Face to Face with Pat Metheny

April 1997 by Mark L. Small for Acoustic Guitar


Most people know Pat Metheny as one of today's most influential electric jazz guitarists with a thumbprint sound and an extraordinary gift for melody and improvisation. With the sole exception of New Chatauqua, Metheny's electric playing has dominated his countless concerts and 20-plus albums as a solo artist and group leader, which have collectively sold over 10 million units and won 11 Grammy awards. But two new albums are introducing audiences to another side of Pat Metheny: on Quartet, he mixes acoustic rhythm and electric lead work in a set of stripped sown performances by the core members of the Pat Metheny Group, and on Beyond the Missouri Sky, he teams up with Charlie Haden for a series of revelatory acoustic duets.

Haden, 16 years Metheny's senior, is a veteran acoustic bassist and former sideman with Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman and others. They pooled their talents on Beyond the Missouri Sky to create an evocative 70 minutes of music which Haden accurately describes as "contemporary impressionistic Americana."

On the new disc Metheny once again draws deeply from the acoustic well which yielded his watershed album New Chautauqua in 1979. The CD's tracks showcase Pat's custom acoustics ranging from nylon- and steel-string models to an acoustic sitar guitar and his exotic 30-string Pikasso guitar. His thumbprint electric sound surfaces on two cuts. Haden's sumptuous bass underpins Metheny's finger picking, thoughtful jazz lines, energetic strumming, and spare Synclavier orchestrations to weave a vividly colored tapestry from strands spun from the jazz, folk, country, and film music idioms.

The album's 13 songs come from diverse sources. Metheny and Haden penned five of them, film composers Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini, and Andrea Morricone are each represented, Charlie's son Josh Haden and Jim Webb also contributed a song apiece. The inclusion of two poignant folk songs, "Precious Jewel" and "He's Gone Away," sheds light on the duo's shared midwestern cultural legacy.

Beyond the Missouri Sky embodies a simplicity which nearly veils the sophistication of the playing. Metheny's adroit improvisations, delicate turns of phrase, chord tones changing subtly, sometimes unexpectedly, and delicately ornamented accompaniment ideas will abundantly reward those who wear headphones. The recording's close miking and 24-bit digital technology create the illusion that the listener is seated at the artists' feet.

Pat stole a few hours from his daily regimen in his Manhattan work studio for our interview. Not surprisingly, he approaches conversation in much the same way he does an improvised solo. His language is forthright, brimming with imaginative ideas, and his thoughts are well defined and executed. Afterward, as I walked toward midtown, a numbing winter wind gnawing at my face, in my mind's eye I could see Pat opening up one of the 20 guitar cases lining his studio wall, reconnecting with his muse. Being a top musician is great work-if you can get it. After spending two hours talking music with Pat Metheny, it is clearer to me why many are called, but few are chosen.


Mark L. Small: How did you and Charlie Haden come up with the concept for the Beyond the Missouri Sky album?

Pat Metheny: We have been talking about doing this for about 15 years now. Charlie is one of my favorite musicians of all time and one of my favorite people on earth. We have always had a "thing" when we play together. I don't know if it is because we came from towns in Missouri that are about 100 miles apart. We have played in so many settings together-with Josh Redman, in a trio with Billy Higgins, with Abbey Lincoln, Ornette Coleman, with Jobim-and something always happens. We wanted to document that

I wanted to do just a duo album, but Charlie wanted bunches of guitars. We recorded the whole album as a duo, and then picked some the tunes to fill out a bit. Some cuts have another guitar added, others have more elaborate orchestrations with the Synclavier. Everything comes out of what we played. We would play the track and then hear a background line that was implied. I wrote things that came out like of that, it is pretty subtle.

