Pat Metheny

Interview by Eric Magnusson and Alain Le Roux

Pat Metheny has been touring, playing, and recording for going on 25 years now, and yet he's harder to pin down, to categorize, than ever. He might wish that people would stop trying, but he also probably realizes they won't, for he's intriguing.

There's the Pat Metheny that fronts the Pat Metheny Group - that tours as many as 300 days a year - and sells out concert halls and outdoor arenas worldwide. Metheny once modestly attributed the group's success to touring and building a fan base. With all due respect, if it were that simple... No, the PMG group's music - a joyous mix of lush melodies, wordless vocals, electronic synthesizer sounds, pulsating rhythms, and Pat's guitar soaring over it all - has struck a chord with audiences all over the world. At a recent concert in Paris, fans brought the group back on stage for an encore number by chanting the tune the group had closed the show with. Hundreds of fans, all wordlessly singing, in right key even, the melody to an instrumental number. This kind of thing doesn't happen with instrumental music.

There's the guitarists' Pat Metheny - the guitarist that other guitar players will never be, for most will never want it as badly as he does. They marvel at that fluid legato technique, the seemingly effortless intervalic leaps, the shimmering chromatic runs, the ability to play chorus after chorus of pure melody, weaving in and outside of complex changes at speeds that make metronomes throw up their hands. That's the Pat Metheny that other jazz musicians want to have on their album - the Pat Metheny that records standards, and Coltrane tunes with the likes of Dave Holland, Roy Haynes, Mike Brecker, Charlie Haden and Kenny Garrett.

Then there's the cutting-edge Pat Metheny - the one who just loves to play the guitar in all kind of settings. The Pat Metheny who never seems to stop searching for new sounds and new approaches to making music, no matter where that might take him. The Pat Metheny who early on his career recorded with Ornette Coleman, and who in the last few years, recorded Zero Tolerance for Silence, and the recent Live at the Knitting Factory with Derek Bailey The Sign Of Four This is not easy music to listen to.

All three, in the person of Pat Metheny, were in Paris recently, promoting the PMG group's latest CD "Imaginary Day".

Le Jazz: Where is Pat Metheny today. You've been touring professionally for about 25 years. You've had a very successful career as a musician who plays instrumental music as opposed to a rock star where the emphasis is on the vocals. Where do you see yourself today? Where would you like to go? What are some of the things you haven't done yet that you'd like to do? What about upcoming projects in the next year or so?

Pat Metheny: Well, You're not going to hear me complaining about anything. I've been very lucky and have had a great life. I've been especially lucky in that I've been able to play music with some of my favorite musicians and in that I've been able to play in situations that are have continued to be challenging and stimulating. Just to be able to survive as a musician is something that I feel proud of. It's a difficult life, especially to be involved in creative music Be able to work, pay your rent, get new instruments and all the things that go with that successfully. When I look back on the whole thing up to now, I'm proud that there's been a lot of variety in it. That I've been able to do different things, been able to explore different avenues of my interest, that really reflect my interest in music as a fan. That's always been the guiding force for me - what kind of music do I really love. I've always tried to play music that reflected that, the fan in me. I'm always asking myself " Well, if I was listening to this, what would I like to hear?" And that's what I've always tried to play, not only on a larger scale, but on a minute by minute level. I really try to think of music in that way. As far as the future, hopefully I'll be able to continue to do that. The main thing for me that's satisfying is that I can play so much better than I could, even 10 years ago. I feel I'm on the verge of going to another plateau, because I feel as though you kind of go step by step, you get to a new level, you kind of hang there for a year or two and then you gradually work up to the next one. I feel like I'm on the verge of one of those in the next year or so. I'm working towards that.

Le Jazz: When you talk about going to another level? Can you articulate that? What is it you're not doing on guitar now that you'd like to be doing?

Pat: For me, the record I made with Charlie Haden last year the Beyond the Missouri Sky record was kind of a revelation. That record was very simple. And the exposed nature of that music allowed me a window into my own playing that I had never quite had. That kind of playing is the kind of playing I do all the time around the house - just when I'm picking up a guitar and playing it. Part of me didn't know that anyone would be interested in hearing anything that was that basic. With the success that that record has had, not only the commercial success, but the musical success of what that record represented to me, it's given me a chance to imagine more consideration of just the simple sound that I can get from a single guitar. I realize that I was kind of making progress in that area without even knowing it. That record just pointed it out to me in a more concrete way. That's the beginning of this next level I'm talking about.

Le Jazz: Let's talk about the PMG. You've got the new album out " Imaginary Day." You've been quoted as saying the group is home to me. It's the only place I can play the music I love.' After 20 some years together, is it still something you enjoy as much as you did when you started?

