Mix (Professional Recording * Sound And Music Production), March 1995, Volume 19, Number 3, pgs 83-90

Lunching With Bonzai:
Pat Metheny - Jazzing It Up

by Mr. Bonzai

Guitarist, composer and bandleader Pat Metheny is a rare figure in these corporate times, a musician who plays exactly what he wants and gets paid well in critical praise and commercial dollars. Known worldwide for catchy and sophisticated harmonic tapestries, he returns this year from a sabbatical of diverse explorations. It's that good old Pat Metheny Group with their latest chapter, We Live Here. The core of Metheny, keyboardist Lyle Mays, drummer Paul Wertico and bassist Steve Rodby take their signature sound to seductive new levels of musicianship.

Coinciding with the PMG release is another album of newly interpreted Metheny/Mays compositions by Bob Curnow's L.A. Big Band. Hovering at the top of the jazz charts, Curnow's arrangements and 20-man band amplify the blast of the past with the edge of the '90s.

A gifted album-maker since his launch on ECM Records in 1976, Metheny surmises that his new album is his first record that "deals with backbeats in a substantial way." With just a dash of electronic sculpturing, essentially it's about the coolest of gigging groups, the ensemble sound of a band travelling on the same wavelength.

Bonzai: Is this new album a regathering of the forces behind your career?

Metheny: Well, the group has been the foundation of everything I've done. I've been lucky to have the opportunity to play in lots of different situations and have always made it a point to do a lot of different things, as well as having my own band. But the group is really the one place where I can play all the music that I like under one roof. At this point, it's been 18 years Lyle and I have been playing together. And Steve Rodby, the bass player, has been in the band for 14 years. Paul, the drummer, has been with us for about 12 years. Even the new guys, Ledford and Blamires, have been doing this for around eight years. It's hard to describe in a few sentences what the group means. There's a family vibe, and we've traveled all over the world together for half of our lives.

Bonzai: I was just listening to your live album, The Road To You. What was it like playing in Italy?

Metheny: They break into these spontaneous jams of the tunes. There's nothing quite like it.

Bonzai: How is the chemistry of collaboration different after you've been working with the same guys for such a long period of time?

Metheny: Well, it's a lot more comfortable, a lot more efficient and a lot more fun. We really know each other now, personally and musically, and we can get to it without talking a lot. We all know when it's good enough for us. What we enjoy about each other is that we all have very high standards and are extremely critical.

We're one of the toughest crowds you'll find - us looking at ourselves and music in general. We're very particular about what it is that we want to get out of the music and the level we try to achieve. The rhythm section is the nucleus. We've played together so much, and what we have in common is that there is no real fear of anything stylistically. It's hard for me to imagine another rhythm section that has the range that this bunch does, in terms of getting inside of certain grooves.

If I'm playing a straight-ahead jazz gig or even a rock 'n' roll kind of thing, I can always think, "If I can't get so-and-so, I can find someone else." But with this band playing this music, there are no substitutes. If one of us couldn't do the gig, we'd have to cancel it.

Lyle recently described it as like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. There's a team who know what they are doing and have their individual roles. We all have areas in which we are good, and at this point, we have psyched out what they are. We shift very quickly and easily from one person to another being in charge.

Bonzai: Would you describe yourself as a tough boss?

Metheny: Yes, but only in the sense that I answer to the music itself, which is the toughest boss of all. For me, the music has always been the directive, and I've been lucky to get away with that as the directing force. I've never had to worry about how many records we sold or being on the charts. We've managed to carve out a little zone for ourselves within the music world that's unique and also completely based on what we play.

So, if there is any formula, it's been making the music sound as good as we can. For me, having been around the best musicians on the planet, if it's not happening, I'll be the first to talk about it. Many times it's my responsibility, and I am as tough on myself as I am on other people.

But as far as the group goes, it's not really an issue. What we have in common is an understanding of when the shit is happening and when it's not. When somebody new comes into the band, there is a long period of time where there is a lot of talking going on. When Paul Wertico joined, we would get together after every show for the first year and talk for two or three hours about every note that got played. Twelve years later, if I say five things to him during the course of a tour, that's a lot.

Bonzai: How do you compare the creative situation on the road and in the studio?