There is only one tune that has a bigger production with a little drum part. Charlie's son Josh has an alternative band called Spain, and we covered their tune "Spiritual." The rest of the tunes are basically guitar and bass duos, but some are enhanced. It is an eclectic group of songs. They range from Missouri folk songs like "Precious Jewel" and "He's Gone Away," to the Jim Webb tune "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," and Henry Mancini's "Two for the Road." We each wrote a few tunes as well. Everything hangs together because of the melodic nature of the music. It is an incredibly mellow record. Of the 13 tunes, 12 are ballads. It is really deep, it grabs you and takes you in. I am really excited about it.

Mark L. Small: You are best known for your electric guitar work, this is only the second predominantly acoustic project you've released.

Pat Metheny: I love playing acoustic guitar. Like most guitar players, I end up playing more acoustic guitar than anything else in my practice hours. I usually don't plug everything in. I love the sensation of playing acoustic music and have always wished that there were more opportunities to really play acoustically-no pickup, no mic. For me the only practical application I have for that is playing for my girlfriend. As soon as you play with other musicians, you lose. I did a tune with Charlie Haden at a benefit concert for [drummer] Billy Higgins who has been sick. When we rehearsed just acoustically the acoustic bass pretty much wiped out the guitar, never mind when you add in drums or piano.

I don't really like the sound of guitar when it is picked really hard. You can get more volume with heavier strings and picks, that hard tone doesn't do it for me. So given the kind of touch that I like, the opportunities for me to play absolutely acoustic are limited.

I have this dream that someday someone will invent an acoustic guitar that could compete with a piano. I envision this gigantic guitar with a resonator tube, or a huge body with a regular neck. I'm sure people tried this in the early part of this century or the end of the last when people were inventing all kinds of weirdo instruments. Until the day comes when there is a way to generate more sound from an acoustic guitar, we have to make do with pickups and microphones.

Mark L. Small: Was your first guitar an acoustic?

Pat Metheny: No. My story is a little unusual in that I was almost instantly involved in jazz. Most people play rock and roll for years and then move to jazz. After about a week, all I wanted to do was learn about improvisation and study Miles Davis' music, so electric guitar was it for me. My models were Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell-people who didn't have much to do with acoustic guitar. Kenny Burrell had done some acoustic guitar things, but it wasn't a significant part of what he did.

Back then I dreamed about owning a Gibson J106E, an acoustic with a pickup on it. But it wasn't until much later, when I was about 17, that I got a flamenco-type guitar with a pickup. For the first time I started thinking that this could be an alternate voice for me. I started doing gigs around Kansas City using it mainly for bossa novas. I had to plug it into my amp which wasnÕt too good, it was really thumpy. The guitar had no tone controls on it, I had to adjust the amp so it was messy.

Around 1976 I started trying different tunings on acoustic guitar. I got a Guild and played it in Nashville high-string tuning. [Ed. note: For Nashville tuning, the high strings from a 12-string set are used for the guitar's lowest four strings.] That was the first acoustic to become part of my regular setup. I have always loved strumming. Even when I was a kid, strumming came easily to me and I liked it. It didn't have much to do with jazz, but I liked it. Eventually I worked that into tunes like "New Chautauqua" and some others.

Mark L. Small: New Chautauqua is such a great album with some wonderful guitar soundscapes. Some people maintain that that album and some by other 1970's ECM musicians paved the way for the new age style.

Pat Metheny: I have heard that too, even from the new age artists. What can I say? Generally for me, even with music like that, I try to inform it with more harmonic detail. So much of the music that followed that album is really diatonic. I don't like to be snobby, but it is hard for me to get too excited about music of any style that doesn't have some kind of bebop in there. That is my reference point. So when I hear A minor going to F major over and over, I think okay, what are you going to do with that? When Keith Jarrett plays A minor to F major it is a blast because for him it is a choice not a limitation.

For me, New Chautauqua was the first time I took a musical look at the reality of how I grew up, and got in touch with exactly what that sound was. I had referred to it on Bright Size Life, but New Chautauqua was done at a time when I had been in Europe on a very long tour, and then I stayed on to do that record. Sometimes when you are far away from a place you can see it more clearly than when you are there. So that record was kind of a snapshot of a musical memory that came out pretty clearly-not the whole record, but the title tune. It is a pretty accurate sonic portrayal of how I remember a certain place at a certain time.

