Pat Metheny

in and out the Comfort Zone

"To me, stepping out of the comfort zone is what jazz is all about," says Pat Metheny. "For all the talk these days about what jazz is and isn't, a lot of people miss the point of what we're supposed to be doing, which is to manifest who we are at this time through improvisation and through composition."

"And the best environment for that is one that makes you look at who you are as a musician, and in what way you can manifest that individuality into sound-specifically as an improviser. So whenever I can play with people who are really interested in that, I run to it, because to me that's like food."It's been exactly twenty years since Pat Metheny began his recording career with Bright Size Life, a rowdy little trio romp with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses, and he's spent most of his time since stepping in and out of the comfort zone. And yet through it all, best-selling albums and tours with the Pat Metheny Group, serious jazz dates with the likes of Dave Holland, Ornette Coleman, Joshua Redmond and Charlie Haden, and even compositional excursions into film soundtracks and his 1992 solo album jewel, Secret Story, Metheny's guitar voice has always been unique. Across a crowded room of jazz guitarists, his playing has always been recognizable, both in its technical excellence and in its unmistakable voice.

In 1980 he picked up the Roland SR-300 guitar synth
and still hasn't put it down...

"It's funny," he smiles, "there was a time when I was pretty aware of that, because my heroes are people like Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, all of whom have that quality. And I thought that would be a good thing to have happen. On the other hand, I honestly have to admit that a lot of the way I play is just the way I play. Even if I wanted to sound like John McLaughlin at any point in my life, I couldn't. No matter what I did, it always came out sounding like the way I sound."

One of the things that has made Metheny's sound unique is his attitude toward guitar synthesis. In 1980 he picked up the Roland GR-300 guitar synth and still hasn't put it down-although now that he's had the Roland VG-8 V-Guitar System for the past nine months, that could change. "I have no fear of technology," he shrugs, "I never have. To me it's been a natural part of my life as a guitar player. This thing of the amps and the cords and the knobs is almost second-nature to me. It's not an add-on, it's part of it. And the choices that you make about these issues are largely defining characteristics of what you sound like."

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Metheny, as he always seems to be, is busy right now. How busy? "I'm really at the point where I'd love to go back out on the road just to get some rest," he laughs. "These past seven weeks have been amazing." Having spent around 200 days on the road in 1995 with the Pat Metheny Group (a live video taped in Japan is forthcoming), he plunged into a quintet album for Tony Williams with fellow guests Michael Brecker, Stanley Clark and Herbie Hancock. Then it was on to a John Coltrane tribute album for altoist Kenny Garrett, followed by a soundtrack for a new film ("a nine-week project I had to do in three weeks") from the production company which did Cinema Paradiso, one of Pat's favorite movies. And he's just started on Michael Brecker's new album, another quintet with McCoy Tyner, Jack DeJohnnette and Dave Holland. An embarrassment of riches, he readily admits: "I've been real lucky, actually. I mean, to any jazz guy, playing with Herbie and Tony Williams is like playing with two of the Beatles, them being of the famous Miles (Davis) Quintet."

In the full maturity of his career, Metheny has mastered
the chicken-or-egg myteries of how to play jazz
without worrying about the form.

They're coming to Metheny not as mentors, but as peers. In the full maturity of his career, Metheny has mastered the chicken-or-egg mysteries of how to play jazz form without worrying about the form. On the liner notes to the 1990 Roy Haynes trio album Question and Answer, Metheny said about Dave Holland, "He gives you enough information so that as a listener you can figure out what's going on harmonically, but at the same time is totally independent, a free spirit." That could easily describe Metheny's playing as well. "That's a quality I admire in all my favorite players," he nods. "They all have that exact thing, from Paul Bley to Joe Henderson, Gary Burton, Lyle (Mays) in his way, Regardless of the style, almost all my heroes have the ability to. . . it's almost like creating an illusion of something that's there but isn't really there. So that is a goal for me."

