Pat Metheny

unknown interviewer for Digital Interviews, approximately June 1999

Pat Metheny combines a love for jazz with an unflagging energy to create a bold, unique sound. With albums like First Circle, Offramp and American Garage to his credit, he has been recognized as one of music's true originals. Metheny was born August 12, 1954, just outside of Kansas City, Missouri. He quickly gained the attention of vibist Gary Burton, and has gone on to collaborate with such artists as Sonny Rollins, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker and Joni Mitchell.

Our talk with Pat Metheny is a retrospective of sorts. Conducted electronically, it gave him the opportunity to include some really great essays describing his early years alongside Kansas City's jazz masters, and a full description of his onstage gear!

Digital Interviews: How did you first get interested in playing music?

Pat Metheny: Several reasons. One is that my older brother Mike is an excellent trumpet player. By the time he was 12, he was playing around Kansas City in various classical situations and he was already an amazing talent. The comparisons of being his little brother and also playing the trumpet -- and, I have to add, I was not a naturally gifted trumpet player -- didn't feel that good. I thought my name was "Mike Metheny's little brother." Combine that with getting braces on my teeth, which increased the pain quotient quite a bit, and blend that in with the cultural context of the time, which was 1962 to 1965, where suddenly the guitar became this icon of youth culture all over the world, thanks mostly to the Beatles. Add to that, that I saw A Hard Day's Night 12 or 13 times, and that the guitar was the one instrument that my parents absolutely refused to let in the house. So you add it up and see that irresistible forces led me to the guitar.

The first thing I learned was the theme from Peter Gunn. The second thing I learned was "The Girl from Ipanema," which is ironic, the way things have gone. But around that time, my brother brought home a Miles record, Four & More. And it was an instant reaction. People sometimes say that it takes a long time to become a jazz fan, but for me it took about five seconds: "What is that?" I remember running home from school every day just to put that record on, sit between the speakers, and hear that sound.

DI: Who were some of your early influences?

PM: In addition to Miles, John Coltrane, Gary Burton, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery and Ornette Coleman.

DI: Were you always interested in playing jazz?

PM: Since I was a little kid, yes.

DI: How did you meet Gary Burton? What memories do you have playing with him as a young musician?

PM: I met Gary at the Wichita Jazz Festival when I was 18 -- he was one of my favorite musicians and I got to play a few tunes with him there. Shortly after that, I joined his band, which was the equivalent of joining the Beatles for me! He was, and still is, one of the greatest musicians I have ever been lucky enough to be around.

DI: A few years back, you went into detail regarding musicians who were guiding forces in the early stages of your career.

PM: I was able to work with the best musicians in Kansas City starting when I was really young. To me, rhythm and what you do with it is everything. And to get the opportunity to play with KC's best drummer, 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 Kansas City's best trumpet player, 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. He 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.

DI: What memories do you have backing up Joni Mitchell in 1979?

PM: It was a lot of fun, but we didn't have too much to do -- it was hard for me, coming from a situation with my own band working 300 gigs a year to one where we would work two or three gigs a week. But the music was fun -- the best part was just hearing Joni sing by herself each night -- that is my favorite format for her.

DI: How did your involvement in The Falcon and the Snowman come about?

PM: We were asked to write the music for the movie, directed by John Schlessinger.

DI: What equipment do you use to achieve your unique sound?

PM: I'll be happy to go into detail about how my gear works, but I had a revelatory experience a few years ago when I realized that "equipment", although certainly a component in my sound, really had little to do with why I sound like the way I sound. For years, between around 1977 to 1987, I never did ANYTHING without my "rig". I would never "sit in" unless I could have my amps and stuff there, I basically didn't do any record dates at all other than my own cause I was sure they would "mess up my sound" -- etc., etc. Then in 1987, I went to the then-USSR on a tour with the group and there were a few "jam session" situations where I HAD to play with some Russian guys on their "gear" -- and I use the term loosely. I played one night on a Polish guitar and a Czech amp. Someone taped it and gave me the tape the next day. I was shocked to hear that I sounded JUST LIKE ME!!!! Since then, I sit in all the time on any old thing and have a blast and do record dates without worrying too much that it's gonna get mixed wrong, etc., etc. I feel much better knowing FOR SURE that it's more about conception and touch and spirit and soul, etc., than whether my hardware was in place. I do, however, totally envy horn players who are "sonically self-contained". They ARE their sound, especially if they can tote their own axe around with them, as they all easily can do.

The REAL answer to your question, though, is this. I used an Acoustic 134 model amp for 20 years, from 1974 to 1994. That amp had the SOUND for me. Flat, kind of midrangy-bright but mellow and LOUD without any distortion. A hard combination of things to find in one place. Unfortunately, it was also really noisy and tended to break a lot. I paid a lot of dues keeping that guy around. During the Josh Redman tour, I could see I was finally gonna have to change and also I had the urge to get modern a little. I knew there were new things out there, so I started trying everything. I finally settled on the Digitech 2101 DSP guitar preamp. With it, I could get the SOUND and some cool bells and whistles too, mainly pre-programmability -- no more moving the "barely-hangin-on-the-134-front-panel" treble control exactly 2.3 centimeters to get the sitar on "Last Train Home" to sound right, then in the 1.7 seconds before the next tune starts, trying to get EXACTLY back to where it was, etc.

