Tag Archives: guitar

For John Abercrombie’s 71st Birthday, An Interview From 2012

In recognition of guitarist John Abercrombie’s 71st birthday, here’s an early edit of an interview that I conducted with him in 2012 for a Jazziz article in the Q&A format, framed around the release of his ECM CD Without A Song.  Also of interest might be this earlier post of an uncut Blindfold Test that I conducted with Abercrombie for DownBeat in 2001.

_________________

For most of his half-century career as a professional improviser, John Abercrombie has been known, as he puts it, for “not playing jazz in its purest sense.” Indeed, the 68-year-old guitarist has presented predominantly original music during his 37 years as an ECM artist, most recently on four ambitious CDs in the ’00s by a working quartet on which he shares the front line with polymath violinist Mark Feldman. But on his 2012 ECM release, Within a Song, Abercrombie switches gears with a suite of covers and re-imagined standards that honor formative influences Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Art Farmer. Master partners Joe Lovano (playing only tenor saxophone), bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron keep the flow modern and sustain a relaxed but unrelenting attitude of swing.

“It’s a throwback to a pure form of jazz that stopped in the ’60s, when so many influences came in that changed the music forever,” Abercrombie says. He didn’t need to add that he himself has been a game-changer, an instantly recognizable voice among peers and cognoscenti, a key figure in developing a guitar language that could assimilate the various streams that flooded the jazz playing field during the ’70s. He continues to push the envelope in multiple contexts — among them an organ trio with Nussbaum and Gary Versace; ongoing duo connections with pianists Marc Copland and Andy Laverne; and forthcoming work with Gateway, a collective trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette that has convened sporadically since 1975, always with spectacular results.

Midway through August, Abercrombie supported Within A Song with a week at Birdland, convening Lovano, Gress, and drummer Adam Nussbaum for the occasion. A few hours before taking the stage on night three, dressed in the blue workshirt and black jeans that were his evening’s attire, he spoke to Jazziz in the midtown club’s narrow dressing room.

TP: After a decade of writing original music for a working band, what makes this a propitious time to do what might be called an “audio-biography”?

JA: About five years ago, I presented to [ECM producer] Manfred Eicher the idea of a tribute to the Art Farmer Quartet of the ‘60s, which had Jim Hall, Steve Swallow when he still played upright bass, and a couple of drummers, including Pete LaRoca. Manfred thought the idea was fantastic, but things didn’t work out, and I put the whole thing on the shelf. A few years later, I Manfred emailed, asking if I’d ever thought about doing a tribute to someone, like Steve Kuhn had done on his Mostly Coltrane record for ECM with Lovano and Joey. This is very unlike Manfred, who has never been into tribute recordings. I thought about it, and presented the idea of doing something on a period of music, which he liked. If any person permeates the CD as an influence, it’s Jim Hall—he played with Sonny on “Without A Song” and “Where Are You,” with Art Farmer on “Some Time Ago,” and with Bill Evans on “Interplay.”

TP: In recent years, you’ve done standards records with specially convened groups.

JA: I’ve done plenty of that kind of playing, but this was more specific. The Bridge just popped up at me. I play that record for my students in the composition class I teach. I tell them that it’s a composition—the solos are so formed, so thematic and developed. I say, “You couldn’t have written this; nobody could have written the way they improvised.” Improvising is composition, you know.

I first heard it in a record store when I was a kid, about 18 years old. Those were the days when the guy in the front of the store would play you a track, and he put on the first tune, which is “Without A Song.” I guess epiphany is the only word for something that strikes you so strong. I didn’t know musically what was happening, but it sounded so perfect. I said, “I must know what this is and this is really important to me.” That was the strongest reaction I ever had to a piece of music—although Bill Evans always got to me, and I wore out Kind of Blue.

TP: Apart from your leader records for ECM, you’ve recorded as a sideman with so many artists—Enrico Rava, Dave Liebman, Colin Walcott, Ralph Towner, Kenny Wheeler, Barre Phillips, Charles Lloyd. Your sound—or different sounds at different stages—is very identified with ECM’s sonic image.

JA: Different sounds at different stages for sure. I hear some older things, and I don’t even know how I did them—a speedier, more technical kind of playing, as opposed to now. It sounds hard, a bit like “Guitar Hero” stuff. About 15 years ago, I stopped playing with a plectrum, which slowed me down somewhat. You can’t articulate as quickly with the thumb as you can with a pick, which gives you the attack and lets you jump around a lot quicker. I’d always fooled around with playing with my thumb, and I did it on a gig once with Kenny Wheeler. I liked the way it sounded, so I started to get it in the act more, switching between the thumb and the pick. Then I realized I should make a decision because the two sounds are so different, and it sounds too schizophrenic when you switch in mid-solo. Overall, I like the thumb for the warmth of the sound, and the fact that my actual flesh is on the string without a piece of plastic in between.

TP: How did you connect with Manfred Eicher?

JA: In 1970, my girlfriend and I moved from Boston to a little apartment on East 4th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I started to meet people, and got a lot of calls to do little record dates. Enrico Rava had moved here, and in 1973, during a brief tour of Italy, we did a record called Katchapari. Somewhere along the line, Manfred heard it. We finally met through Ralph Towner—Manfred would bring a reel-to-reel tape to his apartment on Perry Street and say, “This is the new Eberhard Weber record, called Colors of Chloe.” “Who’s Eberhard Weber?” “Listen.” Then he’d put the tape on, and I’d hear orchestral music by a guy who had overdubbed all these cellos. I flipped out, because everything was so beautiful. Manfred told me he’d heard Katchapari and liked what I did. He asked, “Would you like to record for ECM?” I said that I would, but I didn’t have any original music. Manfred said, “Well, keep it in mind.” He kept hounding me.

I decided to go back to the thing I was most comfortable with. After Berklee, I worked a few years with Johnny Hammond Smith, who I made my first record with. Jan Hammer and I had been roommates in Boston, and I knew he could play anything on organ, and had the synthesizer. He played in a strip joint in Boston, and I’d run down and sit in with him before the strippers came on. I’d recently met Jack DeJohnette and was starting to play in some of his bands. I had a little cassette player with two little speakers. One day I started noodling, and came up with a couple of tunes.

TP: Were you putting this repertoire together with the idea that it was suiting the ECM sound?

JA: No. It was totally where I was at. I thought the record might have more of an organ trio feel, but I should have realized that Jan and Jack weren’t going to sound like Jack McDuff and Joe Dukes on drums. So whole record had a very different feel for the time, but it had nothing to do with what I thought ECM wanted—because I didn’t even really know what they wanted. I was very influenced by some things John McLaughlin had done with Mahavishnu years before, and with Miles on things like In A Silent Way. I wasn’t even sure Manfred would like it, but I took my chance. He loved all of it, the raucous stuff and the ballads. It was a magical recording.

TP: By this point, you were about 30, with a decade as an apprentice under your belt—the organ trios, Dreams, Chico Hamilton, Gato Barbieri, Rava, Billy Cobham. Can you describe your path to the sensibility you articulated on Timeless?

JA: When I went to Berklee, there was no Jazz-Rock. The two hadn’t merged yet. If you played a Rock or rhythm-and-blues gig, you probably were doing it for the money. Not that it wasn’t fun, but it was more like, oh, it’s a gig with a singer and they’re going to play some tune by Marvin Gaye or “Stormy Monday.” In Boston, I joined a rhythm-and-blues band called the Danny Wright Orchestra, with a singer named Erroll McDonald who sang Ray Charles tunes, but we also played jazz, like an arrangement of a Tadd Dameron tune. Danny introduced me to Johnny. I auditioned for him at this really funky club in Boston, and he liked me enough to give gave me the gig. I really was a jazz player at that period. I wasn’t a GOOD jazz player, but that’s all I played. I was actually making my living with Johnny on the chitlin’ circuit, playing standards and blues and some little cover tunes with guitar, organ and drums, and sometimes Houston Person playing tenor.

Everything was in upheaval then. People were taking acid. There was the Vietnam war and civil rights. Everybody was listening to Jimi Hendrix and all this Rock. The organ trio stuff was still my meat and potatoes, but I also liked some of the sounds I was hearing. So I got myself a distortion pedal (we used to call them fuzz tones) and a wah-wah pedal, moved to New York, and said, “Ok, I’m here—plug me in.” I went along with the times. I joined Dreams, with Randy and Mike Brecker and Billy Cobham and Barry Rogers, and they weren’t playing Jazz-jazz. They were playing Jazz-Rock, we used to call it.

After I met Rava, and started to go to Europe, and met Manfred, I started to get thrown in with people who played what they called Free Jazz, or very open kind of music. I didn’t have a lot of role models to play what was being asked of me. McLaughlin had been doing it early on, Coryell and other people had been experimenting, and and there were some wilder people like Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey, but there wasn’t a real language set up. So I had to figure things for myself. I grabbed onto every device I had in my arsenal—my knowledge of harmony and the guitar, the few little fuzztones or pieces of gear that I used at the time—and tried to fit in. When I’d play with Jack and Dave Holland, or some other players, I responded to what I was hearing around me, and let the sound of it all teach me what I was supposed to do. Luckily, my instincts were good, and all those years as an apprentice probably helped. My main objective was always to fit into situations, not so concerned about what my music was going to be like or if I had a specific voice. It was “How can I make this work?

TP: You’ve recorded with a number of bands for ECM—the quartet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald; the trio with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine; the organ trio with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum; more recently your quartet with Mark Feldman and Joey Baron, and a couple of bass players; also Gateway, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. To what degree is a band a book of music, and to what degree is it a collection of personalities?

JA: That’s a good question. It’s more than just a book of music, for sure, but it’s also about what whatever repertoire you’re playing, whether someone else’s as with new band or all original music. A band needs to have an identity. Of course, the personalities who are playing it will give it what it needs. Sometimes cooperative bands where everyone writes a song don’t work as well because people’s ideas are so vastly different.

My first band was with Richie, George, and Peter Donald. George was one of my roommates in Boston. Peter lived in Cambridge, and we did jam sessions and gigs. I met Beirach in New York. We did Dave Liebman’s record, Sweet Hand, and there was a tune, “Dr. Faustus,” that had an open section for me to just go nuts. Every time I’d play a phrase and end up on a note, Beirach would always play the perfect chord underneath me. I said, “How do you this?” He said, “Man, I have perfect pitch.” The quartet was a harmonic band, very architecturally sound, almost like a Frank Lloyd Wright building. It was a wonderful band to play in, but I was looking for something more open, which I got with Marc and Peter. With them, I got immersed in the guitar synthesizer, which some people hated, but it inspired me to write a lot of different kinds of tunes. The end came at Catalina’s in Los Angeles. Back in the dressing room, Erskine said to me, “Are we not men? Do we really need all this other stuff to play music with?” I said, “I agree. Screw this synthesizer stuff. I’m going to whittle down my gear.” I kept one little box that did some sounds, and the rest of it was just guitar. No I’m synth-free. But if I speak to you in five years, I may want to get back into something like that. It keeps you interested. Sometimes just playing the guitar when there’s no one to play off of isn’t that interesting. With the synthesizer you could imagine you were a flutist or violinist or trumpet player, and you might phrase differently, although the sounds were synthetic, never like real instruments.

TP: Has Manfred Eicher ever discouraged you from going in a particular direction?

JA: I had a band when I was living in San Francisco that was mostly L.A.-based. You couldn’t ask for better musicians. I spent a lot of time writing music for them—the only way I can describe it is that it had a kind of optimistic, brighter sound, a slightly more poppish feel. I sent a tape to Manfred and anxiously awaited his response. When he finally called, he said, “John, do you really want to go in this younger direction?” Meaning the music sounded kind of young. More Pat Metheny-influenced. Maybe I was being influenced by hearing Pat.