Paying Dues To The 'I Suck' Club

What are some of the mental techniques Metheny uses to prepare for jazz improvisation, besides the obvious things like warming up? "Well, I have some weird ones," he smiles. "One for me is to not eat. I can always concentrate better if I'm really hungry, so if I have an important gig, sometimes I don't eat for a day or two before. Like for the Brecker thing, I was consciously trying not to eat."

Did that lead Pat to start calling him "Michael Breakfast"? "Funny that you mention that," he laughs. "We did talk about calling him Michael Breakfast! But for me a lot of it is also that as you get older, you're just more calm about things. More and more I just accept what it is I play. It used to be I was a member in good standing of the 'I suck' club. And to a certain degree I still am."

"I'm very very critical, not only of myself, but of everything," Metheny continues. "To me there's very little that I can hear and just say, 'Oh yeah, that's fine.' Whether it's me or anybody else, I usually think, 'Yeah, that's good but it would be better if'"

"I had an experience with a ballad I wrote on this Tony Williams project. I knew that, like it is with most of those high-level guys, it's usualy one or two takes. And when we did the tune, and I played what I thought was just the worst possible solo. I thought I was stepping all over everything. Then Brecker came in after me and played this letter-perfect, historic solo. So I knew that was it, and when we finished the take everybody said, 'That's it,' and I was like, 'Oohhh, I blew it.' And so I really didn't even listen to the playback. "About a week later, I listened to it, and it's probably the best solo I've ever gotten on a record. I had no idea at the time, because there were one or two chords where Herbie plays like a flat-9 and I play a natural-9, for a micro-millisecond. And somehow I got it in my brain that I had stepped over, but it's literally not being able to see the forest for the trees. In a way that's good, because you've got other things on your mind, which in a tune like that, or like Brecker's tunes, is hard. There's not many people who can even play on those changes, period, let alone say something on them."

This broaches the subject of jazz elitism. At what point does Pat think a sense of discrimination, making judgements what's good and bad, crosses into jazz snobbery? "Well, I've been more than a jazz snob at several points in my life-largely when I was really young," Metheny replies. "From the time I was fifteen 'till I was maybe eighteen or nineteen, I went through a heavy-duty period where the only thing that really existed was Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Clifford Brown, etc. etc. And honestly, it's so hard to learn how to play that music, particularly to deal with the Coltrane vocabulary, I don't know how anyone could ever get it together without total immersion into it for two or three or four years of their lives. You kind of have to become a jazz snob at some point or else it's just never really going to sound that good."

Collage and Composition

Metheny began making his mark as a jazz composer with Bright Size Life: "I really felt like I should try to do a record that was about composition," he recalls, "that had a specific feeling, a way of playing through changes with a sense of melody that hopefully transcended one style."

Then he met keyboardist Lyle Mays, who first appeared on 1977's Watercolors. By 1984's acclaimed First Circle, Mays had become Metheny's writing partner and a member of his group. "Because of circumstances sightly out of my control, I became a bandleader," Metheny explains. "At that time, there really weren't any other places for me to go. The only other sideman gigs I could have done were playing with Stan Getz, Jack DeJohnette, or Elvin (Jones). And those were the only jazz guitar gigs that were out there. So for what I wanted to do, the only thing I could do was start my own band. Once I did that, I had guys in the band who were great players but had a real specific area that they could play in. So I started writing music for that, naturally."

Often writing in tandem with keyboardist Lyle Mays, Metheny has composed virtually all the the Pat Metheny Group repertoire. He doesn't see jazz composition as divorced from jazz improvisation: "To me, jazz is much more a process than it is a thing. So even if I'm doing this film score, which is basically an orchestral score, I still think of it as jazz. Essentially the process of even composition is improvisation. Yes, there are differences, but the fundamental issues that you bring to the table are the same." How does he approach the writing process? "Generally what I do is I get a whole bunch of stuff together," Pat shrugs, "different kinds of things, and then I try to piece them together into something."

