Kansas City. If you'd spent your formative years as a jazz musician in a place far removed from KC and the midwest, do you think you'd still sound the same today?

Pat: That's an interesting question. I do think that every musician is born with a single, individually unique "song" in them. But how they go about finding it, developing it and exploring it is where the geographical and cultural climate that surrounds them really kicks in. In my case, the years that I spent in Kansas City playing around town and being exposed to the very high level of musicianship and artistry that I was privileged to be a part of at such a young age affected me deeply, no question. Also, there is something very unique and special about the midwest, period. It's a vibe thing... but then it's more than that. I've often theorized about the midwestern geography affecting an aesthetic; you know, the sheer amount of "space" that exists. That leaves lots of room for things to happen and for people to dream up stuff. It was never a coincidence to me that so many of my favorite players originally came from the midwest and that so many of them had a new thing to offer to the development of the form. They were people who, at some point in their lives, often early, had a lot of time to conceptualize things that came out as music. And of course, for me, just the historical aspect of being from a place like Kansas City -- a city that has such an important place in the history of jazz -- was always there. That was always something I had a lot of respect for.

Mike: Obviously a number of prominent Kansas City jazz musicians played important roles in your life as you were starting out here in the late 1960's and early 70's. This is your chance to name them all, and talk a little about what you learned from each.

Pat: I was so lucky, man. To me, rhythm and what you do with it is everything. And to get the opportunity to play with Tommy Ruskin regularly starting when I was 14 was probably the single most important, tangible musical education I could have had. Almost everything I still do when it comes to thinking about "time" has to do with things I picked up from listening to and watching Tommy play. In a way I see it more clearly now than ever. He also had a huge impact on the way I think about "touch." The way he plays very gently yet really firm and in the pocket is something that I still try to emulate.

Right after rhythm is melody. To get the chance to work with Gary Sivils for three great years was an unbelievable education in melody. Gary is one of those guys who, no matter what is happening around him, always "tells a story," and he does it with an almost narrative flow. In fact, this "storytelling" quality is something that I think all the great KC improvisers have had in common. Getting to sit next to Gary all those nights and to have to follow him as a soloist was something that really prepared me for when I eventually started playing with people like Gary Burton and Sonny Rollins 'cause he (Sivils) always played with a kind of inner urgency or intensity that is there in almost all the best players. Also, I'll never forget him for just giving me the chance -- on Paul Smith's recommendation -- when I was 16 years old, and with very little experience, to play with him. My first gig with Sivils was at the old Armor East at 35th and Main. I was really nervous, but Gary welcomed me into the situation and treated me like an adult as he did throughout the years I played with him. It gave me a lot of confidence in myself and that really helped me out later.

When it came to harmony, I got one of the greatest educations possible by playing a lot with both Paul Smith and Russ Long in different editions of the Sivils band. They are both obviously great players and most of the time I was on the bandstand I would sit to the left of them and never take my eyes off their fingers. I was trying to cop all their stuff, or at least figure out what key we were playing in! In the Russ Long edition of Sivils' group, Russ was playing organ. I have since played with many organ players and to me his conception of how to do the "organ trio" thing is absolutely singular and original. In terms of day to day playing, however, I probably played more with Paul Smith. He helped me so much. By watching him accompany Sivils so beautifully, I learned how to really "listen." Paul not only "listens," he "hears," and to me that's about the best quality a musician can have. I also studied with, and occasionally played with John Elliot, the "dean" of KC's jazz educators. I think everyone studied with John at one point or another. He was very important to me in terms of opening up my ears to a wider palette of harmony.

There were also many other KC musicians I had contact with who affected me in broader ways, even though I didn't get to play with them as much. Herman Bell was someone like that. We would play together with Sivils or Warren Durrett or Steve Miller and every time he played he made something happen. The band would take on this attitude... there would be a new kind of depth to the music. Herman was also an excellent guitar player who could literally take the great conception he had as a horn player and render it just as effectively on the guitar. I took a lot of notes from watching that!

I spent some inspiring evenings hanging out with Charles Kynard, the great organ player, who actually had left KC some years before but used to come back occasionally. He was one of the best organ players I ever got to play with.

I did a few gigs with Vince Bilardo who was extremely articulate about improvisation. I remember a long drive with him to a gig in Wichita and how he very gently encouraged me to work on developing a way of playing that was more melody-based and less pattern-oriented. And there was John McKee, who was actually the guy who got me interested in the whole idea of being a player in the first place. There are so many more... Monte Muza, Ray Harris, Arch Martin, Jack Randle, Warren Durrett, Steve Miller, Julie Turner, Marilyn Maye, Carol Comer, Kaye Dennis, Leon Brady, Frank Smith, Milt Abel, Greg Meise, Ron Roberts, Bobby Watson, Dave Scott, Dave Glenn, Kevin Clements, Don Winsell, Rob Whitsett, Bill Drybread, George Salisbury, Jess Cole... I'm sure I'm forgetting people.