TP: Might all these projects have existed had you not had a consistent label over all these years?

JA: Probably not, no.

TP: I don’t know whether you’ll accept the idea, but let’s go by the supposition that each of these different bands fits in one way or another into the prevailing currents or zeitgeist, whatever you want to call it, of the time in which they were made.

JA: Ok.

TP: How does this band, this approach fit into what’s going on now?

JA: If you look at everything else that’s going on around, you probably don’t see a lot of it. Of course, lots of people are still playing standard tunes. But the direction of the younger musicians has very little to do with this. They’re doing original compositions, which are harmonically much different than these kind of tunes, and they seem to be experimenting with a lot of very different meters. I hate to use the word “nostalgia,” because I don’t look at it that way, but this kind of straight-up jazz album doesn’t really fit with what’s going on in a lot of ways. You could look at the last few things I did with Mark Feldman and that group, which I consider to be modern jazz, but people might say think it sounds more like chamber music or classical music because of the violin. and the sound of it.

Manfred actually sent me an email not long ago about how much he liked the record, something like, “I think this recording is really needed at this time.” I’m trying to find the right word for it. It’s a tribute to part of the history of jazz. It’s an interpretation. It’s paying homage. It’s coming full circle for sure, starting this way and then going off in all these different places, and then coming back and saying, “well, this really is home, in a way.” Who says you can never go home again? Thomas Wolfe? But in a way, you do go home, though home looks different. You don’t want to go back to the same little room you were in with the pennants on the wall and your mother yelling at you to get up, it’s time for breakfast, you’ve got to get to school, and stop that noise, and get out of the bathroom; let someone else in there once in awhile—we only had one bathroom in the house. But this is a way of going to the musical home.

TP: Do you have any sense of your impact or position in the timeline of guitar playing in this idiom? You’re older than Metheny or Mike Stern or Bill Frisell or John Scofield, who are people you tend to get lumped with, and younger than Grant Green or Jim Hall or Wes Montgomery. So if we’re to look at you in a third-person way, are you a transitional figure?

JA: I’ve thought about it, but I don’t really give it much thought. I’m like a guitar early baby boomer. I was born in ‘44, which means that instead of growing up listening to the Beatles, I grew up listening to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The timeframe when you grow up makes an impact on you. I had first-hand exposure to Monk and Coltrane and Sonny and Miles, a little more direct connection to that than the guys you mentioned. Then, too, I was around in the late ‘60s, when everything exploded—everybody wearing Indian shirts and smoking hash and trying to play different kinds of music. I’m part of the generation that was like, “We don’t want to play bebop; let’s get psychedelic; let’s tune in, drop out.” These other guys grew up after that. So maybe I am some sort of transitional object!

I do know that I opened doors when I started playing this more open-ended stuff in the ‘70s. No other guitar player had really been doing it as visibly as I did, when I was traveling around the world. Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey were a little more out than I was. I was playing free with a lot of structural knowledge. I’d come up playing standard tunes and blues, so I knew all these forms. I wasn’t coming out of a vacuum. I had all this jazz background, and then I was thrown into all of this. Can you make music out of this? Can you survive in this oddball environment where there’s no guidelines? I like to think that guitar players might have thought, “wow, that’s pretty free, but it doesn’t sound out there completely; it sounds like it’s coming from someplace.” That’s always been what I like to do. When I play, I kind of listen to myself as if I’m trying to develop something. In a band like this, my playing is a little more inside, for the most part, because of the structures of the pieces. But sometimes when I play with other bands, like Feldman, we get into complete zones of abstraction that can go on for quite a while. I’m very comfortable in that, and I like to experience that.

So I’m a little more multi-kulti in a sense. But as I get older, this full circle thing becomes kind of very important to me. I’ve been through all these weird stages of playing jazz-rock, playing free, trying to incorporate Indian and ethnic influences in the music, using synthesizers. But at the same time I’m still playing “Stella By Starlight.” It’s odd. And I still like to do all this stuff—except for the synthesizers.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

1 Comment

Filed under ECM, guitar, Jazziz, John Abercrombie

For George Benson’s 71st Birthday, an Interview from 2000

In acknowledgment of guitar icon George Benson’s 71st birthday, here’s the proceedings of a phone encounter from 2000 for the bn.com website on the occasion of his release Absolute Benson. He offered quite a bit of information about his formative years.

* * *

George Benson (My Favorite Things) – (5-19-00):

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON, there are a number of Latin tunes, a number of pieces that refer to the sound I remember from the late ’60s and early ’70s when your career was getting underway.  I wonder if you could tell me some of the people you were listening to seriously at that time, what records fed your attitude towards music.

BENSON:  When I entered into the ’60s, I was just starting to get serious about the guitar.  I was always a singer.  I’d done a lot of singing over the years, and was very popular locally, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But now I was venturing out… In 1963, I left my home, and I was now a national touring…or international, I should say…I was with a touring band.  I had just been listening to out of the ’60s Sam Cooke as a vocalist; Nat King Cole, who was a musician-vocalist — a pianist… I knew all the pop singers of the time, Sinatra and even Mario Lanza way back…

TP:    Can you name one or two tracks by any of those singers that stand out for you?

BENSON:  In the case of Sam Cooke, his recording of “You Send Me” was gigantic.  But he had lots of incredible things.  He did one called “the Chain Gang,” which was quite a unique song.  But it was style and the tonality of his voice that really came through.  He could sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and it would sell.  In the case of Mario Lanza, who was really the first Classical singer to cross over into Pop so easily, “Be My Love,” which is still a very powerful song — his performances will last, I think, a long as there is music.

But I knew all of the popular singers of our time.  And remember, before that I was exposed to a lot of R&B from the old days.  I had heard Chuck Berry’s beginnings of Rock-and-Roll, and I had heard all of Elvis’ first records.  And Elvis was a powerful singer.  A lot of people underestimated him.  Of course, the kids liked him; he was a handsome guy and he was exciting.  But there was something about his voice that was very unique, and I recognized that, too, way back then, and I became a fan then.  I was pretty universal in my listening.

TP:    It sounds that way.

BENSON:  Just to mention on the jazz side, the things that really inspired me: Jimmy Smith had just made the organ a household word — brought it to the forefront.  Before it had been considered just a unique instrument; there were no masters of the instrument who stuck out, who were commercially received.

TP:    And it created a whole new market for guitar players.

BENSON:  And he put the guitar up front, so it was a great platform for guitar players.  So that’s where I was coming from when I was coming out in the ’60s.

TP:    Was Jimmy Smith coming through Pittsburgh?  He recorded quite a bit with Stanley Turrentine, who was from Pittsburgh.

BENSON:  Yeah, that’s right!  And some of his best recordings were made with Stanley Turrentine.  In fact, some of his early recordings in the late ’50s were made with Stanley Turrentine, and just before 1960, when he came out with “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was a huge success pop-wise, which really made him household.

TP:    Do you have any favorite Jimmy Smith record?

BENSON:  I recorded one called “Ready and Able,” when I started my band which was a fantastic recording, and showed his prowess on the instrument…

TP:    That was a recording you were on?

BENSON:  I wasn’t it.  I recorded it with my own band.  Of course, his recording is awesome.  Ours was exciting, but his was an awesome performance technically.  It was a classic performance!  Anyway, I heard that stuff, and it made me interested in guitar players in a much larger way than I had before.  Because I only knew Charlie Christian and maybe Barney Kessel and some others.  But after that, when I came off the road to travel in 1963, I was exposed to Wes Montgomery, and people like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, who was also on those Jimmy Smith records.

TP:    I know you were hearing those people coming through town or criss-crossing paths, but I have to orient this towards records.  Can you tell me one or two favorite Grant Green or Wes Montgomery sides?

BENSON:  I can explain that.  When I was about 17 we started going to jam sessions.  Every Saturday we’d have a session at a local musician’s house.  He was probably the best guitar player locally.  He would pick up records for us to listen to.  We could steal licks from these records.  The records we were listening to were Jimmy Smith’s ALL DAY LONG, and also we were listening to Hank Garland’s recording called JAZZ WINDS FROM A NEW DIRECTION, and Grant Green’s first recording called GRANTSTAND — all these people.  And the new Wes Montgomery guy!  He was just becoming famous at the time.

TP:    After ten years of being famous in Indianapolis, he was becoming famous everywhere.

BENSON:  The record that woke me up by Wes Montgomery was from an album called SO MUCH GUITAR (Riverside) which was put out I think in 1959.  It featured the song “While We’re Young,” and when I heard him play that I knew that he was more than just a guitar player.  It convinced me that he was someone very special.

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON you have some covers in your style of tunes by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.  What are some of your favorite recordings by them?

BENSON:  When I was a young man, my manager said, “George, if you listen to this guy named Raymond Charles (which is the name he used in his early years), you will be successful.  Copy him, because he is the best, and he is going to be very big.”  But after hearing his early recordings, I knew that he was incredible, and “Come Back, Baby” was one of my favorites, a very special song that he recorded years ago.  Had that Gospel feel, but it was different.  It was an honest approach that had everything in it.  It had Gospel-Blues-Pop…everything was in that one song.  So I immediately was a fan of Ray Charles way back then.

In the case of Stevie Wonder, who was very much like Ray Charles in being a prolific writer, a good musician, and excellent singer, above average in all the approaches… They didn’t specialize.  They did everything well.  If they touched it, it was done well!  So Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder in a much more contemporary…of the later days, I should say.

TP:    You play Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” on ABSOLUTE BENSON.  Are there other recordings by him that will be eternally with you?

BENSON:  Oh, yeah, let me think now.  The one Barbra Streisand recorded of his…let me see, now.  My memory is loaded down.  It’s like a computer with so much stuff in it, it’s hard to sort things out.  Let me think about that a little.

In the case of Donny Hathaway, his recording of “For All We Know” is something I sing bits and pieces of almost every day.  I’ve been doing that since it was recorded, way back.  Because it was such an incredible impromptu performance.  I even know the story behind it.  I did hang out with him a little bit to get a chance to feel him out up close and personal, so I got a chance to understand where he was coming from with it.  At one point, I was in touch with him and we were writing songs together.  I went to his apartment and gave him a song that I was working on, and I found out later that he recorded the song, although it never came out.  Then he wrote two songs for me which I never got, because he passed on before I had a chance to get those songs.  But I did hear them.  He wrote them and played them for me, and I said, “When are you going to give those to me?”  He said, “I’m finishing them up; they’re not ready yet.”  But his vocal technique was quite unique, the timbre of his voice.  Those are the things as a singer I had to pay attention to.  But he had many recordings that were great, like the album he did with Roberta Flack called BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT.

TP:    There’s a real Latin tinge to this record also.  Have you always been attracted to Latin music and the Latin style?

BENSON:  When I moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ’60s to play with Jack McDuff, I had a cousin who lived in Spanish Harlem.  So whenever I was in New York, which was very little during my traveling years because we were usually out on the road… But when we came home, what we called home (New York City was my home base), I would stay with my cousin, who lived on 108th and Third Avenue, which was considered Spanish Harlem.  And by the way, I have a son who is Spanish and so does he.  My cousin married a Puerto Rican girl, and my son is half Puerto Rican.

But anyway, we had a lot of association and we heard a lot of the music.  We heard the Joe Cuba records, which were gigantic — “Bang, Bang” and the song “To Be With You,” which was on the jukebox for over ten years around New York.  We were in touch with Johnny Pacheco when I started recording; he was recording with us.  We saw the whole beginning of Salsa music, how it was unacceptable at first to… A lot of Latinos around the world didn’t particularly like Salsa because they considered it a bastard music, but we saw it grow out of that, and now it’s full-grown with Santana!  So things do move.  You know, it was the a lot of the music of that era when we were living in New York.