Pat: I enjoy it more now than when we first started. When we first started it was a giant leap into the unknown. It was incredibly risky to go into this world of going out on the road. We really didn't know each other that well. We had no money. We weren't going to be making any money. We had no audience. We were trying to play music that, at the time, though it seems kind of weird to think of if this way, was very radical. It didn't fit into any category at all.

Le Jazz: It still doesn't.

Pat: It still doesn't We're sort of still in our own category. Now, when we play gigs, people actually show up, which is great. There were a number of years there, when that wasn't a regular occurrence. And also, we have a shared vocabulary and a body of music that represents, in many ways, the best we have to give. The aesthetic values that the band represents are very high, and to have been a part of something that has grown so effectively is really rewarding. And the fact that I can play so much better makes it a lot of fun. In the early years, when the band first started and also the years before that when I was playing with Gary Burton, I wasn't real happy because I didn't play well, and I knew it. At the time I made my first record I'd only been playing the guitar for about five or six years. It was a constant battle for me to get out what I heard. It's still a struggle but I feel much more locked. What I imagine, and what comes out of the instrument are much closer that what they used to be. It makes the whole thing much more fun and I can sit back and enjoy it much more now.

Le Jazz: In another interview I read, you said that before going into the studio to do an album you took the time to think about what you really wanted to do with the album and how best to achieve that? What did you do want to do with this latest album? How does it differ from the one before that?

Pat: I think one of the things that people have always enjoyed about the group's music is the way we take single musical ideas and come up with pieces that let that idea develop over a fairly lengthy period of time. We have a lot of tunes that are in the 10 to 13 minute range. Some of those are our favorites to play and I think audiences really enjoy them too - like Are You Going With Me, First Circle or San Lorenzo. We've always kind of gravitated towards that longer length because we like to develop things. With Imaginary Day, we wanted to have a bunch of those kinds of tunes, but also to try to think of the whole record itself as one of those kinds of tunes so that it was almost a narrative shape within itself, from the beginning of the record to the end. Yet at the same time, I think that very early on in the writing process, without it really being said, Lyle and I really upped the ante a little bit. What we were going to achieve with the actual notes that we put on the page that would make up the tunes. That involved using what, were for us, some new instruments, like the 42 string guitar and the fretless guitar and that sort of thing, as well as some stuff in the orchestration of the band and kind of the way we approached the whole thing musically that were pretty significant changes for us. All of that together I think makes Imaginary Day stand apart from the other records we've done.

Le Jazz: You mentioned the new instruments in the band. Linda Manzer did the 42 string guitar. I've never seen a 42 string guitar. How does it work?

Pat: Linda has her own website []. About 20 years ago, I had this idea that I wanted a guitar, that was basically a six string guitar but that had lots and lots of strings around it that I could either tune or grab as individual notes to make different sounds. I tried to get a guy to make it for me at the time. He told me it was impossible. Starting in the middle 80s I developed a relationship with Linda Manzer who's a fantastic guitar maker in Canada. I started out by buying one of her very simple six string guitars that I totally loved and then started asking her to make different instruments for me with different sound qualities. And the ultimate request on my part came in the form of me taking a piece of paper one night after a gig and drawing this idea I had which was kind of a continuation of this early idea. I asked " Could you make me something like this?" She thought about if for awhile and a couple of weeks later sent me a design - " What about this - would you like something like this? and that was the design for the original Pikasso. I actually got the instrument about 10 years ago and it's taken me basically this long to figure out how to tune it, because with 42 different strings you can approach it a lot of different ways. These strings can be high - these strings can be low. There are no rules."

Le Jazz: Are all the strings parallel?

Pat: Some of them cross, but there is a parallel angle you can get where you can kind of get to all of them. There's one spot where they cross. About 3 years ago, I finally settled on a tuning and on the new album there's a track " Into the Dream" that's a solo guitar piece for that instrument that really showcases what that ax can do.

Le Jazz: What about the sitar guitar? Does it have a scalloped fretboard as an Indian sitar?

Pat: No. The sitar guitar is basically an acoustic version of the electric sitar guitar, that everyone has heard, that's been on a million on a million Motown hits and I featured that instrument prominently on one of my tunes " Last Train Home" The acoustic sitar guitar which is heard a little bit on Imaginary Day but which is featured on the tune on the Charlie Haden record, Tears of Rain, is basically the same principle, a bridge that sort of buzzes, that gives it this sitar like quality.

Le Jazz: It seems that you're appearing more and more often now as a sideman on other people's records - with Joshua Redman, Michael Brecker's album " Tales from the Hudson," the Kenny Garrett album paying homage to Coltrane. Is this a question of being better known so that you're receiving more offers or whether you decided you wanted to play music more like the music you grew up playing, first were attracted to?

