By John Shore
Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, 43, has won nine Grammy awards and been nominated for ten others. And that doesn't begin to indicate the reverence with which he is held by musicians around the world. In 21 years he has recorded 23 albums; collaborated on countless others with seemingly anyone who has ever meant anything in contemporary American jazz; scored 14 films; taught guitar and almost singlehandedly defined the genre of "fusion" jazz. In short, he has effectively changed the way guitarists think about their instruments. On Feb. 12, the Pat Metheny Group (which, in addition to Metheny, includes keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassist Steve Rodby and drummer Paul Wertico) will play at the Spreckles Theatre as part of the world tour in support of Imaginary Day, its twelfth CD. Metheny recently spoke about his new album, the rigors of the road and why Japan is the scariest place in the world to play.
John Shore: How does Imaginary Day fit into the context of your work as a whole?
Pat Metheny: It's a record we're all real proud of, because with this recording we upped the ante a little bit in terms of complexity. It was and is a very challenging bunch of tunes to play. Some of them are just physically hard—like the fifth cut on the album, "Heat of the Day." It's just demanding. Yet, at the same time, the challenge for all of us in the band has been to reconcile all these fairly disparate elements—that in fact we've always felt comfortable drawing from—into our group "sound," into the voice of our band. We kind of stretched our reach considerably on this record. The range of things that are alluded to within it run the gamut of things, stylistically. But I think what we're most proud of is that pretty much from the beginning to end, it sounds like us — there's that stamp or whatever it is that makes our stuff sound like whatever it is we sound like.
John Shore: Like so many of your recordings, Imaginary Day seems to have a real panoramic, "traveling" kind of feel to it.
Pat Metheny: Travel is a metaphor that often arises when describing our music. And the reason behind that is that most of us have been traveling from when we were in our late teens until now, when we're in our early forties. It's natural that that sense of motion and movement and travel finds its way into the music, because that is in fact the fabric of our lives.
John Shore: After the American leg of this tour you go onto Japan and Southeast Asia, and then onto Europe. Are there differences between audiences of different countries?
Pat Metheny: Oh, yeah. They have sometimes drastic differences. It's real interesting. You know, if you're a touring musician you get this weird glimpse of the state of the world that very few people get to experience. In the course of a year we'll do about two hundred gigs, literally all over the planet. And it's really interesting to get this sort of snapshot of the world's vibe by the way the world in general responds to a set of tunes. Because we're an instrumental band, we don't have any language barrier — people in Russia will be hearing it the same way as people in Pittsburgh. And it's amazing how universal music is. It's a cliché at this point, but it's really true. The things that people respond to in Hong Kong are the same things that people respond to in Edmonton.
It's great. But it's also weird, because at the same time they have really different ways of responding. In Japan, they're very quiet, almost reverential. They won't even look you in the eye while you're playing—to the point where you don't even know if your bombing. But at the end of the show, they freak out in a way like I've never seen anywhere else. I mean, the only time I've ever felt in physical danger on stage is in Japan.
On the other hand, places like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Portugal… they're pretty much wild right from the beginning and continue to get wilder and wilder as the night goes on. Especially in Italy, which is where we've probably had our most success. It's sort of a cult thing there—we're like the Cure, or something like that. We'll play in five, six thousand seat places; people will show up several hours before the concert, and start singing all the tunes. So by the time we get out there, they've whipped themselves into this total hysteria that's sometimes kind of daunting to keep going. Because a lot of our stuff is very subtle. It's not scream and shout, like rock 'n' roll — it's like, "Okay, we're gonna get real quiet here." But they get all of that, and that makes it one of the most satisfying places for us to play.
John Shore: What's it like to improvise three hours a night, night after night, for three months? Does it get easier in the course of a tour or harder?
Pat Metheny: It never gets easier because it is hard. It requires, for me, pretty much a constant effort to keep my attention really deeply involved in the music, and that goes for the 21 hours I'm off the bandstand, as well as for the three on it. On the other hand, it's the most fun I can imagine.
John Shore: Yeah?