TP:    Did you listen to très players at all?

BENSON:  Strangely enough, my office was one floor down from Tito Puente.  So my manager and he were very good friends, and he introduced me to him, and him and I became good friends, and eventually we ended up working a lot of the same gigs later.  When my manager introduced me to him, at the time Latin music was not so acceptable to persons who were not in the Latin world.  My manager introduced me to him and said, “George, this is the greatest Latin musician in the world right here.”  I said, “Yeah?!”  From that point on, I began to pay attention to the name Tito Puente.  Sure enough, the whole world has accepted him as being one of the great icons of Latin music.

TP:    Any particular favorites by Tito Puente?

BENSON:  His version of “On Broadway,” which is based on my version, which won him his first Grammy award, is a great example of what he can do.

TP:    Has Joe Sample been part of your world for a long time, or is your collaboration on ABSOLUTE BENSON a first?

BENSON:  No.  Joe and I have been on the same gig, but we’ve never worked together.  It’s usually his band and my band working different sets.

TP:    Well, the Crusaders were a paradigm of the type of band that was covering all the bases and putting them into some sort of very digestible and very musical form in the ’60s, when you were starting out.

BENSON:  That’s very true.  And when jazz music started to wane a little bit, and we had a hard time getting it played on the air, they dropped the name “jazz” from the Jazz Crusaders and became the Crusaders.  But the group was the same.  They did what you mentioned earlier.  They really connected with the audience.  They could take any tune to do that with.

TP:    Were you a fan?

BENSON:  Yeah.  I like uniqueness, and they were unique.  “The Young Rabbits” was the thing that probably… It was more jazz-oriented than anything, but it had a real feel to it.  You didn’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate it.

TP:    Would you say that when you went out on the road in the early ’60s, your guitar concept was fully formed?

BENSON:  No.  There was a young man in San Francisco… When I decided to go out on my own in 1965, I happened to be in San Francisco, and I spent several days out there.  I was walking around the city, taking in the scenes, and by quite by accident I walked into this club, and I heard a piano player playing who was very good.  I told him who I was, and he said, “Go get your guitar.”  So I went home and got my guitar and came back.  He gave me a lesson in harmony.  He stopped playing for the public… He was a guy who had a big jar on his piano (you know the scenario) for the dollars to be dropped in, and people making requests.  Well, he stopped doing that to show me what he was talking about.  Because I didn’t understand anything he was saying to me.  He was calling off chord changes; I didn’t understand any of them.  He would say, like, “C!” I’d play a C, and he’d say, “No, not that C.”  I said, “Wait a minute.  There’s more than one C?”  And he began to explain.  And man, what I learned has been with me to this day.  His name was Freddie Gambrell.  There’s not much on him.

TP:    Was he blind?

BENSON:  Yes, he was blind.

TP:    He did a record with Chico Hamilton, one trio record.

BENSON:  Is that right?  You know a lot, man!  Freddie Gambrell, man.  He was quite unique!

TP:    In other words, you were an ear player, and as the ’60s developed and your career developed, you learned much more about theory and you’ve been able to continually apply it.

BENSON:  Yeah.  I think people began to notice me when I started to apply the theory that I embarked on after spending that little time with Freddie Gambrell.  I began to experiment.  And what I learned from him I think separated me from the normal guitar thinking.  So I think that made me interesting to other players, who used to ask me all the time, “Where you coming from, man?”

TP:    So he gave you a kind of pianistic conception of harmony which you were able to put on what you did.

BENSON:  That’s right.

TP:    What have you been listening to lately?

BENSON:  I just came back from Hawaii, so I heard a lot of Hawaiian music, and there are a lot of Latin musicians over there.

TP:    You heard them in person.

BENSON:  Yes.  Then they gave me their records, and I listened to their records.  I’ve been listening to Rodney Jones’ latest album, THE UNDISCOVERED FEW.  He’s got some new stuff happening that’s really wonderful.  So he’s reaching out and stretching out!

TP:    A couple of others?

BENSON:  I’ve been listening to a guitar player from Spain called Tomatito.  He’s the newest hot guitar player from Spain.  He’s second only to Paco De Lucia.  Everybody is into him right now.  Tomatito is the cat I’m listening to.  It means “little tomato,” I think.

Let’s see what’s in front of me.  What I do is take stuff and just throw it on.  You’re going to be surprised at this one.  I went back in my archives and put on the Anthology of Smokey Robinson.  The reason why, there’s a song on there that nobody knows about it… You ask people if they’ve ever heard this song, and they say “No.”  It’s called “Bad Girl.”  You ever heard of that?

TP:    I might have… No, I’m thinking of “My Girl.”

BENSON:  “My Girl.”  I think he wrote that, too.  I think Smokey Robinson was one of the writers on “My Girl.”  But this song is called “Bad Girl.”  And the reason why Smokey Robinson is still on my mind is because we used to perform with them.  Whenever they came to my home town, we would be on the same show with them.  That’s way back in like 1959 or the very early ’60s.

TP:    When everything was mixed up, and there would be five-six bands on one show.

BENSON:  Uh-huh.  Well, see, I had a singing group then.  We had the most popular singing group in Pittsburgh.  So they were brand-new, and he was the first artist on Motown when they came out in 1959.   But the song “Bad Girl” was one we used to sing all the time from their early recordings, something he wrote that we sang all the time.  That’s the reason  why I picked up the CD.

TP:    One more, then I’ll let you go.

BENSON:  Let me think of something  that people will recognize.  I don’t want to get too much…

TP:    We can be esoteric and right down the middle, too.

BENSON:  All right.  Whoo, boy.  Well, what’s happening now is people are going back to Django Reinhardt, man, because the French guitar players… Oh, I’ll tell you something else that’s exciting.  Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck, POLARITY.  There’s some exciting stuff on there!  I was up with Bruno the other day.  I went up to see him at the club in New York, and they lit the place up, though Joe Beck wasn’t with him.

TP:    And you’ve been listening a lot to Django?

BENSON:  to Django, yes.

TP:    Have you heard the Mosaic Box (THE COMPLETE DJANGO REINHARDT AND QUINTET OF THE HOT CLUB OF FRANCE: SWING/HMV SESSIONS, 1936-1948)?

BENSON:  Tell Barnes & Noble to send me that!

[-30-]

Leave a comment

Filed under bn.com, George Benson, guitar, Interview

For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, DownBeat, guitar, Mike Stern, Miles Davis

John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

* * *

John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

To mark guitar giant Vernon Reid’s 53rd birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that he sat for a few years back on the occasion of the release of Birthright, an unaccompanied Ulmer recording that he produced, following the ensemble dates Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001) and No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003).

* * *

1. Henry Threadgill, “Biggest Crumb” (from MAKE A MOVE: EVERYBODY’S MOUTH’S A BOOK, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, as, comp; Brandon Ross, eg; Bryan Carrott, vb; Stomu Takeishi, eb: Dafnis Prieto, d) (4 stars)

I said before I was not going to try to guess, because I’ll get it all wrong.  But this is very reminiscent of a period of jazz and improvised music… It’s very much in the Henry Threadgill-Anthony Davis… I sort of would take a stab at guessing the guitarist. I think maybe Brandon Ross, maybe Michael Gregory… The thing about it is the sense of space, the sense of giving each note a kind of weight. Which comes from… There’s a certain kind of power in applying one’s chops in that way, to give each note its dignity, if you will. This reminds me of a certain time period, or a certain school of composition, very much like Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill… It’s the kind of thing that Jay Hoggard used to do. There are other players that have come up, like Ben Monder, who… I mean, Ben Monder is absolutely outrageous.  Or Jef Lee Johnson, who’s another monster, has an unbelievable amount of chops, but is also able to give each note a kind of dignity.  I don’t mean that in any pompous or stiff kind of way, but more like the space around the notes really has an important sense of weight. I would say Frisell is another player, in a completely different way than the school I’m talking about… But he’s another practitioner of that, giving weight to the notes, a kind of dignified weight. I loved it. I don’t want to be too easy a marker, but I would give it 4 stars. [AFTER] It’s a school that I have a great deal of respect for. I love it. I think about a whole bunch of cats, like Baikida Carroll.  Jerome Harris, who’s a phenomenal bassist-guitarist and one of my personal heroes, is part of that whole crew. Even cats like Tim Berne… There’s a thing about giving space and angles. It’s very angled and pointillistic. Very astringent. Not sentimental at all, but not cold. Not at all cold.  Not mathematical.

2. Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Terraplane Blues” (from THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS, 32 Jazz, 1977/2003) (Robert Lockwood, Jr., vocals, g; Robert Johnson, composer.) (2½ stars)

This is one of those records that I should be able to just say, “Oh, yeah, that’s his date! Jimmy Kimbrough!” Know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s a funny thing with records like this, is like… Oh, man! One thing that’s interesting about it is that the tuning is so… It’s slide guitar in an open tuning, with the guitarist sort of, to most ears, out of tune. Know what I mean? But that’s part of an aesthetic that’s like not trying to plug into a chord tuner and work that out. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. I’d probably get it wrong. [What did you think about the way he sang?] It’s very funny, because that “you-hoo!” reminds me very much of Robert Johnson. There’s somebody else who it reminds me of and maybe that’s who it is! “Terraplane Blues.” But whenever I hear a song like this, I want to hear “Hellhound On My Trail.”It’s a firmly traditional approach.  These sorts of things are difficult to critique, because it’s like who am I? How dare… Certain traditions are sacrosanct almost. One of the things I like about a cat like Alvin Youngblood Hart is that he’s taken this approach, but he’s singing about modern times. It’s very much like someone that’s studied to be an oil painter but is painting modern subjects. Alvin will have a song about a crack dealer in a country blues style, which I think is really important for the development of the music, and I think traditions can’t get stuck in stone. [Did that sound like a guy who was born in the tradition or a younger guy?] It’s very funny, because the tuning says to me that it’s an older traditional thing, but it could very well be a younger guy tuning with that kind of tuning, which would be very… Not arch, but it would be very knowing. It’s a real gesture for a modern person to have an open tuning in a country blues setting where the tuning is out of tune. It feels…I don’t know, a little arch. Whereas I almost expect it with the more primitive… I mean that in terms of the more primal blues recordings. It’s kind of hard, because you compare this to “Death Letter” by Son House… That is another level of what this is. But it’s a respectable performance.  It’s hard to say how much this performer had at stake. I mean, he’s firmly in command of the idiom, whether it’s an older performer or younger.  But I didn’t get a sense of… It was good. Can you give it stars?  If “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Death Letter” is 5… I mean, it’s well performed.  I wasn’t sure if… It’s weird… [It depends who it is, kind of?] Well, actually it doesn’t.  Because if it turns out to be an older character… If it’s a younger guy, wow.  If it turns out to be Keb Mo’, it’s like, dope. If it’s an older cat, it’s like “Oh.” But these things do have qualitative differences, too. Like I said, if I’m taking “Hellhound On My Trail” as a 5 and “Death Letter” as a 5, or “Devil Got My Woman” as 5, this is really maybe 2-1/2. [AFTER] Really! All right. You know what? It’s so funny, because I love him in more urban… To me, he’s a city blues guy, and I love him with a rhythm section and like that. I think he’s brilliant. I think this is the sort of thing where it’s cool that he can do it, but this is not really his… I mean, who am I to say? It’s like a performer I really dig, but this particular song didn’t do it for me.