Pat: Basically I said No to everything from 1977 to 1987, because I was so involved in developing my own approach to my band and my own way of playing. I felt like being on a lot of other people's records would water that down slightly and also could confuse the issue a little because I really wanted to develop this way of playing and this sound. I think once I felt that I had sort of done that, I realized I missed the feeling of being a sideman. I have always enjoyed being a sideman. I like the idea of helping someone else realize their musical ideas. People w ere always asking me and I was always saying " No, no I can't do it. Finally I started saying to myself, '" I would probably learn a lot from this. I know I'd have a lot of fun. I should start picking a few." I started to do a few gradually and still it was always hard for me schedule-wise because I'm on the road as much as 300 days a year, so I'm not really around to do that much anyway. Over the lasts 3 years especially, there's been a cluster of these. There was a little break in the touring and I sort of said to everybody that had been asking " 95, 96 and 97 I'm going to be around a lot more, so now is the time if you want to do it. I did a whole bunch of them. A couple haven't any come out yet. There's one I did last year with Dave Liebman, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart. Another I did late last year is Gary Burton's new record with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes. Jim Hall and I are planning a duet record that will come out early next year. We haven't recorded that yet. And I also played on one tune on Jim's newest record that will be coming out soon, that's an all-orchestral record with a different soloist on each track. I did the Marc Johnson " The Sound of Summer Running" record that just came out a little while ago.

Le Jazz: In the liner notes to the Question and Answer album, you said something like there was no point in playing All The Things You Are for the 100,000th time unless you had something unique to bring to it. Obviously you felt you did. I was wondering if that was also one of the reasons you were going back and playing that kind of material.

Pat: To a certain degree that's true. I probably could have been making records of standards all along. I had an offer to do a record of standards when I was 17 years old. Thank God I didn't do it. That's the music I've played the longest, the music I feel I know the best. Its funny because that's the least represented on my own records. Also, I always felt as though I'd probably only get to make a couple of records and that I'd better use the opportunity to try and play and develop my own music. As it's turned out, I've been able to make a whole bunch of records so I wouldn't be surprised if in the next couple of years I made a record that does have more of s standard kind of focus to it. I love playing that way.

Le Jazz: A general question about the way you compose. Do you begin first with the melody or with the chord progression? Do you use paper and pen, or a computer etc.?

Pat: I've done things in so many different ways. Anything you have to do is fair. I've retuned guitars. I've used computers, I've used piano, I've used nothing at all. I've written things down, I've not written them down. Anything. Whatever I can do. Generally, though I sit at a piano with a piece of paper and pencil and write music. Sometimes at a computer based keyboard of some kind. That's 60 percent of the time. 30 percent of the time, it's with a guitar or some kind of a string instrument that I can use to come up with a weird sound. The other 10 percent of the time is kind of the X factor, which is either with nothing - I have on occasion written things away from any instrument. I've sometimes gotten useful stuff from that - or some weird combination - drum set or bass, or something like that.

Le Jazz: Do you write with musicians in mind or for yourself?

Pat: When I write for my own group, I'm thinking of the players, because one of the big pluses of having a band for so long is I really knows those guys' personalities. I know what they sound like. I know what they can do, and also what they can't do. That gives me some really clear parameters to write for. Sometimes you just write a tune. You don't even know what it's for. You just hear the song and come up with it.

Le Jazz: It seems that the recent generation of guitarists who have come to prominence like Mark Whitfield and Russell Malone have not absorbed what you and John Scofield and John Abercrombie have developed. Rather, they've looked to an earlier generation - Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burell and players like that. Do you think this is the case, and do you think it might be representative of how conservative jazz is at this particular time? Are there any guitarists who aren't doing that?

Pat: I think there has always been a whole bunch of guitar players that stuck to the mainstream. It's almost like a weird cult or something. These guys who play these big jazz guitars and listen to nothing but Joe Pass and Barney Kessell, Pat Martino and early George Benson. They all sound a little bit like that. I grew up loving Wes Montgomery. I loved him so much I thought it would be disrespectful to sound like him. He really developed a way of playing that was so personal, that it was his. It's such and incredibly beautiful sound and so inspiring and it feels great to play like that. I could do a great West Montgomery impression even when I was 14 or 15 years old. The thing of playing octaves and playing with your thumb is just incredibly appealing. And it's a beautiful sound. For me, that really wasn't an option. It didn't make sense to me to try and adopt somebody else's thing. It always seemed to me that the whole point was to try and come up with something that was your own. Also, the generic jazz guitar thing was never really that successful within the jazz sound anyway. None of the guys that really, and I consider Wes and Jim Hall exceptions to this, and maybe Kenny Burrell, but for a lot of the other guys, and I think we both know what we're talking about, it never really worked on an equal level with the horn players. There's some sonic reasons for it, andsome phrasing reasons, and some time reasons for it. So to see people who are really devoted to that, though I'm all for people being interested in whatever they're interested in, and I support it, it's just that when I hear that generic jazz guitar thing, I tend to lose a little interest, because I know what that is. I've heard that from the real guys that did it, a bunch of times.