Mark L. Small: How did you come to use Linda Manzer's guitars?

Pat Metheny: She came to one of our shows as guitar makers often do. About every six or seven shows a guitar maker will come up afterward with some instruments to show me. I have accumulated more guitars over the years than I would ever have the chance to play. I have about 20 that I use regularly. I keep some tuned in weird ways, I have nylon-string and 12-string instruments, soprano and baritone guitars, they all get some play over the course of the year.

I have not been in the market for guitars for quite some time. When a guy shows up, I will play his guitar out of curiosity, and then say thanks for showing it to me. But with Linda's guitars, something happened that made me hear things differently. They really fit with my conception of sound, and I can't begin to explain why. The necks were easily playable for me. So in the early 80s, I got a six-string from her, we call it the "Linda Six." She is a very meticulous person, and was very interested in the details about what I liked and didn't like about the instrument.

I had some ideas about instruments and in the back of my mind, I was looking for someone to make them real. We started a journey that has gone on for a while with her building me everything from sitar-type guitars and fretless nylon strings, to baritones and miniature guitars. She has made 14 for me now. It takes me three or four years for me to absorb what one of her instruments could be. In the case of the Pikasso, it's taken even longer. Her guitars provide a certain kind of musicality that agrees with my sense of things.

The Beyond Missouri Sky record showcases her instruments more than any other has. Except for one or two tunes, I played her guitars exclusively. They sound phenomenal, and they get better and better as they age. The first one I got from her is what I used on the First Circle album and on the tune "Lonely Woman" on the Rejoicing album. It is what I have played most anytime I have played a steel six-string over the past 14 years.

Mark L. Small: I remember the first time I heard "Lonely Woman," I was struck by that guitar's clarity.

Pat Metheny: It is kind of like a Steinway piano. There is a distinctiveness to the notes and something about how they interact. Clarity is a good description, it doesn't have any mid-range woofiness which you run into with guitars that sustain a lot.

Mark L. Small: Can you describe your approach to playing acoustic guitar?

Pat Metheny: I see it as a totally different instrument than the electric. It is something I pick up with a lot of respect for what it is and isn't. To me, the sound you get out of an acoustic is very revealing. Playing it well is not something every electric guitarist can do. You have to look at it a whole different way.

I never try to play the same things on it that I would play on an electric-you need a different touch and mindset. What you do with your hand and how you touch the instrument has much more impact on what the audience feels. On an electric, you are just starting the signal process. The electric is just a stimulation device for your amps and the P.A. When I play acoustic guitar live, I use a direct box and a mike right into the P.A. skipping that extra amp stage.

Mark L. Small: The melodies you play have more impact on acoustic than electric. With larger intervals there seems to be more distance between the notes. The sonic difference from the low end to the high is more apparent on an acoustic than on an electric where things smooth together. The sound difference between the nylon strings and the bass strings makes it seem like two different instruments.

Pat Metheny: The new CD, I feel, has some of the most personal playing I have gotten on record. The recording is totally digital after the microphone stage. The sound you hear at home is the first time it becomes analog since I played it. The sound is so present. If I had known it would sound like that I would have been terrified. It is like the listener's ear is right up to the guitar. For me, it is the first time I have revealed this much about how I play the instrument-you can hear everything. It makes the pick a lot more important to the sound. Literally, I would go through 40-50 picks to find one that sounded right. It was really important to me, and think that comes across on the record.

Mark L. Small: Can you speak about your Pikasso guitar?

Pat Metheny: I am starting to use that more, it is on the Beyond the Missouri Sky album and on saxophonist Kenny Garrett's album After the Rain. I've had it for about 10 years now, it is a pretty imposing instrument. Honestly, I used to feel like I couldn't play it onstage because it looks so far out that I would have to play something that was equally as far out to match it-I never felt I had something like that. But I used it on Kenny's tour this summer, and it is an incredible performance instrument because of all the sound possibilities. I did a little tour of Japan in August where I played a 20-minute piece on it each night. I am really starting to figure out how to use it. I have played it for odds and ends on record. It's great for when I need a big chord.