3. Rodney Jones, “Oliver and Thad” (from THE UNDISCOVERED FEW, Blue Note, 1999) (Rodney Jones, g. & comp; Lonnie Plaxico, b; Eric Harland, d; Robert Allende, perc.; Earl Gardner, tp; Morris Goldberg, as; Tim Ries, ts; Charles Gordon, tb) (4½ stars)

Swinging the doors off! Wow. All right, now. It’s so fun, man! I would take a stab at Grant Green. Whoo! It’s also so wild, because it also reminds me of one of my teachers, Rodney Jones. Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, too. I love it. Beautiful. I love this. The use of parallel fourths. [SINGS THEM] Beautiful arrangement. You know what’s so funny, man, I can’t tell whether this is an older recording or… [HORN SOLI/SHOUT CHORUS] It’s such a… Wow!  Whoo! I love this. It blows me away.  Totally blows me away. Killing. It’s such a kind of late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind of arrangement.  It’s a total jazz lounge, hipster… It’s such an arched-eyebrow arrangement. You know what I mean? It’s Hip with a capital H. Phenomenal. And this is very much built on Wes Montgomery’s kind of chordal voicings. Man, I loved that! That is outstanding. I mean, it’s so funny, because I’m hearing… First I’m hearing that R&B’ish, almost kind of funk to it. To me, Grant Green had this whole kind of… It’s very uptown, very kind of North Philly or Harlem type of thing. It really brings to mind a whole social milieu. There’s a whole thing that went along with music like that. There’s so much to admire.  The arrangement sounds more like a transcription, the way the chord solo was arranged for the horns. I said it reminded me of Rodney Jones. I could hear Rodney arching his eyebrow and doing that, absolutely. I’m probably going to be wrong, but the school of playing is a very kind of hard swing school that incorporates… Obviously, the bebop thing is there, but it’s also very modal, very modernist. The augmented fourths, or augmented fourth type of things, the superimpositions and things like that. And very aware of… Wes’ thing was very much. Bruce Johnson has a song called “I Remember Wes”. [SINGS REFRAIN] That’s the school. I would hate to be wrong!  But it reminds me of Rodney. 4-1/2 stars.

4. Egberto Gismonti, “Salvador (branco)” (from DANÇA DOS ESCRAVOS, ECM, 1988) (Gismonti, guitars, composer) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a guess and say Egberto Gismonti. I spent so much time listening to DANCA DOS CARBAS, and listening to his duet record with Nana Vasconcelos. The ten-string guitar thing. At first, I was thinking, “Okay, this is an oud” or something. But this is… He’s got a very punchy, very physical, very… It’s interesting, because it reminds me a bit of Ralph Towner, even though it’s very different, but there was a certain kind of attack and very kind of dense clustered improvisation that was very much a kind…I don’t know about ECM school, but it was very… If that’s not Egberto, well, sure… It’s hard to think of a record label as having a school, but it’s very intense, terse melodic statements, attacking the instrument… It’s sort of like the anti Michael Hedges. It’s weird. Like, the level of playing ability is astronomical. It’s incredibly high. Stratosphere. It’s a virtuosity that’s very… It’s very not Paco De Lucia. It’s very much not that. It’s also tied to… You could picture this happening in the Amazon by the side of a river. I will stick by… If that’s not Egberto Gismonti, it is someone who is paying an homage. How many stars?  Egberto is one of these cats that’s almost… I won’t say it’s above criticism. The playing is phenomenal, the improvisation is phenomenal. He’s done other pieces that I’ve liked better. As far as the realm of guitar players, 5 stars, but for his own work… If that’s who it is!  If I’m right, comparing it to his own work, I’d give it 3½.

5. George Freeman, “I Wish I Knew” (from REBELLION, Southport, 1995) (George Freeman, g; Von Freeman, p; Penny Pendleton, b; Michael Raynor, d) (4 stars)

This is very romantic. Beautiful tone. What I like about this is that this is a very much… People should only play ballads if they really believe. I think a lot of times, it’s like an exercise where you’ve got to play a ballad, that’s how you’re a well-rounded player, blah-blah-blah. But to me, ballads only sing if there’s a THERE there. It’s not really about the chops, but it’s really about the commitment to what the melody is, or what the lyric is, or what that feeling is.  And this person unquestionably has that commitment. I love the minimalism in this approach. Because the minimalism is not for any lack of… You can hear the players negotiating the changes very well.  But there’s a kind of forbearance.  It really is about wanting to tell a story. To want to tell the particular story of this song. It seems to me that so many of these songs were wartime songs and post-war songs, from the ‘40s and ‘50s, this kind of writing… The guitar just sings. It sings. I love the use of… If you want to talk about techniques, I love the use of slurring in some of the phrases. I love this. I’m a little… I would guess Grant Green again! [LAUGHS] When I talked about Rodney… [You’re in the right geographic range.] I’m in the right geographic range. It’s not Grant Green. It’s definitely not. Whoo! Using fourths like octaves! I love that. Well, this isn’t my favorite part of the solo. You can leave the fourths alone now! It’s beautiful, though. Beautiful player. Man, it’s weird, because I hear a little of the Jim Hall thing, strangely enough. It sounds like a solid body guitar… Definitely not Jim Hall. I’m in a real bind. Because I know I’ll just throw names out. Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fantastic! What year is this? Good heavens! Man, I love this. Good for him. I loved that. That’s fantastic. So that’s Chico Freeman’s uncle? Has Chico ever made a record with him. What’s up with that? I’m almost positive that was a solid body guitar. Very, very nice.

6. Mike Stern, “Chatter” (from IN THESE TIMES, ESC, 2003) (Stern, eg. comp.; Kenny Garrett, ss; Arto Tuncboyaci, perc.; Jim Beard, p, synth; Will Lee, b; Vinnie Colaiuta, d; Elizabeth Kontomanou, voc) (4 stars)

That head is a bitch! [LAUGHS] They’re still playing the head! It’s very neat. It’s kind of spiffy! [LAUGHS] I mean, it’s incredibly well-arranged music. First thing I want to say is Mike Stern. Some of that phrasing. [Is “spiffy and neat” positive or negative?] It’s cool! It’s very… I mean, there are several people. I’m trying to figure out who that is soprano. It’s a very kind of New York school recording. It’s weird. There are certain people… It makes me think of like super bop head mixed with the Scott Henderson type of trip, too. But it’s funky, too. Not that Scott Henderson isn’t funky… But it’s hard to play.  There are several people I could turn around and go, “Oh, it could be that person.” I like it, too, because it’s sort of goofy, in a weird… [LAST CHORD] See, that’s what I mean. See, that ending, the neat ending. That’s what I mean, it’s neat. Boy, that’s a tough one, man. In the rock section of the solo, it made me think of Mike Stern. It reminded me, for that matter, of Leni Stern. I’m not trying to lump people into a bag. But there was definitely a part of that that’s reminiscent of Mike. See, I didn’t want to play the guessing game.  The worst thing is I actually got a few right, and now that I got a few right, I’m like “Okay.” It’s very well done. The musicianship is high. Like, everyone that’s on the set is kicking. It’s a little nudge-wink-wink. It’s a little bit of “because I can” which is in the mix, which is fair enough, because everyone from M-BASE to Tribal Tech is kind of there—“because I can!” I’ll give it 4. [AFTER] Mike plays at a super high level. Mike’s walked in the fire, and I have mad respect for him, and admiration, too, because he plays his ass off. It’s funny, because a cat like him, there isn’t really much that he can’t play, so then it becomes a question of choices. Because he’s at that level of technical accomplishment where… So it’s really about choices. I mean, this was cool. A little overdetermined for my taste.

7. Bill Frisell, “Ron Carter” (from BLUES DREAM, Nonesuch, 2001 (Frisell, eg, comp.; Greg Leisz, guitars; Ron Miles, tp; Curtis Fowlkes, tb; David Piltch, b; Kenny Wolleson, d) (4 stars)

This is lovely. There’s something, for want of a better word, grand about it. There are two guitar players? Wow! This is a hard one. Mmm. Man, the phrasing reminds me of Frisell’s. It’s so funny, because the tone is so, in a way… If this is Bill, it’s the more agro side of his playing. Then the other person I’m thinking is Dave Tronzo. I’m grasping at straws. If it’s not Bill, the person is not a stranger to Bill’s work. It’s weird, I’m saying that, but it’s strange… It’s so… Okay. Listening to it, I will stick my neck out and say it’s Frisell. For the other guitarist, I could guess Wolfgang Muthspiel… I said Tronzo before. Maybe Tronzo. If not Tronzo, then I’m stumped. I don’t know that Marc Ribot and Frisell have recorded together, which would be frightening! But I loved it.  It was very stately.  I loved the simplicity of the bass line. I’m a sucker for that. I kind of came up with A Love Supreme playing in the background. [The piece is named “Ron Carter.”] I love that. I think people should start naming free jazz tracks for people in our government. Miles did it, and people should never stop that. I want to have a song called “John Ashcroft,” 20 minutes of total… Do an entire record where every record is a member of the Bush Cabinet. Condy Rice. That would be pretty funny. But I’ll give this 4 stars. I loved the arrangement.

8. Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg, “Swing ‘49” (from DJANGO REINHARDT NY FESTIVAL: LIVE AT BIRDLAND, Atlantic, 2000) (Lagrene, lead gtr solo, Rosenberg, 2nd guitar solo; Frank Vignola, rhythm guitar; Jon Burr, b) (3-3/4)

Whoo!  Whoa-hoo-hoo-whoo-hoo!  Whoa! Wow! It’s weird. I know who I want to guess the  guitar player is, but I can’t think of it. My brain won’t allow me his name. This is a gypsy kind of… I’ll know when you say the name… I’m completely blanking on it. But I’ll tell you what.  There was one arpeggio in the beginning of the thing that was just HO-LEE COW! This is the kind of thing Larry Coryell loves to do, though. This is very much a Larry Coryell… Larry Coryell is funny, because… This could be Larry and Julian. I was thinking about somebody totally else, but now… Because… Oh, BROTHER!! The playing is outrageously good. The other gypsy kid… It’s killing me. I can’t think of who it is. I hate when that happens to me.  He’s technically phenomenal, and I’m literally blanking on his name. But you know, the thought that it’s Larry… This guessing game is a craziness. Hey, man, shit, it… It’s a very regimented… It’s the kind of style where the playing is very on-the-beat. It’s like 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, with the occasional triplet thrown in. This is the kind of thing that you either do or you don’t. Heh-heh. I guess every music is like that, but… It’s another episode of “because I can.” They’re killing. They’re killing players. Star-wise? Can I give stars for technique and stars for… To me, shit, technique, it’s like, wow, 4½—the technique is high. The music? You know, I have to be in a mood… It’s sort of like music that wows me, but, like, “wow.” It’s music I respect. I love Django, of course, because Django is the great poet of the style. But the tune… So the technique is 4½, but the actual music I’ll give 3. That’s 3-3/4. [AFTER] I could not for the life of me call his name up. Especially after hearing that first arpeggio, I’d instantly say, “Oh, that’s Bireli Lagrene.” Absolutely. You know, he was a prodigy like Pat Martino. He was like a wunderkind. The guy’s playing at an incredibly high level. It’s like a heavily traditional thing. You go, “Okay, that’s great, I respect it, it’s wonderful, blah-blah-blah.” It’s a vernacular thing. It’s like not my thing, you know. Heh.