Metheny: The team that makes the albums has also been together for a long time, along with our engineer Rob Eaton. Our working process started when he was an assistant on First Circle when I was on ECM Records. He was about 22 then, and he's worked with us on every album since. He became our chief engineer on Still Life, Talking. The team that makes the records is Rob, myself, Lyle, Steve and also David Oakes, who is our production manager and front-of-house mixer when we tour, and the person I trust most in knowing the group's music and when I'm really playing as well as I should be.

The process starts with me writing a whole bunch of stuff to get the ideas going and set the direction. Then I get together with Lyle and Steve to really come up with the notes. It's unusual in the jazz world to spend the time in the studio working on things from a detail standpoint. It's more like what you would find in a pop production, even though our goals are different. Since Still Life, Talking, I've tried to make records that have a certain kind of detail and the capacity to be listened to over and over again, finding new things each time. There have been precedents to that in jazz production, but not a whole lot.

The contrast with going out on the road is like night and day. They are two completely different animals. Going on the road and playing gigs is definitely the most fun you can possibly have - you get this sense of immediate accomplishment, as opposed to sitting around in the studio wondering if there's enough reverb on the snare drum [Laughs].

Bonzai: How about computers and synthesizers - can you recap how you got involved with that technology and where it stands now?

Metheny: Within the jazz world, even now, there's a raging controversy about electric vs. acoustic, synthesizers or not, straight-ahead or fusion. None of these terms mean that much to me in terms of actual music. To me, what I've always loved about jazz as a form is that it was always the inclusive category. The musicians who have inspired me - people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Wes Montgomery, Paul Bley - what they all have in common is that they deal with whatever is happening in their world in a very immediate, spontaneous and creative way. My first musical act was to plug the guitar into the amp. Knobs and electricity, wires and cords are as natural to me as mouthpieces and reeds are to horn players.

Bonzai: Could you name a few pieces of gear in your rack?

Metheny: My main composition tool has always been the Synclavier. I've been a Synclavier guy from the very beginning of that company. My basic guitar rig has basically remained unchanged for about 15 years. I've started to update it, but it all revolves around an old Lexicon Prime Time, an MXR digital delay from about 1978, and a couple of amps.

I've recently started using this DigiTech 2101, the guitar preamp with a tube. I also use an old Roland guitar synth that came out in the late '70s that I really like - the GR-303. For me, gear is just stuff, and a guitar is something with some strings. The music is conceptual, and it's what you do with what you've got. In that sense, I really dig some of the things that happen in the alternative world, where somebody with not that much skill comes up with something very creative. I'm more interested in what people do with what they've got, rather than the gear they use.

Bonzai: What are your main guitar models?

Metheny: The main guitar I play is an old Gibson ES-175 that I got for a hundred bucks from this guy in Missouri when I was 13 years old. It was essentially my first guitar, and it still works great. That's the one I really like, and then I've got a million other guitars for particular needs. There's a fantastic guitar-maker in Canada named Linda Manzer, who made me a variety of special acoustic guitars. I've also worked with Ibanez for the last ten years to develop a PM model that's loosely based on the 175 but is an updated jazz guitar style that they will actually release.

Generally, I like guitars more after I've had them for a while. I encourage people to drop them and kick them around. New guitars have that uncomfortable five-year break-in period.

Bonzai: Did you have a guitar teacher when you were starting out?

Metheny: Well, I'm from this little town in Missouri called Lee's Summit, and unfortunately, we didn't exactly have any teachers out there. But when I was around 14, I started playing in Kansas City with the best players in town. They weren't guitar players - they were piano players, trumpets and drums, but those guys were really my teachers. I was fortunate to learn from playing with great older musicians. Whenever young guys ask me what they should do to get better, I always say try to be the worst guy in whatever band you're in. That's the secret.

Bonzai: Can we go back to your first recordings with ECM and Manfred Eicher?

Metheny: Manfred has produced 85 to 90 percent of all the groups that have come out of ECM, and he established its presence in the '70s and '80s when it became one of the most interesting jazz labels. I'll always hold him in high regard for giving me the opportunity to start recording when I was 19 years old with one of the premier jazz labels. I did 11 records there and basically the records from ECM are documentary records, as most jazz records are. You record for a day or two and mix for a day, and that's it. We recorded usually in Oslo, Norway, and Ludwigsberg, near Stuttgart in Germany. The engineer who worked with us in Oslo, Jan Erik Konshadt is great. Sonically, our thing and the ECM sound really fit together perfectly - a very clear sound, with some emphasis on cymbals and the high end of the kit. I was really proud to be part of that scene, part of that label.