This sounds exactly like the collages that have been a consistent trademark of Metheny album art. These intricate, wry assemblages are usually uncredited-does Metheny himself do most of them? "Yeah, I do," he smiles, "and musically I do think that way a lot. I like to take found materials and sort of mix them up and find a cool way for them all to go together. I also like to create things of my own from scratch, and these become part of the collage as well. Everybody has their own way of doing it. In my case, whatever weird circumstances have lined up to get me into something, once I find that doorway into an idea, I can usually come up with something. Just getting started, finding the doorway is always the hardest part."

Some of Metheny's most memorable compositional work is found on 1992's Secret Story solo album, a massive, orchestrally-assisted work that sprung from a doomed transcontinental love affair. While some of Metheny's compositional work has functioned as soundtracks, this album feels more like an actual movie. "Yeah, that's probably my favorite record of all my own records," Metheny nods. "I mean, there's fifteen years worth of all kinds of stuff that was poured into that record, and it's hard for me to even describe what-all is in there, but that one was a big chunk of work for me."

"I always saw that record as the ark of a romance, from the beginning to the end, sort of the way it goes. And it is that, but as I get more distant from it, it's actually broader than that. And one of the things I like about it is the reaction I've gotten from people, in the form of letters and all that. For me, the best music offers people the possibility of looking into it and finding things that are about themselves, and that record seems to do that for a lot of people. I had a model of the whole record before I even went in the studio or anything, and it's very dense. There's a lot of layers of activity through it, in terms of orchestration and soloing and sounds and percussion and everything all together."

Still SR-300 After All These Years

One of the oldest sounds in Metheny's sonic collage is the Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer. Metheny debuted it on 1980's OffRamp, and used it on his familiar "Are You Going with Me?" To Pat, it's just one more material: "I'm essentially like a sax player who plays tenor, soprano and a little bit of flute, which is very common. For me, here's four: electric guitar, nylon and steel acoustic guitars, and guitar synth. And since 1980, I've had basically this one sound that comes from the Roland GR-300. I've used that sound, right from that blue box, in a variety of contexts. It's a technology that Roland kind of abandoned very shortly afterwards, although they've picked up something somewhat similar to it now with the VG-8."

"But to me the GR-300 was the first and, for a long time, only guitar synth that had a musical quality to it. Every little nuance and detail of what you did came out through the instrument, in terms of touch, attack, dynamics, etc. And this was because it had nothing to do with MIDI."

"Honestly, I have a museum of guitar synthesis," Pat smiles ruefully. "I have every single one that anybody has every tried, from the Patch 2000 in about 1974, right up through the VG-8 (although the VG-8 uses technology that is very different than a guitar synthesizer -Ed.). So I know all the little nooks and crannies of how it went, and the only one that really worked as a musical instrument for me was the GR-300. It actually used the string as the oscillator, which is, of course, what has to happen. It's pretty logical when you sit down and think about it. You're playing the string-you don't want something counting the string, you want the string itself to actually do it. And that's why the VG-8 is so great." But in a band with a good keyboard synthesizer soloist like Lyle Mays, what does a guitar synth add that isn't already there? "I would disagree with that," Metheny counters, "The sound of the GR-300 is a very specific sound that really has very little to do with a keyboard synth or a horn. It's something that's very unique to a guitar, in terms of the way the notes are attacked-particularly the intonation of the attack, the front end of the note."

"With a guitar, when you hit the note it doesn't exactly go right on to a pitch," he elaborates. "It sort of warbles around for a second and then lands on a pitch, because the string is being bent at the point that you attack it, and also the fret itself usually is a little bit sharp or flat. That's what makes a guitar sound like a guitar, and why whenever you hear the 'guitar' patch on any synth, it doesn't ever sound remotely like a guitar when you play any notes. So whenever I hear people describe the GR-300 sound that I use as something that could be played by somebody else, I have to say, 'Well, then you haven't really listened to it that closely, because no other instrument does that exact thing.' Metheny adds that Lyle Mays rarely takes synth solos: "Actually, this is another myth. We only have one tune that Lyle has ever played a synth solo on: 'Are You Going with Me?' On everything else, he's played all his solos on acoustic piano." So if we hear a synthesizer solo on a group album...? "It's me."