9.  Jimmy Smith/B.B. King, “Three O’Clock Blues” (from Jimmy Smith, DOT COM BLUES, Verve, 2000) (King, g, vocal, comp.; Smith, organ; Neil Hubbard, John Porter, g; Chris Stainton, p; Pino Palladino, b; Andy Newark, d)

[INSTANTLY] B.B. King. Well, I could have told you after that first note. B.B. King, baby! One of the King family. Freddie, Albert… You know what I love about this? He sounds committed. Tell you what. One time I saw Miles Davis and B.B. King, and B.B. King was opening for Miles Davis—the Beacon Theater. B.B. King opened up a can of whup-ass. Let me tell you something. I’d seen Miles before after he came back, and my jaw must have just pulled open. He came out, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t help myself. B.B. King came out, and maybe he knew he was opening for Miles Davis, but… You know all that kind of showy stuff?  He came out, and it was like, “Oh, no. Miles, you gon’ have to work tonight.” It took two-three songs before Miles… I mean, Miles was great. But B.B. King came out, and it was like, “No-no, no-no-no. No.” B.B. King will pull out some Charlie Christian shit out on your ass. Don’t sleep. He will pull some shit. “What did you do…?!” Lovely, man. The tone. The tone! The TONE. Tone. I like that this is an acoustic band. This is a little bit away from his… He’s a very popular artist. But this is more a back-in-the-day type of vibe than what he’s been doing a lot lately. I had the honor of working with Mr. King in the studio, co-producing a couple of tracks, and it was one of the great honors of my life to be in his presence. So I am very biased. People talk about the B.B. King style, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so encoded in his hands. You know what I mean? I’d definitely give it 4. [AFTER] Jimmy Smith?  See, that might be why! [LAUGH] It had that quality, man, of just… It’s raw. It’s rawer. Beautiful.

10. Noel Akchoté, “Peanut” (from SONNY II: THE MUSIC OF SONNY SHARROCK, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Akchoté, guitars; Sonny Sharrock, comp.) (3 stars)

Buggin’ out on the prairie! I like this. And one of the things I like about this is that it’s really not an attempt… It really is about the melody. It really is not about the technique. This is the kind of thing which is very difficult to do, to be interesting by oneself. I would take a guess that it’s Marc Ribot. It’s not Marc? Is it John Preshante(?)? Well, I don’t know who it is, but I like it. Marc put out a solo record which is very much in this… But that’s an electric guitar record, and this is obviously acoustic. But just the idea of just the guitar naked, but in a particularly… To do something that’s really not so based on kind of trying to do a virtuoso, Joe Pass type of thing, but just the melody, and really just an approach to what the song is. It’s not meant to blow you away with the guitar playing. It’s meant to deliver a particular interpretation of a melody. It’s funny, man. That to me is much more risky. Because if you are a guitarist of some accomplishment and you just keep at it-keep at it-keep at it, get it flawless, and record the flawless, impressive thing, there’s a certain… It speaks to an already going conversation about the guitar, that it should be done by highly skilled practitioners who play flawlessly. That’s very much a conversation about the instrument that is incredibly limiting. That’s not to say that people who can’t play should just do whatever.  And can’t-playing is more like, “Well, I really want to play like this, but I haven’t put in the time to play like that, so I’ll play like this.” Or, “I’m really not prepared to deliver this melody.” Or, “I’m not committed to the melody.” Or, if there is no melody, “I’m not committed to my improvisation.” And I’m not committed to it stand or fall. I’m making excuses about it, or I’m doing this fallback thing where, okay, well, I’ll put in something impressive technically or I’ll play the bebop thing so you know that I can play. To put in the bebop phrase to let you know that I “can play.” This whole need to justify. It’s a particular disease that guitarists have. It’s sort of like this idea that I’ve got to come up and let you know that I’m impressive like Buckethead or impressive like Sean Lane or impressive like this one or that one, and not to let the melody be itself. Obviously, these things can take you to technical places. I’m certainly not anti-technique. But what I liked about that piece is the fact that it is, in a way, a kind of un-playing, that is really about the song, about that melody, and there’s something very… I hear the wide-open plains. Obviously, a bluegrass cat would approach it in a totally different way, or someone into the Country-and-Western thing is going to go into the idiomatic thing. But I can go on and on and on, and I’ll stop right here! How many stars? Sticking my neck out… Having said all of that, then I give him 1! 1 star. 1 star forever, buddy! I’d give him 3.[AFTER] I have never heard of him. It’s interesting, because there’s this French cat, Marc Ducret. Wow! This cat is a cat of high accomplishment and derring-do.

11. John Scofield, “Name That Tune” (from LIVE: EN ROUTE, Verve, 2004) (John Scofield, g.; Steve Swallow, eb, comp.; Bill Stewart, d) (4½ stars)

It’s very interesting. This is Pat Metheny at his best. I might be wrong. I could be very wrong. It’s so not his tone. But the phrasing is so Pat Metheny at his most free, where he’s kind of… Like, on RIGHT SIZE LIFE, he played a couple of things by Ornette, and… It was a funny thing with Pat. Because on the one hand, Pat has got this… There’s a public, the popular face of Pat Metheny. And Pat Metheny operates at clearly three or four different levels. There’s the kind of damp hand…there’s the kind of moist and sensitive guitar-synth thing. Now, I give him a lot of credit, because I personally am really dedicated to guitar synth as well. But he’s really the kind of standard bearer for that.  Then there’s the very melodic kind of guitar playing thing. Then there’s the shit that’s like, okay…the OTHER part. That’s what I love. The SONG X kind of thing. [It’s not Pat Metheny, but generationally you’re in the ballpark.] That’s funny, because it’s very like Pat Metheny. Is it Scofield?! No way. Scofield!  Holy shit. Wow, this is fantastic! It’s so interesting, because there’s a school, Scofield, Metheny, Mike Stern… I mean, wow! He’s fucking going off! All right! I’ll give it 4½.  I’ll tell you what, man. When he joined Cobham… Cobham was one of those cats who brought out great guitar players. Tommy Boland. Stern. Ray Mouton, who nobody knows about, who is working in Las Vegas, who… He actually came to a Living Color gig, and I didn’t get a chance to see him. Ray Mouton is out of New Orleans. Truly gifted. Phenomenal guitar player and guitar synthesist.

12. Blood Ulmer, “What Is” (from FORBIDDEN BLUES, DIW, 1996) (Ulmer, eg, comp; Calvin Jones, ab; Calvin Weston, d)

Blood. I got it right. Instantly. He has a singularity. In a lot of ways, he’s very reminiscent of B.B. King, because his tone really resides in his hands. He has huge hands, and he has this way of making the notes literally pop out of the guitar. Sitting with him in his loft, and just hearing him play acoustically, it’s the same thing. The notes just pop out of the instrument. The band is playing fantastic, and Blood is just… Really, to me, two of the main guys in free guitar are him and Sonny Sharrock. Blood is a cat of almost mythic power. I mean, there is a real, dare I say it, dark majesty about him. 4½ stars, definitely. I didn’t give anything 5. I reserve 5 stars for hearing “My Favorite Things.” Or hearing…

[What would those things be? What would be a 5-star record?]

A five-star record would be literally something that… It would be very idiomatic to me. A five-star record to me wouldn’t have so much to do with the… The song would just destroy me. If it was possible, five stars would be hearing something that’s so connected to my life… It  would be hearing “My Favorite Things” for the first time. That would be 5 stars. “My Favorite Things” changed my life, because I knew The Sound of Music version, and hearing Coltrane’s version of it, I was struck by how different it was and how the-same it was. He’s playing to the lyric. He’s not using the song to blow over. He’s playing to the lyric. “When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things…” I mean, that’s what he’s playing to.  And that conversation has lasted all the way up through Outkast putting an uncredited version of “My Favorite Things” on “The Love Below.” That’s a very powerful conversation for a piece of music to have.  And that is there because of Coltrane’s version. That’s 5.

Five stars is hearing Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” for the first time, or hearing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” the first time, hearing “Are You Experienced” the first time. That’s what that is. It’s like hearing “Never Mind The Bollocks”… Like, hearing “God Save The Queen” the FIRST time. Having the impact of it… In terms of improvisation, James Blood Ulmer, 5 stars is like the first time I heard “Are You Glad To Be In America?” The audaciousness of it. It’s like hearing the first U. Shrinivas tape I heard when he was 12 years old. He’s an Indian mandolin player.  And knowing, hearing him, that eventually his paths would cross with John McLaughlin, and he would eventually become involved with Shakti. It was inevitable. Like, hearing it, I said, “This kid is at least as good as John McLaughlin, and he’s 12 years old.” So those kinds of things are five-star experiences. Like, literally hearing “Remain In Light.” The first time I heard it, I was unmoored. I was like, “What is this?” Or hearing “Sucker Emcees,” the first time I heard it, is 5 stars.

So it’s not to denigrate anything I’ve heard. But it’s a very specific sort of thing, like life is different… It’s not really whether the cat playing this or that… But it’s like life is different now. Like, the first time I heard “Believe It,” heard Allen Holdsworth… But it’s not just Allen Holdsworth playing it. Because that record is weird. It’s a very ambient record almost. The sound of it is very ambient. It’s very unusual out of anything in the Fusion oeuvre. The song for me is “Wildlife.” I love the melody of that.

4 Comments

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar

For Pat Metheny’s Birthday, an bn.com Interview From 1999 and an Oral History Interview from 2006

In 1999, I had my first opportunity to interview the master guitarist-composer for the editorial component of bn.com, in conjunction with the contemporaneous release of the soundtrack recording A Map Of The World.

Metheny also graciously submitted to a bit of bn.com silliness that we titled “My Favorite Things,” a short-lived series in which various musicians cited favorite recordings, instrumental influences, and the like.

The questions at the end about Michael Brecker were for a DownBeat feature I was putting together at the time about Michael.

There follows a lengthy conversation from 2006.

What follows is the unedited  transcript of our conversation.

* * *

Let’s address the various recordings you’ve done in recent years, beginning with the soundtrack that the record company is interested in, Imaginary Day.  I haven’t seen the movie.  Would you tell me something about the logistics of how A Map Of The World came to be.

It’s a very well known book.  It was a best-seller a couple of years ago, written by a great author, Jane Hamilton, who has written several really nice books in the last couple of years.  It’s one of those projects that I feel lucky to have been asked to do.  The thing of doing film scores in general is something that I’ve done a bunch over the years.  I did a bunch of them during the early ’80s, Under Fire, The Falcon and the Snowman, and one called Twice In A Lifetime, and a couple of smaller independent ones, one called Big Time, which had Mia Farrow in it, one called Little Sister which was with John Savage, one called Lemon Sky with Kevin Bacon.  I’m a big movie fan, I love movies, and from a young age thought, “Wow it would be cool to write movies someday,” and did that bunch over a few years.  Then I realized at that point in my life, and in some ways it’s still true, that if I was going to take three or four months to do something, I’d rather do a record or do a tour — do the things that I do.

You commented in one of these old interviews that’s on your website (and I read all of them this afternoon) that you found it very difficult to really get to your sound on a film soundtrack. You said if somebody gets 2 minutes of good music out of a movie, your hat goes off to them.

Yeah, it can be a very difficult process on the sort of committee level.  One thing about films is that it’s usually the last thing that happens, and it’s at the point in the film where people are often kind of desperate for things to come along and make things better.  More than anything, music is one of the subjects that many people feel that they can talk about, including producers’ wives, girlfriends, buddies, everything else, and have opinions without necessarily knowing that much about it, and it’s a hard thing to do in a consensus way.  It’s a little different than visual arts, where somebody can say, “Oh, I don’t really like the purple part over there.”  You get somebody who doesn’t know about music talking in those kinds of terms, and you can really wind up with a kind of Frankenstein, committee-ized version of something that might not have been that great in the first place!  Those aspects of it are part of what every major Hollywood kind of guy can deal with… A lot of it is just human skill.  I actually don’t interface with Hollywood well at all.  I kind of figured that around the time of Twice In A Lifetime

Are they a bit too oblique for you?

Well, part of it is that I’m really spoiled.  I’ve been able to make my own kind of music kind of on my own terms pretty much from day one.  On the other hand, the part of film scoring that I really love is, in fact, the collaboration of it.