Bonzai: Bob Curnow's L.A. Big Band recently released an album of your compositions which has stormed up the jazz charts. Is it a kick to hear a big band playing your music?

Metheny: Yes, it's very interesting and very flattering. It's kind of natural in that certainly one of the things that the group has increasingly got involved in over the years has been the sense of ensemble. Lyle and I have been concerned with the eternal quest of reconciling our improvisational interest with our compositional and arranging interests. The resuls is a bunch of tunes and an idea of what ensemble playing can be in jazz.

It does set up improvisation in a different way, and I can see how Mr. Curnow would be interested in expanding that to a big band vocabulary. Both Lyle and I have done a fair amount of big band writing over the years, and we kind of think like that anyway. There are certain aspects of our group that I have often compared to a big band in the sense that we often have an ensemble section or some kind of an orchestrated-out chorus or something, but we've always tried to do it using our own vocabulary. Certainly, there is a conceptual connection to writing for a large ensemble like a big band.

Bonzai: Did they do a good job?

Metheny: Yeah, and just the idea that they would even do it knocked me out. They got a lot of the spirit aspect of the music right, which might even be more important than the notes. Big band jazz at its best can be very exciting, but with any kind of ensemble-based music, there is always the capacity of it just to be notes, and I felt they got the vibe right. I have to admit I was really touched by the whole thing when I heard it. I didn't quite know what to expect, and I was a bit apprehensive, but when I finally heard it - yeah!

Bonzai: What's the story with your playing with Bruce Hornsby?

Metheny: I've spent so much time as a leader, as someone who dreams up ideas and then gets a bunch of people to help me make it happen. [With Bruce] I welcomed the opportunity of working with someone who has a strong musical vision - I liked the challenge of it, and also I try to come into a situation like that with a lot of sympathy for what the leader of the date is trying to achieve and also knowing for myself just how hard it is to make good records, just what they're up against. I think in a best-case scenario, when you hire someone like me who is also a bandleader and a person who makes his own records, too, you not only get their musical expertise but you get their understanding and feedback. I know I always enjoy it when some strong individual comes in and contributes to one of my dates. It's not something I do a whole lot because I'm very particular about who I play with.

Bonzai: Why did you choose to work with Hornsby?

Metheny: I love musicians who are strong individuals, people who have a real point of view about music. In pop music, I feel that Bruce is one of the best songwriters and best musicians in the world. When that first song of his came out, I couldn't believe that somebody actually got some chord changes on the radio. Somebody infiltrated the masses, you know? It seems that every four or five years, somebody manages to slip some stuff in there, but Bruce has consistently done it throughout his career. He really messes with the forms, but it's still pop music.

Pop music has become so conservative harmonically, and just in general. It's really rare to find people who are looking to expand the harmonic language of what a pop song can do, and Bruce is one of the guys trying to do just that. The first record I did with him, Harbor Lights, has one of the most challenging sets of chord changes I've ever had to play. It moves all over the place, and he gets five stars from me for trying to get that stuff in there. There is not enough of that going on now. When I think about Stevie Wonder or the Beatles, Milton Nascimento - that's great pop music. The same impetus that we have as jazz players trying to expand the form is present in that work. There is so much retro stuff, so many people looking over their shoulders at what happened in the '60s, the '70s. I dig it when I come across guys who say forget that - what can we do now that's different? I suppose someone might read this and say, god he's saying that about Bruce Hornsby? But, yes, I am saying that about Bruce, relative to hearing yet another E Minor/A Major guitar song. I'm shocked at the lack of imagination harmonically that exists in pop music - it makes me wonder if people are ever going to get tired of 2 and 4 on every single beat, and the usual progressions. It's the '90s - we should keep going.

Bonzai: Where do you live?

Metheny: I don't live anywhere. On my income tax statement, I am listed as Permanent Transient. When I have to be someplace, I go there, get a hotel and set up shop, and move on. I keep all my stuff in a warehouse. It's been like this for quite a while, which is kind of a weird way to live, but it works for me.