Pat Metheny: It really is. I think it must be the same for anybody who becomes an expert at something, whether it's a refrigerator repairman or a car mechanic. And I've always felt like being a jazz musician is more like a service industry than anything else. Every night there's a different set of problems, and you have a different story you want to tell. And when you get to the point where you're fluid enough with the language to be able to at will launch off in a different direction in order to tell that story—and know that you're going to be able to pull it off—it's very exciting. I love it.
John Shore: Do you ever fear, or in the course of your career have you ever felt, that you're going to run out of artistic gas?
Pat Metheny: Well, you definitely go through different stages, there's no question about that. Some periods—be it a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade—you're playing better, or coming up with cooler ideas, than others. You know? But to me, the process of it is the most exciting part of the whole thing. And like—well, more than a lot of things—music is this sort of illusive thing anyways: you can't taste it, you can't smell it, you can't touch it—it's already weird. Before you do anything, it's already like, "What is it?" So it requires a certain kind of sensitivity to music, and to the illusive nature of it, to stay close to it. It's a real challenge. It's kind of its own thing.
John Shore: How do you respond to the criticism that your music is just that: too smooth, too bland. I recently read one critic who said your music shouldn't be called "fusion," but, rather, "fuzak."
Pat Metheny: You know, I hate to say it because it sounds almost like a snotty backlash, but when I hear stuff like that, it's usually a quick indicator to me that the person doesn't really know anything about music. It's unfortunate. But whenever I hear people who come up with sort of glib responses to complex issues—whether its about music or food or politics or anything else—my suspicions are raised. Because things are almost always not as simple as they seem, you know? Particularly when you're talking about attempts to file music into idiomatic zones. That's always a dangerous business.
John Shore: Your music is difficult to easily dismiss. It's so very dense, and complex.
Pat Metheny: It really is. And in our case, I've never heard any serious critical argument to defend any of those things you were talking about. In fact, lots of time people use us as a defense for the possibility of using electric instruments combined with acoustic instruments, or as a defense for "fusion," or "New Age," music—which are both terms that came way after we were doing what we had been doing for a long time anyway. I never felt any connection with either term. The music ultimately speaks for itself. It's great that we live in an era of recordings, because I think that anybody who's really just looking for music will find the answer to whatever questions they have on our records.
John Shore: So the music you make is really your response to a sort of internal, organic imperative — you hear it in your head, put it forth into the world, and then people either like it or they don't.
Pat Metheny: Yeah. And to tell you the truth, the part about whether people like it or not is something that besides having no control over, I have very little interest in. I've always felt like our only responsibility is to try to manifest into sound the things that we've found to be true. And I think once any musician starts wondering about, "Oh, how is this going to be received in the world?" they've crossed a line that's very difficult to ever return from. Because then you're guessing. You know: "What does that guy in the third row think? What is this record company gonna' think of that? What is this critic gonna' think?" Once you give the power over to somebody else, you've lost a very important part of what probably made you a musician in the first place.
John Shore: Do you see that happening very often?
Pat Metheny: I really do. It's unfortunate, but, especially in the pop and rock world, so many people become musicians not for the music, but for the things that surround the music. It's almost become something now that within our culture has become acceptable — making music's become acceptable as a means of escaping from something, or as an employment opportunity, or something like that. Those musicians and those musics tend not to have much lasting value. You can kind of smell this thing when people are playing music that they have to play or they're going to die.
John Shore: Because of what it means to them on a fundamental level?
Pat Metheny: Exactly. It's real obvious when you listen to it whether that quality is there or not. I mean, there have been some great musical moments made under the guise of commercial music, but usually there's somebody involved somewhere along that process who secretly has this passion to make music that sounds like that. That, to me, sort of emits this telltale vapor that allows you to know whether a real love of music is built into that music or not. I don't really care about idioms; ultimately that becomes a dead end way of thinking about music. What I want is that vapor. And whether it's Nirvana, or Dolly Patron, or Stravinsky, or Miles Davis, that thing is always there — there's somebody behind that who has to play that way, or they're gonna die. That's the thing that I like.
source: San Diego's Music Magazine SLAMM
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