JAM Celebrity Interview
by Martin Renzhofer for The Salt Lake Tribune
Virtuoso guitarist Pat Metheny doesn't want only to challenge his audiences, he wants to challenge himself.
For instance, with the 42-string, fretless pikasso guitar Metheny showcases on Imaginary Day, the newest album by the Pat Metheny Group.
The instrument was custom made five years ago. Although Metheny is still trying to master the guitar -- six conventional strings flanked by three sets of multiple strings that cross underneath and over the main body -- he plays it solo on Into the Dream.
"I had it for five years before I figured out the best way to tune it," Metheny said. "The result is featured on the record in a limited way, with no overdubs."
The 43-year-old Metheny, a multiple-Grammy winner, plans to open his group's show at Kingsbury Hall on Sunday with the ringing, exotic-sounding pikasso. No matter what he does, whether with his group or as a solo artist, Metheny, who has recorded 23 albums in 21 years, never settles for the easy road.
"That's part of the reason why people like us," said Metheny from his apartment in New York City. "We think of music as research. When we get a record contract, it's like a grant. Funding for research. There aren't too many bands like that."
"He's developed a unique tone and sensibility," said Salt Lake City musician Marty Steinberg. "Early on, he had distinctive phrasing. When he began, his way of picking and his sound were different from other jazz guitarists."
Metheny and bassist Charlie Haden won a Grammy in 1997 for Beyond the Missouri Sky . . . (Short Stories). The record blended elements of jazz, folk and country into one scintillating musical experience.
In 1994, Metheny's Zero Tolerance for Silence featured just the guitar in a searing, thrashing series of metal exercises that Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore called "the most radical recording of this decade . . . a new milestone in electric guitar."
As part of his group, with collaborator keyboardist Lyle Mays, Metheny has won seven other Grammys. "I saw him in San Francisco one night at a benefit, and he played in three totally different settings and blended in so well," continued Steinberg. "He is unafraid to stretch himself and challenge the listener."
As a result, Metheny's music is rarely heard on the radio. He is too eclectic for straight-ahead jazz stations and too weird for pop or rock airwaves.
Word of mouth has become an important marketing tool for the group, which includes Mays, bassist Steve Rodby, drummer Paul Wertico and, for this tour, percussionist Jeff Haynes.
"We had to find our way by touring a lot," Metheny said. "People say our albums have a theme of travel. A lot of that is our lives. We tour constantly, and we do it with our musical antennas up. We always check out new music and new composers."
Those antennae have been up for Metheny since his teen-age years growing up in Missouri. While still a teen-ager, Metheny was an instructor at the University of Miami and Boston's Berklee College of Music.
At 19, he had joined influential jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton's band. In the past 20 years, Metheny played and recorded with Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Joshua Redman, Jack DeJohnette and Michael Brecker.
Metheny's first solo recording, Bright Size Life, was released in 1976. The next year, Metheny gathered the beginnings of what was to become his group, including collaborator and friend Mays.
"We function well as editors, not that we don't have arguments and defend our points of view," said Metheny. "But we have a really great relationship. We're going for the best musical results."
The duo's function as songwriters varies from song to song.
"There is never any one way," said Metheny. "Lyle, being a keyboard player, is advanced harmonically. I can come in with something sketchy, and Lyle, with piano voicing, can make it sound 100 times better than I can. Same with him."
Metheny's respect for musicianship extends to the others in his band, many of whom also have solo projects, which is sorbet to the group's collaborations.
The band takes another direction for its 12th album, Imaginary Day. The recording has a tone of a film score, beginning with the Eastern-sounding title track, inspired by an Indonesian tour.
While Metheny was pleased with the album's sound, the performances live "have really gotten good," he said. "When we get to Salt Lake City, it will be the end of about 200 performances. The music has blossomed live. When I hear the record now, it almost sounds constrained."
It's been about 10 years since Metheny has played Salt Lake City. The three-hour show, without an intermission, will draw from the 20-year history of the band.
"The reaction to the concert has been positive. People will enjoy it."
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