I had Linda saw the upper of its original two 12-string necks off because when I held the instrument, that neck was right by my face and I was constantly bumping into it. I tune the other strings with an auto harp tuner. They could be bass strings, but I tend to tune them high to get kind of a koto effect. They ring in a peculiar way that takes the fundamental a while to establish itself after I hit them.

Mark L. Small: Judging from the amount of touring you do, it seems you thrive on the road while many musicians complain about it. Why is that?

Pat Metheny: I love playing, and to me you only get a certain kind of experience is by going out and playing for different kinds of audiences. It is different from playing six nights a week in one place. I always encourage musicians to take gigs even if the music isn't what they like, they will get something out of it. It is much different than practicing in a room by yourself. You need to do both, but one without the other doesn't make a complete musician. Since my goal has been to try to improve as a player, the only way I have found to do that is going out to play a lot. I love variety on the road. I hear musicians complaining about it, and there are situations that are difficult when you are traveling. It is not the playing, but checking in and out of hotels, going to airports and that.

When I think about what most people have to do to make a living, I wonder why anyone would complain. Having to schlep your own gear and drive 20 hours each day to get to the next gig-I've done my share of that-I have always considered it a blessing when compared to the alternative. You get to play again at the end of the day. For me, it has been great because I have gotten to work with so many of the world's greatest musicians.

Touring is a very positive thing for me. It doesn't matter if I am a sideman or the leader, getting to play a lot is really fun. I will say it is a little different for me now at age 42 than it was when I was 20. I don't know that I could go do 300 one-nighters in a van right now like I did then. I always encourage people to do that while they are in their 20s and they have that urge. You have a certain kind of willpower to put the music over to an audience and go through the day-to-dayness of it all that you won't have later. I was told about this by older musicians which is why I made hay while the sun was shining as they say in Missouri.

Mark L. Small: Since you've traveled the world so much over the past 20 years, has where you grew up taken on greater significance in your memory?

Pat Metheny: Yeah. Maybe more importantly, the peaceful and solid childhood I had in Missouri has allowed me the base to launch into this free-form lifestyle that I have led for the last 20 plus years. It helps me to remain calm internally through all of it. I know exactly where I'm from and that I had a very normal childhood.

In a way, I couldn't wait to get out of Missouri. I wanted to go to New York and play with all the great jazz musicians. The fact that I was from a place where there was very little happening allowed my imagination to go crazy. I have noticed that there are a lot of musicians from small towns in the midwest-people who often have a lot of imagination. You have to come up with something if you've just been sitting out there-there is not much to do. At that time, we didn't even have cable TV. You got two or three channels and it was what you could do in the basement that kept you entertained. In my family's case it was music. My older brother Mike is a great trumpet player and he started teaching me about music when I was six or seven. Music was the video game of our time, it was our hobby.

Mark L. Small: Did you ever think when you were back there that you might become the influence you have in contemporary music?

Pat Metheny: I have never been goal oriented in the sense that I planned each step and what I would be doing when. I just wanted to play well and address music at the level that the people I admired did. A role model for me was Herbie Hancock. He seemed to be a musician like me in that he liked a whole lot of music and was able to find a spot for himself in different situations. To me, that was the highest level. I don't feel like I'm there yet. My goal is to bring something special that is particular to the way I hear music and fits into each situation I'm in. I try to play something that is not imposed on the music, but grows out of the woodwork of the musical setting.

I never tried to be number one in a poll or to sell this many records. I did hope to have my own band, but to me, success would have been playing at clubs like the Jazz Workshop in Boston and having it half full on week nights and perhaps sold out on the weekend. So when things started to go as they have, it was actually quite confusing for a time. There were a few years from 1978-80 where I was very puzzled. Things didn't fit with my expectations. I never anticipated selling hundreds of thousands of records.