I tend to be more interested in hearing guys who want to mess around with things a little bit. In that group Kurt Rosenwinkel comes to mind. There's a young guy who's kind of exploring some different stuff. But you mention Mark Whitfield and Russell Malone. Those are both guys that I admire. Mark Whitfield gets a beautiful sound on the instrument. And he's also somebody that has really improved. When he first came on the scene, he had some problems. But the last few times I've heard him, he's five or six times better than he was even a couple of years ago. He's really improved. And that's one thing that bothers me a little bit about the jazz world. Sometimes you come on the scene and you're marked for life. It's like 'O.K I know what that is'. Even in my case. I mean the difference between the way I played when I first started making records and the way I play now is light years difference. I play much better now. For certain people, it's ' I am this or that.' I think it's O.K for people to come on the scene and sound like this or that, because they're going to change. They're going to turn into something else. I welcome the fact that t there are so many great players that are sophisticated enough to be able to play on changes and deal with the basics of bebop, which is a fairly substantial task in itself. I have faith that out of the group will come a certain number who will eventually say ' yeah, but...' and then they'll be on the road. I agree that there aren't too many guitar players right now like that and I admit to a slight concern. It's been a long long time since there' s been a new guitar player that's made a dent. I mean the last one was Bill Frisell, who chronologically came along about ten years after I did. Bill is 4 years older than I am. And even John Scofield made his real impact six or seven or eight years after I did, and he's five years older than I am. I mean, it's like all of us are in our forties now. I keep thinking we're way overdue for someone to hit it. It could happen overnight, like Josh Redman just came out of nowhere. Maybe there will be a guitar player like that.

Le Jazz: Back to the PMG. You've attributed the band's popularity to the fact that you tour so much. The fan base is there. But other groups that play instrumental music like the Yellow Jackets and even Spyro Gyra aren't as popular. Is there something inherent in your music that accounts for the popularity?

Pat: It's hard for me to compare our band to those bands because I think what we aspire to is so wildly different from what they're looking to do. Honestly, and I think most people would agree, we're in our own category. There's really nothing like it. That makes life a little hard for us some time. For people like you, who know, it's great and for our audience, but we cause a lot of confusion. Some people see us like those bands, or wish we were like those bands. And we're just not. There are these stations in the States that play artists like those guys . They try to play our music, they want to play our music, because we come to their town and we draw thousands of people. Sometimes they even do weird stuff, like cut out all the improvised stuff, so they can have just the melodies or whatever and it's a drag when they do it and I actually prefer that they don't play it at all. I'm probably one of the few artists that goes around asking radio stations not to play their music What ends up happening is you get all kinds of people who listen to those kinds of bands who come to our concert and they're in shock. They're not used to hearing people play as hard as we do. Our stuff is very intense. It kind of scares those people. So it would be better for everybody if we weren't talked about in the same phrase with those bands. Our thing is really hard to categorize. The common issue is electricity. And that's about it.

Le Jazz: As much as you enjoy it, do you ever feel restrained by the group. Are there certain limitations to the group? You're known for, among other things, this incredible range of tastes. You can play something like you did with Derek Bailey at the Knitting Factory and then something like you did with Charlie Haden on Beyond the Missouri Sky.

Pat: The question is a good one - like is there a limit to the group? Of course there is, and that's fine. There are thing that I like to do separate from the group - the group is not the most appropriate place to do them. There are things that Steve Rodby does that are best done outside the group. Our group vocabulary has continued to increase. The group is the largest umbrella for any of the different situations I'm in. If I go play concerts with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes, that has limits too. There are many things the group can do that I could never do with that band. You mention Derek. Every situation has its own vocabulary. The group is sort of the widest vocabulary. The interests that we share overlap in some odd places that creates this pretty wide palette of things.

Le Jazz: Last question. Do you have some recording projects as a leader?

Pat: I'm starting to think about what I'm going to do next. I don't have it yet. We probably won't do another group record for a little while. We're hitting it pretty hard as far as touring. I know Lyle wants to make a record. As well he should. It's been a number of years since he's made his own record. That will probably be the next release.

source: Le Jazz