Metheny definitely plans to continue using the GR-300: "I found a sound that I could use, and I've spent almost fifteen years now working on that sound, which to me is the natural way to go. You have to really live with a sound and let it become part of you for a long time in order for it to have some meaning and resonance. If you're going to use any kind of synth as a lead voice-which to me is a very suspect activity in the first place-you have to learn everything about the sound. I'm still working on it, and I expect to work on it for the next 20 or 30 years."

The VG-8, A Personal Computer For The Guitar

Metheny's commitment to the GR-300 is now being tested by the Roland VG-8 V-Guitar system, which he's had for much of 1995. What are his first impressions? "Well, the VG-8 was really the first thing I'd heard since the 300 that got me really excited," Metheny says, "because it sounded like a musical instrument. There wasn't a trick. I've had it for about nine months and I'm still working on it and learning it, but it's an incredible breakthrough. It really takes what the 300 was and takes it to a different zone. "To me it's like a tool box. It allows you to take a bunch of materials and string them together and make up your own version of things. Actually for me the most interesting aspect of it will be the experimental aspect of it, the way of retuning strings."

Which Metheny used to do a lot earlier in his careerä "Yeah! And this is an aspect of it that to me is really exciting, because it makes it kind of a personal computer for guitar. But it's using the guitar, it's not just an attachment to the guitar. It's something I can really get behind. It's a beautiful instrument, because it interfaces with humanity. It interfaces with what we do as guitar players, it doesn't force us to do unnatural things in order to talk to this foreign object. It sort of invites us into its world using the gestures that we already use anyway."

Metheny reports that he's used the VG-8 with no problems at all on his old stalwart Gibson ES-175 hollow-body jazz guitar, as well as a similar new guitar he's introducing under the Ibanez nameplate. "It works fine on the '175," he notes. "That whole thing about converters only working on solid bodies even in the old days was always pretty suspect. All those things worked fine on the '175, even the old crumby ones that they said wouldn't work on anything but a solid body."

Metheny sees some unique uses for the VG-8, but as a keyboard player himself, does he see using it replacing his traditional trio of writing tools: piano, keyboard synth and guitar? "No, I feel much more comfortable doing those kinds of things on a keyboard. It's more logical and a little more simple for me. I do find myself in situations where if I'm in a band where there's no keyboards and the guitar has to do other stuff, the VG-8 is going to be really great. I'm still woodshedding with it, figuring it out. I expect it's going to have a real large place in the next (Pat Metheny) Group record. "It's completely perfect for me," he adds. "It's exactly what I've been waiting for, because it's musical. It's easy to imagine a hundred different ways of using it in the context of my band."

Giant Steps

Metheny's "museum of guitar synthesis" provides a clue to his attitude towards digital musical technology: try everything but only use what works. And until recently, not much new equipment has tempted him to throw away his Synclavier. "I basically feel that most stuff sucks," he says. "There was a time when it was just horrible, the basic tone that you could get out of these things, that real 8-bit grainy kind of sound. Even at 16-bit, the basic tones weren't that good. But that's all changing. The technology has continued to advance at incredible, giant steps. The essential sounds, the basic waveforms, have gotten so much better and so much more musical in the last couple of years."

"The Synclavier has always been my primary pallette of sounds, things that I've accumulated over the years. But for this new soundtrack I just finished, I really felt like I needed to supplement and modernize all that. So I went down to the music store with $5000 in my pocket looking to buy five or six sound modules, and the sales guy showed me this Roland JV-1080, which I'd heard about from Herbie Hancock. I tried it out, and it just blew my mind! It has 64 voices, incredibly great sounds and you can buy these expansion cards for more sounds. So I said, 'Okay, how much,' thinking I would need six grand, and the guy said, 'About one quarter of that and the card is another quarter of that.' So I bought one and took it home. It took me two hours just to go through all the sounds, and each one was great, especially when I combined them with the Synclav. The JV-1080 has just got so much more bottom than what you're used to hearing from most synths. So I went back the next day and bought another one."

source: Roland
maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: August 3, 2001