This particular project, Map Of The World, was sort of like a dream.  It was a complete pleasure on every level right from the beginning.  It was a great story.  The acting is amazing.  Sigourney Weaver has probably never done anything this great in her career.  It’s her career performance, no question about it.  It’s the director’s first film, but he’s actually quite a well-known theater director here in New York, heading an interesting theater group called The New Group.  I was the guy that he wanted to do the score, there was no one else they were really even considering… In a way, it’s kind of gotten me back in the thing of, like, “Wow, doing film scores is kind of cool again.”  It was a very pleasant and very rewarding experience.

Was there an Americana aspect to the film that made it felicitous with your aesthetic, or the way a lot of people perceive it anyway?

Yeah.  The movie takes place in a small town in Wisconsin, and has a very strong Midwestern theme to it in the sense that… Well, actually one of the interesting things about it is that it’s sort of a look of the darker side of that.  By that I don’t necessarily mean the evil side of it.  But there’s this Americana thing that people think of as whatever that thing is.  But having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself, there’s also a lot of sort of closed-minded, ignorant kind of stuff there, too, that kind of gets shoved under the rug of all those major chords! [LAUGHS] This film really just deals with that.  And the film also…

It’s the underbelly of Americana type of thing.

Yeah.  It also deals with a certain aspect of current American culture that’s interesting, which is the thing of, like, when something does go wrong, this incredible need to find a place to put blame, to identify somebody who fucked up, and how it’s sort of just like an obsession right now.  The music doesn’t really get down and dirty with all that stuff.  The music functions in the film as kind of the… I hope to try to keep it sort of neutral to several different things…

Is it used ironically in the film?  Because it doesn’t have a very dark sound, frankly.  Are they using it as ironic counterpoint to certain scenes?

I would say that it’s not ironic at all.  It’s kind of neutral.  Hopefully, it’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s just kind of the way it is.  That’s kind of the tone I wanted it to have.  And that’s a zone I try to address often anyway, this kind of thing, especially on a melodic level, where things don’t necessarily push it too much one way or the other in terms of the actual notes that are on the page.  It’s just kind of like almost making a commentary on what the thematic element is.  If you had to say the movie is about one thing, it’s about forgiveness.  That’s the tone of it.  There’s all this other stuff that happens, but I really wanted to keep the music in that specific shade of forgiveness.

Does that shade have a color for you?  You’ve said you think in colors, and you think of your compositional process as sound painting in a certain sense.

Yeah, but I would say that the color of it only would exist in the syntax of music.  It doesn’t exist outside of that realm.

Why the use of the full orchestra?  Was that a directorial choice, or was that the way you were hearing the music?

That’s the way I heard it.  To do a score for me, there’s a moment early on where I either sort of hear it or I don’t know, what the basic sound of it is.  To me, this was very clearly acoustic guitar and orchestra.  That’s what the tone of it was for me.  Also, it was great, because that’s an area of writing that I love to do and hadn’t done that much of in recent years, so it was a great chance to explore that kind of writing, too, again.  The feeling of the scenery and everything is big.  It’s out there in the spaces, and it kind of needed something bigger like that to represent that.

Before I get to Imaginary Days, this might be a good place to segue to Missouri Skies, the duo with Charlie Haden.  I know he’s been such a significant musical figure for you over the years, from close to the beginning of your getting out into the great wide world as a working musician.

Yeah, we’ve known each other for a really long time.  When I first started playing with Gary Burton’s band, which I guess was in 1974, we’d play opposite Keith Jarrett’s band of the time, all the time.  That’s when Charlie and I became friends.  We didn’t really start a strong musical relationship playing together until ’80/’81, and from that point on it seems like we’ve played together on project after project.  I’ve just always had a thing.  It may be because we’ve become such good friends, or may not be — I can’t even quantify what it is.  But there is a thing that happens when we play together that we can anticipate each other.  I mean, Charlie is good at that with anybody he plays with.  But for me, the way we play together, it almost becomes like one instrument, and that’s something rarer and great to participate in.

Is there a certain vibe for you of a very acoustic feeling in playing with him?

I mean, that word “acoustic” is one that gets thrown around so…

Oh yes, you’ve had much to say about it in many of these interviews.  I shouldn’t have opened that can of worms.

Yeah.  To me, Charlie is just Charlie, and whether he’s plugged into his amp or not doesn’t have too much to do with the Charlieness of it all.

So the vibe that the two of you have is an ineffable thing.

Yeah.  To me it all boils down to listening.  All of the musicians that I really love playing with have one thing in common, and that’s that they’re able to sort of absorb and respond to what’s happening on a sort of microsecond-by-microsecond basis, and come up with really cool answers to whatever question the music is asking at a moment’s notice.

In his liner notes Charlie Haden says that he calls your sound “contemporary impressionistic Americana.”  Can you talk about the arc of that record?

Well, that was a special one, and one that kind of surprised me, because I never would have guessed that record would become as successful as it’s become.  That’s going to be one of the most successful records I’ve ever been a part of. I’m so proud of that record, because it’s so direct, it’s so intimate.  At the time we were making it, it was almost like we weren’t even making a record.  We were just kind of hanging out, playing, and we’d work on something, then we’d do another one, and about ten tunes in I remember turning to Charlie and saying, “Charlie, it seems we’re doing an awful lot of ballads here!”  “Yeah, I know, I know, that’s what I want to do.”  I was like, “Well, okay.”  It’s probably not something I would have thought of, to do a whole record of ballads like that on acoustic guitar, and yet at the same time I’ve learned so much about the way I play, and that record kind of reveals a side of me as a player that I didn’t even know.

Can you quantify what that is?

No.  I guess I didn’t realize that somehow over the years I had gotten a thing going on acoustic guitar that I just didn’t know about.  I mean, I would play a tune here or there on acoustic guitar, but Charlie would always rave about my acoustic guitar playing to other people and to me.  I didn’t get it exactly.  But now I listen to that record, and I… “First Song” especially.  It’s like, I get it, man.  It’s like, “Oh yeah!”  I don’t think anybody else really plays like that on an acoustic guitar.  So that’s good.

So the record gave you a sense that you have a singular sound on that end of the spectrum.

Yeah, more than just… I guess I always knew I did that and I could do that.  I didn’t realize… It’s something I guess I can’t even put into words.  Maybe I can’t really quantify what it is.  It’s a way of playing melodies, where the melodies can really stand on their own, without there necessarily being any chords, where it’s just sound.  That’s about as close as I can get to it.

Let me segue to another record you did a few years with Derek Bailey that was almost all about sound… It was interesting to read these interviews, because in the early ’80s you were talking about the dangers of basing compositions only on sound because it was too easy to get new sounds, and so therefore the pieces might tend to wane in value in a few years.  Then as time goes and these new sonic options make themselves open to you, you’re moving more and more to this incredibly expansive sonic palette.  It’s interesting to read all those interviews in one spot, and brave of you to try to put all that stuff in one spot…

That’s an interesting comment from the early ’80s.  I mean, in a lot of ways I still stand by that.  Especially my regular group… A big part of what my group is, is the sound of it.  That’s been true right from the very beginning.  Yet at the same time, Lyle and I, being the guys who write most of the music, are aware of the temptations of just using sound as the final thing.  At the same time, we’re aware of the power of that.  The idea is to get a lot of things working together.  That’s to me one of the fun and exciting things about being a musician at this particular moment in time, is that we have all these options, we have all these possibilities, and we have a whole set of new things to explore and try.  In that range of possibilities, to me, is included acoustic guitar, duets with Charlie, playing the way that I was playing with Derek, playing with synthesized stuff and combining it with acoustic instruments, like we do with the group, using an orchestra for a film score, or playing solo guitar, or playing in a quartet or something like that.  All of those to me are very viable, sort of real, everyday kind of musical situations that I feel very lucky to get the chance to address.  And all of them are primarily about sound.  All of them are kind of within a palette or a range of sonic color that’s very familiar to me.  Yet at the same time, the sound is just the envelope, and what you put inside that has to do with kind of everything that’s happening to you outside your life as a musician.  I think that might be more what I was talking about in the ’80s there.

So it’s not about style for you.  It’s really about sound.  It’s like one enormous palette.

It was never about style for me.  To me, style is the easiest to talk about and the least resonant aspect of what music is.  In fact, that’s the area that I would say 90% of — for lack of a better word — criticism is talking about, is style and idiom, both of which are absolutely meaningless to me and to most people, I think, post-1965 or so.  I mean, it’s just not an issue now.  I think that hasn’t completely sunk into the culture yet, how deeply that’s been obliterated from the scope of the world that we live in.  I mean, we live in a world where everything is completely smashed together.  For those of us who are making records and trying to work as musicians or as artists or whatever, it can be extremely confusing.  But I welcome that confusion, too.  That’s part of it.  And to try to avoid that confusion by retreating into a world of nostalgia or some, like, mythical purist kind of way of thinking of style or idiom or whatever, it’s a real copout for me.  It’s much more valuable to just, “okay, be confused.”

That said, the Pat Metheny Group does operate within a certain sonic parameter.  Or not.  I mean, you’re not going to step out, for instance, and do what you do with Roy Haynes, say, when you’re a sideman with him.

I would say that if you look at however many group records there are now, 10 or something like that, the range of sound from the earliest group record through Imaginary Day, and including records like Quartet or Off-Ramp or whatever, you can find things on those records that absolutely refers to the way I play with Roy Haynes.  In fact, Roy has even covered several of the group tunes on his records.  I do think that there is sometimes a perception of the group that is based on two or three tunes.  I mean, a lot of bands have this same thing.  But if you really go deeper into some of the records, there’s a lot of other stuff going on there that maybe isn’t as noticed as some of the other stuff.  Addressing your question in particular, there are things on Quartet, which is the group record right before Imaginary Day, that would be way too far out for a Roy Haynes record.  So it’s  hard for me…

Let me change gears.  This band has been together for 20 years now, right?

Yes.

And how much are you still touring… Oh, here’s another quote from about 15-16 years ago.  You said, “I don’t expect to be on the road 300 days a year when I’m 50.”  Now you’re 45.

45, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Are you close to meeting that aspiration?

It has changed a little bit.  Although the year following the release of Imaginary Day, I think we did do 220 shows or something like that.  Also, the scene in the world is wildly different now than it was when I did that interview.  There’s fewer places to play, and it’s harder to get gigs for everybody.  That may have been the last time, actually, that jazz was not separated from Pop music.  Since then, there’s been a strong movement to get jazz to be something more like Classical music, like almost a defined little branch separate from the sort of like mainstream music that was just people’s music.  We used to play like in the same places that Rock bands would play and everything like that.  The generation immediately after me kind of gave up on that, and took what for me is the easier route of playing for much older people rather than playing for their own generation, and kind of dressing and acting like people much older than they were, while we were… Like I say, I think we were the last generation of guys who really were of the generation we were in.  There’s of course lots of exceptions to that, but I’m talking about on a sort of larger scale.  Now I think there’s been two or three generations of kids, jazz is just not part of their world because they’ve never had people their own age playing it.  The people who were their own age were playing it for people older than them.  And that’s made it harder, because the scene sort of lost its momentum.

A lot of the young players hear it in school.  They sort of get tracked onto it, I think.  Whereas you are from a generation who was able to grow up in proximity to smaller cities and play with very strong musicians and work out your own ideas about music in a situation that was without orthodoxies and without an academic program, as it were.

Yes, I’m so lucky for that.  I look back on that often and think what a lucky thing it was for me to be near Kansas City, where there was this very real kind of scene — and also lucky to be able to participate in it when I was 14-15-16-17 years old.

And you were working fairly much from the age of 15 or 16?