Bonzai: There's a signature in your music: the non-word, vocal element. What is the origin and influence?

Metheny: For me, it was a practical thing. I loved what we were doing with the group when we started, essentially a quartet of guitar, bass, piano and drums, but I always missed what we would get if we had a horn player, which is the element of breath in the music. There's something about having notes really sustain that are supported by breath. There's a certain quality that opens things up for me as a writer that you never get with a guitar because the note dies out after you hit it, unless it's an artificial thing like using distortion. Same with piano. Synthesizers for melodies are useful, but somehow it was never enough. I think this is true for both Lyle and myself. And when I looked around at the horn players out there, who I could conceivably have hired, I really couldn't find anybody. In terms of what the group was, and what we had been trying to develop as a sound, I couldn't find the answer.

Around that time, I ran into a guy named Pedro Aznar, a young Argentinian who is actually a bass player. He had this way of singing that was so beautiful - kind of inspired by Milton Nascimento and the Beatles. It became obvious to me that this woud be a possibility for getting that breath quality without it being the usual guitar/saxophone front line which existed in so much music. We tried it, and it worked.

It made me realize that when I write tunes, I am constantly singing. I think of myself as a singer even when I am playing the guitar. It's just that the notes don't really do that thing after you hit them. They go away. Yes, you're right, it's now become part of our ensemble sound that people identify with. We've alternated back and forth between using Pedro for a project and then using these two guys who have an American version of a similar sound, Mark Ledford and David Blamires, who have been doing it since Still Life.

Bonzai: What about your album Zero Tolerance for Silence [a '94 album of difficult, noisy free-form guitar improvs]? Were you surprised when this became such a smash hit? Just kidding?

Metheny: Well, generally, when I make a record, I usually have a pretty strong need to express a certain angle of music. It's like a hunger to hear a certain type of sound. The sound of that record is pretty much the sound that I carry around in my head 24 hours a day. Everything else is a distillation of that, and I realized I had never effectively documented the essential impulse of what I do musically. The first track is one of the top four or five things I've ever recorded. It captures a certain feeling and a way of expressing myself. It's hard for me to articulate this because it's really there on the record. Whatever I could say would be nothing compared with what that is.

Bonzai: Wasn't it quite a departure?

Metheny: That's what everybody says, but for me, music is music. I hear people divide my career into the straight-ahead thing, the group, etc. To me, I've been making one long record from the beginning. If there is any aspect of what I've done that I feel satisfied with and almost proud of, it's that. All the records are of this one piece. I'm not trying to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I guess it's a little unusual, but I don't think it is. I can think of a number of musicians in my same age group that have a similar idea of trying to find themselves musically, separate from style.

There is so much emphasis on style and the superficial aspects of what music is. To me, that's never been the way I've responded as a listener or as a player. I'm much more drawn to what's happening right underneath the surface. The spirit, especially the first track on that record, is absolutely in line with the other things that I've done.

Bonzai: It strikes me as a sonic sculpture rather than music in the usual sense.

Metheny: That's the way I think of all the stuff I've done. My main hero, in many ways, is the artist Paul Klee. There's a nice variety stylistically and texturally, and in the vibe of the paintings. But they all go together. One may be black with charcoal and lots of details, and the next one is very open, but they absolutely go together as a view of what his world was as an artist. I'm not trying to compare myself to Paul Klee or anybody else, because I'm nowhere near that level yet. I'm still working to get it together as a musician. That's what inspires me - the idea of looking at the world that I live in as a musician and expressing a larger picture of what I'm interested in over the course of a whole series of records.

Bonzai: How far along are you?

Metheny: Well, I'm not too far, and I just turned 40 this year. You'll never hear me complain about anything because I've been very lucky, especially being able to play with some of the best musicians in the world and having this great band that has lasted a long time. I get to play a lot - that's the luckiest thing of all. On the other hand, I wish I played a lot better. I still practice a lot and I spend pretty much every waking hour thinking about music in one way or another. You just can't speed up, you have to hang in there and live your life, and let the events of your life feed what you are as a musician. And try to enjoy it all while it's happening - that's pretty much what my groove is

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: October 14, 2001