Like the 134 always was, the output of the Digitech is run into 2 Lexicon Prime-Time digital delay lines, one on my left at 14 MS delay, one on my right at 26 MS delay. Each delay has a very slight "pitch bend" controlled by the VCO -- sine wave -- inside the Prime-Time. This is what gives it the "chorused" thing that I guess I would have to say I was the first to use extensively in jazz, and that seemed to have influenced a lot of other guys to do the same. Only thing, I HATE the way "chorus boxes" sound. My sound is mostly the "straight" 134/Digitech line, which is behind me with NO PITCH BEND, which gets blended IN THE AIR with the two DISCRETE delay pitch bends, which are much softer than the "straight" amp volume, to get a bigger sound. I HATE when I hear the "pitch bend" and the straight mixed together and coming out of the same speaker. It drives me crazy. You can then imagine that it's hard for me in a studio. Studios and records are STEREO, and I have THREE discrete sources -- "straight", delay left, and delay right. I don't feel like I've ever gotten it right on any record. I'm anxiously awaiting the coming days when we get to go back in and re-mix everything for everyone's home 6-track surround systems! I'll finally be able to get the guitar sound right!

Also, I always have a slight 450-500 MS delay mixed in right off the guitar, too. If you hear it too much, it's too loud. It just lengthens the notes some.

DI: How has your sound changed throughout the years? How has it stayed the same?

PM: Some years it is brighter or darker than others, I have noticed. Basically I think I have a basic sound aesthetic that is in most of what I do.

DI: What effect has mainstream success had upon your music, and upon you personally?

PM: Well, I don't know if I would qualify as "mainstream". I think I have managed to function pretty successfully on the fringes of the music world and have been able to play exactly what I have wanted the way I have wanted, which, weirdly enough, is somewhat rare in this culture. I never actually thought I would get away with it like I have!

DI: You've said that it's critical to understand the lineage of your instrument. What do you mean?

PM: I just have never seen anyone build anything significant in any field without having a deep and detailed sense of what they are building on.

DI: How many albums have you released? Which ones are your favorites?

PM: I'm not really sure -- a lot! I like little bits and pieces from all of them -- some much more than others.

DI: What are some of your favorite releases by other performers, old and new?

PM: Here is a list of some of my favorites of my contemporaries: Brian Blade, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Joey Baron, Seamus Blake, Brad Meldahl, Victor Lewis, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Mike Brecker, Branford Marsalis -- and many, many others.

DI: Tell us about your experiences as an instructor at the University of Miami and Berklee College of Music.

PM: Having grown up in the small town of Lee's Summit, Missouri, at the time I moved to Boston -- I was 19 at the time -- I had never really lived on the East Coast in an urban environment. Although I had had quite a bit of playing experience by that time, in Kansas City and then later in Miami, I had certainly never seen so many good players all in one place like in Boston. The level of musicianship of the students and teachers around Berklee then, like now, was quite inspiring and really amazing for me, coming from this little town in Missouri like I did.

I think the first few years I was in Boston was probably the time that whatever style I have developed as a player crystallized, and this was largely due to the incredibly stimulating musical environment that was Boston at that time. Honestly, though, looking back on it now, I was far from a great teacher, and I guess to my credit, I realized this pretty quickly, had no delusions about it and actually didn't teach very long, just a couple semesters. At the time, I was totally involved in trying to figure out a way of doing things with my instrument musically that would fit the ideas that I had in my head, and I was deep in the zone of practicing almost constantly. When I was actually teaching, most of my lessons consisted of me relating whatever thing I was working on myself right then to the guy who happened to get assigned to me. Whatever I had figured out by that time, I tried to show to everyone else. In retrospect, that's probably not the most advanced way of being a teacher, but I was trying hard to do as good as I could do.

DI: Do you prefer live performances and touring, or writing and recording?

PM: Playing live is by far my favorite.

DI: How would you characterize your writing process?

PM: It is almost a compulsion for me, but not in a bad way. It is just something that I need to do, that I love to do, and in many ways, I don't even see it as "creation". It's more like finding things that are already there anyway and just shining a light on them or making them available for other people to check out if they want to.

DI: Tell us about your relationship with Lyle Mays.

PM: We met at the Wichita Jazz Festival in April of 1974. I was playing with Gary Burton, Lyle was with a combo from North Texas State University. We had talked on the phone a few years before that, but that was the first time we really hung out. He is simply one of the greatest musicians I know, and I feel privileged to have spent so much time together with him working on the body of music that we have made together.

DI: You've always stressed that players ought to be more mindful of connecting with each other. Please explain.

PM: Listening is the key to everything good in music.

DI: Tell us about the Like Minds collaboration album.

PM: It is essentially the Question and Answer trio meeting the Chick and Gary duo. It was a fun, easy record to make, and I think that anytime any of us gets to play with Roy Haynes we look forward to it.

DI: A recent release pairs you with Jim Hall. How did that come about?

PM: We have known each other for many years and had talked about doing this together lots of times. I love Jim and his music and was really happy to participate in this with him.

DI: What are some of the most memorable musical moments or collaborations you've had?

PM: Playing a lot with Charlie Haden has been a real highlight. Also with Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman.

DI: Are there any other collaborations you're currently working on or thinking about?

PM: There is a film score that I finished recently for the film adaptation of Jane Hamilton's book A Map of the World. That will come out in the fall. I also just finished working as a sideman on Mike Brecker's new record with Elvin Jones, which should also come out in the fall.

DI: You always seem to be working. What drives you?

PM: I love music.

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