Yeah.  By the time I was 16 I was working five or six nights a week.

By that time, when you were 15 or 16, did you have any inkling in your mind’s ear of the type of sounds that you eventually started moving toward during your time with Gary Burton?  Talk about the development of that inner ear.

I think there was a certain kind of harmony that I always liked and a certain kind of rhythm thing that I always felt good playing.  When I look back on it now, kind of in retrospect, those two areas were what defined a lot of what I do even now.  I never had any fear of triads.  A lot of jazz guys, if there’s not at least four notes happening, they’re going to stick one in there.  For me, triads were always a viable option.  I think when people talk about Midwestern blah-blah-blah, a lot of that is just simplicity.  I’ve always loved to play simple.  As much as I like playing things that are very dense and complicated now, underneath all that is this thing where I just love playing real simple things.

It seems you’re also able to find the essence of simplicity within very complex forms, and get right to the point, which I’m sure is one reason why you’ve stayed so popular for so long.

Well, it’s a hard thing to do, what you just said.  Now, you want to talk about Brecker’s thing.  To me, that’s one of the real challenges of playing his music, is that it’s so dense.  I mean, that is the hardest music I could ever imagine playing.  And that’s true on all three records of his that I’ve been on.  He’s another guy who can really find ways of playing sort of straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I would aspire to try to be at that same level.  I mean, Brecker is one of the guys I really look up to, like Herbie is.  Those two guys kind of remind me of each other in that respect, in that harmony becomes…it’s just not an issue because they’re so advanced harmonically.  What I try to do is, I aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom, but I also really want to play things that even if you don’t know anything about the chords you could still kind of sing it.  That’s kind of what I try to go for.

Do you look objectively at your records once you’re done with them, or do you just let them go and move on to the next project?

I just have to let them go and move on.  I think everybody’s like that.  You do your best and… For instance, the first record I made, Bright-Sized Life, which almost 25 years ago now…that record for me was just a horror at the time and for maybe ten years after it came out.  I thought, “God, how could I have blown my first record that much?”  Yet there were people who kept talking about how good that record was, and how it was a really nice record and all that sort of thing.  I’d go, “Oh, people are just nuts, man!”  Then about ten years afterwards I was somewhere, and I heard it, and I was like, “Well, that’s not so bad.  Now, 25 years later, I listen to it and I think, “Man, I was 19 and Jaco was 20… We were onto something!”  It’s something I would never have gotten for years after it.  On the other hand, there’s records that at the time I made them I thought, “Ooh, that’s really good,” and now it’s like, “Whoa, what were we thinking?”

Tell me a bit about the arc of Imaginary Days.  You mentioned that each record tells a complete story and set of circumstances unto itself.

I think that’s one of the better group records.  And I’m only a couple of years away from it now, so what do I know?  But it’s a record where I think we upped the ante on several levels in terms of what the group could be, sonically and in terms of the instrumentation, and also just in terms of the density of the writing.  We kind of had an idea early on, which was to try to get this arc of a day.  Even if that doesn’t come through in the music, it gave us a place to start and get our foot in the door, which sometimes is enough.  The group’s thing… I think that a lot of people like the group for the sort of trip quotient, the way that we have these long pieces that really kind of develop over these 9- and 10-minute periods as opposed to just a little tune where everybody solos or something like that.  We really try to write fairly elaborate environments for improvisation to live in.  And it always does boil down to the improvising, but the settings are particular to the possibilities that are available to that band, with those people and the instruments that are available to us, and the way of making records that are available now.  We try to address all those things, and tell a story about them.

You’ve certainly always embraced technology wholeheartedly.

Well, to me, because I’m a guitar player and all that…

You had to plug in.

My first musical act was plugging it in.  If you’re a guitar player, you have no choices, because the acoustic guitar really has, in my life, one true function, and that’s if I want to play a tune for my girlfriend sitting on the bed.  Beyond that, there’s going to be a mike or an amp or a pickup or something like that, and if I want to play with a drummer there’s got to be.  I’ve spent a fair amount of energy examining those details to try to be hopefully creative and hopefully musically responsible with what those things offer.  And it’s exciting.  It’s an exciting time to be a musician right now.  I’m always a little bit puzzled by what appear to be creative musicians who, from what I can see, have their head in the sand as to what’s possible now, like preferring to just deal with the tried and true.  I can dig that, too; it’s easier.  But there’s some stuff that a lot of people could be doing now, and aren’t, because… I don’t know why they’re not.  There are some cool things out there.

That’s a good segue to ask you about your duo with Jim Hall (Pat Metheny and Jim Hall).  You’ve said that along with Wes Montgomery he’s the guitarist who had the biggest impact on you.

Definitely.  I’ve said this before, that I call him the father of modern jazz guitar, in the sense that all of us — Frisell, Sco, Mick Goodrick, Abercrombie, especially the five of us — are all very easily traceable through Jim’s thing, yet at the same time we don’t sound very much like each other.  That’s an interesting thing.  I think you could say the same thing about Charlie Christian and Jim and Wes.  They both point to Charlie Christian, yet they don’t sound like each other either.  It’s an interesting thing.  To me Jim is also a bit like Roy Haynes in the respect that there’s Jack and Tain and all those other guys who would talk about Roy without really sounding like each other.  It’s like Jim, especially with The Bridge and Undercurrent, sort of opened up a door of thinking.  And when I think about the way I actually play, it doesn’t have too much to do with the way Jim actually plays.  It’s more just a way of thinking of what the guitar can mean than anything else.  I think that there was a point where guitar was a little bit of an odd piece in the puzzle.  Let’s say prior to The Bridge, even, you had guitar players who were leaders, like Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and various other guys, but they weren’t playing in major bands.  It was sort of this other thing.  Then you’d have guys like Herb Ellis who were half rhythm guitar players and half single note or soloist kind of players.   But to me, until The Bridge, there wasn’t a guy who kind of said, okay, the guitar can really function in this sort of in between zone, the way Jim…

Not Wes Montgomery?

Well, Wes didn’t really play in those kind of bands.  Wes is one of those guys who came on the scene as a leader.  Wes is like the original Joshua Redman or something like that, just kind of showed up and became a leader instantly.  That’s very rare.  Nowadays that seems to happen more.  But in terms of players who make a major impact it’s very rare that somebody comes along just out of the blue like that.

[ETC.]

One other recording I think we should address, because it seems to be a very summational thing for you, is Like Minds on Stretch, with Gary Burton and Roy Haynes.

That was a fun record to make, actually.  It was really easy.  Actually, we did that record in a day.  I think Gary had booked three days, and we did it in one day.  You do a take or two, and…

Nothing else to say.

Right.  It was real fun, because everybody knew each other and had played together in different situations, even though we hadn’t all played together… I mean, the criss-cross lines of the different situations that everybody had played in was kind of funny almost — how many different contexts we all had shared at various points.  But it was a great, pleasant experience.  Gary to me is a musician who is kind of underrated, even though he’s famous and everything like that.  Having been around at this point a lot of really good improvisers, some of the best improvisers around, from Herbie to Sonny Rollins to Ornette, all the different guys I’ve had the chance to play with, in terms of somebody who can really come up with the stuff at a high level night-after-night-after-night-after-night, and really just play… I don’t think I’ve been around anybody like Gary, who can just deal like that in terms of melodic-harmonic invention, and playing his ass off, and grooving, and just coming up with the goods! — and really making stuff up.  He is something else, that guy.  Because it’s the vibes and because he plays with four mallets and there’s a lot of ringing going on and stuff, I think sometimes people miss it a little bit with him.  But he’s an incredible improviser.  He’s a heavy cat.

And that band put you in the big leagues real quick, I mean, with Steve Swallow and Mick Goodrick…

Oh, I was so lucky to get that experience.  I mean, I was 18 really when I started playing with those guys, and all four of them, Swallow, Mick, Gary and Moses, just had a major-major-major impact on the way that I play to this day.  They were already an incredible band, and they had to make room for me, in a way, which kind of caused them all to have to talk to me in very specific terms about, “Do this; don’t do that” kind of thing. Which was actually kind of difficult at the time.  First of all, it would be hard for me now to walk into a situation as perfectly balanced as a vibes, guitar, bass and drums quartet, and make it a quintet with another guitar.  It was just hard.  There wasn’t an obvious thing to do and an obvious place to be.  Combined with the fact that, like you say, I wasn’t exactly green prior to that, because I had played a lot with great musicians even, but I hadn’t played with people at that level night after night after night before.  It was a fantastic experience.

Why don’t we do the “My Favorite Things” component of this interview now. So you’re still traveling a huge amount…

This year it’s been a little bit less, but generally speaking, yes.

What CD or CDs would be things you would want to accompany you if you’re flying from New York to, say, a gig at the Japanese Blue Notes?

The honest answer to that question is nothing.  Because I rarely listen to music except when I can really like sit in front of a good stereo and sort of hear it.

In that case, what five CDs are in your rotation at this point?

Let me go over here, because I’ve been listening to a bunch of stuff lately.  Well, the new Keith Jarrett solo piano record is in there.  Larry Goldings’ new trio record. Larry is something.  I’ve got actually Brecker’s record sitting here.  I’ve got Tenor Madness, Sonny Rollins.  And I’ve got Brad Mehldau’s new trio record, Live At the Vanguard, which for me is the release of the year.  I’ve loved Brad ever since he came on the scene.  In fact, my favorite prior to this one was that Live in Barcelona one that he did.

What albums, if there were albums, inspired you to get into music?

Oh, there are some real specific ones.  There’s four sort of like big records for me.  New York Is Now is one.  Miles Davis, Four and More is another one.  Four and More is really the reason I became a musician.  In fact, it has probably as much to do with Tony Williams as it does with Miles.  I heard 10 seconds of that ride cymbal and it just blew my mind.  Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ At the Half Note.

Two sentences about New York Is Now and Smokin’ At the Half-Note.

I got New York Is Now I got when I was probably about 12, and I had no idea about the controversy surrounding Ornette or anything.  I didn’t know there was any difference between the way Ornette played and the Beatles and marching band music.  To me it was all music that was on record.  All I knew was they were on records.  To me, it just sounded like they were having a lot of fun.  I just remember thinking, “It’s fun.”  I think in a lot of ways that’s the essence of what Ornette’s thing is, is that it’s fun.

Smokin’ At the Half Note for me is the record (I think everybody has got one or more) where you actually learn every note that every person on the record plays.  I mean, there was a time I could sing you every note of every solo on that record.  It’s not only a great Wes Montgomery record or a great guitar record.  That’s a great jazz record.  I mean, that’s people playing together the way people are supposed to play together.  And also the sound of that record always… It’s just so stuck in my brain, the tone of that record.

The fourth one is actually the Gary Burton Quartet, Live In Concert at Carnegie Hall on RCA, which I don’t think was ever reissued, and isn’t very well-known record.  It’s Gary, Swallow, Moses and Larry Coryell.  That record blew my mind in a whole other way.  It was jazz, and yet at the same time it was guys sort of addressing the other stuff, the kind of Country and Rock thing, but not doing it for any reason other than you could tell it was natural for them to do that.  I guess a lot of people point to Bitches Brew as sort of the beginning of a movement.  To me it happened some years before that, and it’s somewhat uncredited, which is, you know, Gary’s band of the time, and there were a couple of other bands like the Fourth Way and Jeremy Steig’s band in ’65 or so… What those guys were doing kind of predates the Miles thing significantly, and in some ways it’s a little bit more interesting.  But that particular record has a few things about it… Larry Coryell on that record is just staggering.  He’s a musician who is still around and still plays really good and everything, but what he was suggesting on that record is kind of mindblowing to me.  And it still blows my mind.  I still get that record out every now and then, just to check out what Larry did on there.  I’m a fan of him in general, but that record is just light years past anything else he ever did.  In particular his solo on “Walter L,” which is just a blues, is one of the greatest blues solos anybody ever played.