Mike: Do you think the heyday of Kansas City jazz can ever be recaptured, and if so, what would it take to do that?

Pat: Unfortunately, no. It's 1995 and the cultural landscape is now very different. My choice is to look at the possibilities that present themselves now and that are unique to this time rather than to cry about a time that has passed. To me, this is more of a "jazz" way of going through life. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing that usually results in a passive and often unrealistic reaction to actual change. "Jazz" -- and I think of the word as more of a "process" than a "thing" -- is at its essence about action... and especially about being in the moment that you are in while you are in it. Not to say we shouldn't all hold high the standards of life and music as defined by the great musicians and people who have preceded us. But the same way those guys had barriers and difficulties that they had to transcend that were very particular to their time, so do we have now. The trick is to accurately identify things that are true, musically and otherwise, in the middle of the confusion, and hopefully manifest them into ideas and sounds that will inspire and enlighten people.

Mike: In the past ten or so years, you have become rather well known for a jazz musician. What effect has this notoriety had on you personally?

Pat: Not much really. I don't want much other than to play good. So far I haven't been able to figure out a way to turn whatever currency you gather in terms of notoriety into anything that has much tangible meaning to me as a player. I mean, if I'm more famous and I play a solo that really sucks, it still really sucks! All it means to me is that more people know I suck! (laughs) No really, I just try to keep my eye on the music. That's the only thing I've found so far that has a resonance for me in terms of the "truth" thing I was talking about before. I know a lot of people see music as a path to get somewhere else... to get famous, or to get some money, or to get somewhere other than where they are. For me, music has always been the end result. I live to get on the bandstand and play and to continue the investigation into sound and how to reconcile that with the things I've learned and have seen passing through life. Being a musician is a real honor and I feel so lucky that I've been able to spend my life in this way.

Mike: As you look into your crystal ball, where do you see jazz going in the next 20 years?

Pat: Jazz has always been the music of individuals. And it has always been easier for historians and critics after the fact to delineate "movements" and such. But I never really saw it like that. As long as every few years someone like Jaco Pastorius or Josh Redman or Brad Meldahl or Tony Williams or Gary Burton shows up, we're cool. And as long as experienced players like Joe Lovano or Kenny Barron continue to redefine themselves with such amazing results, we're cool. I see no sign of this stuff letting up.

San Diego, 1985

Mike: Are you optimistic about the next generation that would carry the torch?

Pat: No question that we have more young, competent straight - ahead type players around than we've had for a long time. To me, the likely thing is that out of this group will emerge a few guys looking to say "yeah, but what else could we do with this...." and the form will continue to evolve. For me personally the straight ahead thing is very encouraging 'cause I've never really come across anyone who was exciting to me as a musician who wasn't also a very good straight ahead player first. It's what they do with it that counts. Christian McBride and Josh Redman are excellent examples of guys who I think will really be fun to watch as their careers unfold.

Mike: Who would be in your "All-Star Dream Jazz Band?"

Pat: I've actually gotten to play in so many of those dream situations over the years. The trio with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins would be one. Playing a duet with Antonio Carlos Jobim is one. The quartet with Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. The project and tour with Ornette Coleman... But you know, despite all those incredibly exciting adventures, the way my own band has developed over the last 18 years has made for the best dream band of all. We've all really grown up together and have shared so much of our musical lives together. That is still the one place where I can play all the music I really want to play under one roof.

Mike: What five records would you like to have on the mythical desert island?

Pat: That's always a hard one; and it changes from day to day. Today it would be: Four and More by Miles Davis. ...Especially for the way Miles plays on "Seven Steps To Heaven" and the relaxed quality the rhythm section has even while they're rushing those already incredible fast tempos! Smokin' At The Half Note by Wes Montgomery. The greatest guitar playing I've ever heard. Anything by Joe Henderson. That guy always inspires me with his freedom to go in any melodic direction at any point in any phrase. Anything by Freddie Hubbard. Is there any living jazz musician who has played consistently great on more important records who gets less credit? And Footloose by Paul Bley, which revolutionized harmony and melody for three generations of musicians. It's still as modern sounding today as the day it was recorded.

Mike: Last question. A little known fact about your musical beginnings is that you actually started out on trumpet. Of course as even the most everyday music fan already knows, the trumpet reigns supreme in the vast majority of musical situations by virtue of the fact that it is so difficult to play and because it has such a noble and dignified heritage. What is the real reason you abandoned The Most Important Instrument In The Orchestra and switched to guitar?

Pat: Because the guitar, while admittedly less noble, has the advantage of being able to make a sound without causing major pain to my mouth! (laughs) Seriously, I still do "think" like a trumpet player... I'm always thinking "trumpet" even though I've got that guitar strapped around my neck. And you know, I still wish I were a trumpet player!

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source: http://www.jazzkc.org/issues/1995-08/q&ametheny.html

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