I began to see that it was the result of playing the kind of music we wanted to play. In my own career and in the group, I have never had to change anything for commercial reasons. The fact that people have responded is something I am very grateful for. It is unusual for an improviser playing instrumental music to sell as many records as we have. It probably has more to do with the amount of touring we've done. We developed an audience by just going out and playing as much as we did. We have influenced the music industry and other musicians by showing that it is possible to play your own music on your own terms if you are willing to go out and play a lot of gigs. There are bands like Modesky Martin and Wood that are following the pattern we started, and it is working for them. If you are playing music that is never going to get lots of radio play, you have to go build an audience, no one else is going to help you.

Mark L. Small: You have stated before that music is the truest thing you have ever found, could you elaborate on that?

Pat Metheny: Music is a very difficult thing for me to quantify anymore. As I get more involved and more advanced as a musician, I see that everything I do has the potential to be music and vice-versa. For me, the line between what I do as a musician and what I do sitting here talking with you gets blurred at times. If you could trace somebody on a piece of paper, the outline of who they really are could be music. In my case, it is a reflection of the best part of being here on earth at this time.

Sometimes I almost feel like music is a mistake-like we are not supposed to know about it. We have noses so we can smell, ears to hear, and eyes to see. Music, of course, comes in through out ears, but we all know that it is not just sounds. There is something else included in music that is very difficult to define. To me, it reminds us of where we were before and where we are going after. It is a mysterious vapor that somehow slips in the cracks between this plane of existence and some other one. The people who are good musicians have the ability to conjure up more of that vapor than others. Everyone recognizes it when it's there. It something universal that goes beyond language and beyond race, country, or nationality. It is unmistakable when that vapor is there, we recognize it as something we all have in common

More and more, I see that it is the same thing you find wherever there is love, intensity, energy or human potential. All those good things include this same mysterious vapor that is the fabric of music.

While I acknowledge that my primary function on earth is to be a musician, I also see that music is nothing more than the essential component of humanity-it is all the same material. My feeling is that the more I can learn about music, the more I learn about other things. So far, it has worked for me.

Gear Box:

Most of the acoustic guitars Pat Metheny used on the Beyond the Missouri Sky CD were built by Linda Manzer (P.O. Box 924, Station P, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4X 1R9). Most often he played Manzer's classical guitar which is heard on "Waltz for Ruth," "Our Spanish Love Song," "Two for the Road," "First Song," "He's Gone Away," "Cinema Paradiso Love Theme," and "Spiritual." Pat says, "She reworked that guitar for me. I have this three-quarter size Ibanez practice guitar and I love the neck on it because I can really play it. I asked Linda to make the classical a short-scale instrument with a three-quarter size neck. Now it is very comfortable-especially for playing chords-and has a very tight sound."

He uses Manzer's steel string, which he calls the "Linda Six," as the dominant voice on the cuts "Message From a Friend" and "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress". The record also debuts an acoustic sitar-guitar Manzer built. Like the old Coral electric sitars, a special bridge creates the sitar effect by causing the strings to buzz as they vibrate just above it. The instrument features the same body as the "Linda Six." Pat's brooding piece "Tears of Rain" showcases that instrument playing both lead lines and a chordal accompaniment track.

Pat also used Manzer's custom Pikasso instrument a few times, most audibly on "Cinema Paradiso Main Theme." The instrument has three necks now (originally it had four). One is a six string, another is a 12-string neck (unfretted, it is for open string use only). At the back of the instrument, a harp-like configuration supports 12 additional strings.

Pat's old Guild dreadnaught cutaway, which is permanently in Nashville tuning, can be heard in the background on "Precious Jewel" and "Moon Song." He uses his trademark Gibson ES175 electric for solos on "Precious Jewel" and "Moon Song."

Acoustic Guitar Cover Story, April 1997

source: http://www.smalltorresduo.com


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