Speaking of Gary Burton, he said in his liner notes he thinks you carry around a secret list of people you want to play with and you just walk around, do a project and cross it off.  Is there such a list, and if so, or even not, what artists haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

You know, I saw that Gary wrote that, and actually it’s funny, because I don’t really think of it that way at all.  In fact, honestly… Playing with people that I don’t know is not something I do easily or casually.  For the things that I’ve ended up doing compared to the things that I’ve been asked to do, it’s a small sub-group.  If I’m going to play with somebody I have to first of all really love what they do, and also, more importantly, feel like I can play with them.  There’s musicians that I absolutely love but I know I wouldn’t play that well with them.  For me, each time I go into a project, I go into it with the same commitment to making it as good as it can be that I put into my own band or any records I make on my own.  So it’s not really that easy for me to go playing with people.  On the other hand, I look at the list of people I’ve played with, and in fact, it does include literally all of my favorite musicians, with one exception, and that’s Joe Henderson.  We’ve talked about doing something two or three times over the years, and it just never happened for one reason or another, most recently because he’s been ill.  But I think that he and I could play really well together, and that’s one thing I haven’t done.  The other one was Elvin, and I actually would love to play with Elvin more.  It was so much fun playing with him!  But I got to do that on Brecker’s record, and that was a real thrill.

Given that the premise for this interview is the film score, give me five of your favorite films, and perhaps you can mention soundtracks in there as well.

Let’s do it featuring the soundtracks.  Number one would be Cinema Paradiso.  I recorded a couple of the songs from that on Missouri Skies because I love it so much.  Ennio Morricone is awesome, just the greatest really.

Schindler’s List, besides being one of the most incredible movies anybody’s made, also has for me one of the greatest scores ever written.  People almost dismiss John Williams, oh, Star Wars and Spielberg and all that.  He is such an incredibly great writer, and he’s got such a great mind for texture and kind of density and… With him, I really get this feeling of a canvas, and the way he places colors and everything is really something.  Even on a craft level, just what he does with those really big movies… It’s kind of hard to do that.  It’s hard to keep something going for 45 minutes buried underneath explosions and everything like that, and have it still kind of swing, in a way.  Swing in the sort of broadest sense of the word, glueing everything together with this forward motion thing.  He’s a heavy cat, John Williams is.  But that score in particular also has some incredible melodies in it.

Henry Mancini.  You could pick a number of scores, but in particular “Two For the Road,” which I covered on Missouri Skies.  It’s a score that basically is that one song sort of repeated endlessly.  In fact, a number of Mancini scores were like that.  You can say Breakfast at Tiffany’s with “Moon River”… He just had this thing where he could actually write an amazing melody that you really wanted to hear over and over again.  So many film scores have a theme, and you do hear it over and over again, and you couldn’t sing it if your life depended upon it two seconds after you walk out of the theater.  Mancini, it’s like the first time you hear it, it’s like stuck in your brain forever.  Then he can really do something with it, too; his sense of how to develop those themes was kind of unparalleled.

Sticking with a contemporary guy, James Newton Howard to me is the best of the current guys who do a lot of scores.  That David Mamet play about real estate, Glengarry Glen Ross, with Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin… His score for that is incredible.

One more is a guy who people have a little bit of the wrong impression about because he can do other things, and that’s Danny Elfman.  His score for Dolores Clairborne is one of the most interesting harmonic pieces of music that I’ve heard in several years, just for this sort of floating, like nondescript harmony thing he gets going, which is absolutely perfect for the movie, but just to listen to as a kind of modern composition is really advanced.  Also, his way of writing, from what I understand, is wildly different than a conventional composer who sits at the piano and writes notes on a page.  He’s almost doing it in a sort of intuitive way, it sounds like.  But the result is really special.

I should also ask you about your favorite guitar players.

Of all time?  Number one would be Wes Montgomery.  Wes was the guy who embodied everything about music that makes me love music.  He had incredible time and one of the great rhythm feels of any modern improviser.  He has the most incredibly soulful, inviting, warm persona as a musician, which I think more than anything is what made his music accessible to people who  maybe only have one jazz record in their collection.  They can feel it.  They get it.  To me, he’s like Stevie Wonder that way.  You know, everybody digs Stevie Wonder.  If you’re a musician, you can dig it because of all the incredible melodies and the aspects of it that deal with Funk and all that stuff.  But everybody digs it because it’s just THERE, and Wes has that same thing.  It’s just there.  You can’t help but dig it.  It’s just there.

Django Reinhardt would probably be number two for just finding a way of making the instrument sound that no one before him and no one after him has ever even approached.  I mean, he was completely singular.  There may be somebody who could imitate that a little bit, but even the people who have tried to imitate it sound kind of silly.  It’s like he just found a voice.  And that voice sort of crosses time and space.  It’s like hearing Bird.  It just doesn’t sound old.  Like, you hear all these things around him that sound old, and his thing sounds as modern now as it must have been when he was playing it, just like Bird.  Maybe he’s the only guitar player who has that quality of sort of transcending the time that he actually played in.

I have to mention Jim, who opened the door for the guitar’s place in modern music with a very subtle touch and a very quiet way of presenting the instrument.  He sort of expanded its voice more than if he had turned it up to 10!  Somehow through reduction he expanded things.

I’d have to pick amongst my contemporaries John Scofield, who for me is everything that a great musician should be, and he happens to be a guitar player.  He makes everybody around him sound better and play better.  He is an incredibly interesting and inventive and exciting improviser.  He can deal with harmony in a very expanded way, but he can also play blues probably better than almost any other jazz guy on any instrument right now.  He’s such a great blues player, and that sort of informs everything he does and gives it the spirit that makes it… Again, anybody can dig John.  They don’t have to be a jazz fan.

Just a few questions about Michael Brecker.  You gave me a very nice quote about his being so authoritative harmonically.  You and he have been close for many years, and he said that being in the ’80/’81 band opened him up in a certain way, it gave him a sense of freedom he’d never experienced before, even in his first days in New York in that sort of Coltraneish loft scene out of which a lot of things emerged.  How do you see his sound having evolved from 1980 and when you first knew him to now?

I’ve heard him say that a lot of times, and some of his friends from that time have said that, too, that he came back from that tour kind of a changed person.  Which makes me feel really good!  Because that music really was written for him. That way of playing was the way I imagined he sounded like.  It’s a little bit like me with Charlie.  Charlie showed me a way that he thought I sounded that I didn’t even know I sounded like.   Sometimes in this kind of broad community of musicians that every guy functions in, the guys you play with sometimes illuminate your own thing to yourself in a way that you might not notice.  So it makes feel good that Mike feels that way.  I think that there is kind of a pre-’80/’81 Mike and a sort of post ’80/’81 Mike that exists even on his own records.  I think it’s a more adventurous.  I always felt like his first record, that Michael Brecker one, was kind of the followup to ’80/’81.  It’s basically the same band, and we kind of took up where that record left off.  The thing that I have seen evolve, and starting with that record, is what a great composer Mike has become.  You could see that coming in the Brecker Brothers records.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing on there, Randy and Mike, is really advanced.  There’s very little three-horn writing going on today in any sphere that approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record.  I mean, I go down to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that are that hip.  And that’s 25 or more years ago.

Mike’s thing for coming up with tunes that you play like night after night after night I think has evolved as he’s become a bandleader, which has been going on now for almost 15 years.  For me, it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on his records.  It was flattering the first time.  Then Tales From the Hudson for me, of all the dates I’ve done in the past few years, or really ever, as a sideman, is the one I point to as the most satisfying.  It was just a great record to be a part of.  I thought the band was absolutely perfectly suited for the music.  Everybody played well together, and played as a band.  To me, that’s what Modern Jazz is in the ’90s.  That kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way that the record felt as a whole… I was really proud to be on that record.  Now the new one is sort of a continuation of that Tales From the Hudson thing, and compositionally it’s the best of them all in terms of his writing.

He’s a heavy cat, Brecker.  I said the same thing about Gary Burton before, but I mean… Again, he’s famous and everything, and I think well-respected and all that, but sometimes I see people put Brecker down.  Like, you would know the criticisms the same way I would, some people say, “Oh, Brecker…”  I’d like to see any of those guys follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced.  There are very few musicians on any instrument who can follow Brecker.  And it’s because he’s deep!  You can say, “Oh, it’s technical and it’s flash.  No.  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  Yes, I can sit here and talk all day long, and it’s true… In terms of harmonic knowledge and really understanding what Trane did, there are not too many people at his level.  Yet at the same time, he’s not about that any more.  What makes him, him, is what he does to people.  He drives people crazy!  People will like start screaming and stuff.  He can just keep going.  It’s kind of the way Herbie can do that, too.  He just gets people where they live.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.  It’s what he does to people.  He whips them up.

 

*************

Pat Metheny (April 10, 2006):

TP: Since this is an oral history and it puts your life on the record, I’ll ask some boilerplate questions that I’m sure you’ve been asked before, things about your background and influences and family and things like that. Introduce yourself.

PAT: My name is Pat Metheny. I’m a guitar player.

TP: Pat, you were born in 1954 in Lee’s Summit, Kansas or Missouri… Missouri.

PAT: On the Missouri side of the Kansas City area.

TP: What kind of place was Lee’s Summit when you were growing up as a small child and in the 60s?

PAT: Well, as the years have gone by, and I sort of reflect on where I grew up, which is a little town in Missouri called Lee’s Summit, a really attribute a whole bunch of things that kind of have made me not just the musician I am, but the person that I am, that have fairly direct connections to that kind of coincidence of geography. The first one is that during the time I grew up there, it was really kind of typical — a peaceful, very pleasant Midwestern town, of which there were many. But in my particular case, Lee’s Summit was a town that my dad had grown up in, that his dad had grown up in, and his father (which would be my great-grandfather) didn’t grow up there, but lived there the last years of his life, and died there.

So my family’s connection to this place, especially in terms of American history, is quite lengthy.

The musical location of Lee’s Summit, relative to Kansas City, which was the next big town, about 30 miles away, wound up having a very profound impact on kind of the trajectory of my life as a musician, in the sense that it was a city that had a very active jazz scene, and had annual jazz festivals that we intended. That was the first exposure that I had to the music that I wound up devoting myself to.

Also, Lee’s Summit was a town that had a very special music program (I realize now, in retrospect) that was headed by, as many of those Midwestern music programs are, one singular person who happened to be an absolutely brilliant music educator. I should add that my family was…my mom and my dad, but also I have an older brother named Mike, who is a fantastic musician, who was kind of a child prodigy trumpet player under the guidance of this teacher that I am going to mention named Mr. Keith House. Mr. House was himself an incredible trumpet player, who happened to get a job in Lee’s Summit, and kind of singlehandedly formed one of the most effective and well-regarded music programs in the state of Missouri.

Through Mike’s studies with Mr. House, I think that sort of trickled down to me. I began playing trumpet myself when I was 8, and there was opportunities in Lee’s Summit for people to play the trumpet in ways that had nothing to do with jazz. Jazz was about as far from the radar in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, as it could possibly be anywhere.

TP: What were some of the situations in which you played trumpet before you got to jazz?

PAT: Let me finish this, because I’m headed towards stuff like that. Especially if you’re not going to be in it, then I’ll just kind of go on. I’m usually thinking in terms of what’s going to be a paragraph.

The band program and the music program under Mr. House had absolutely no jazz connection whatsoever. And it happened that my older brother, Mike, brought home a Miles Davis record when I was about 11. There were two or three kids in his class that had sort of become jazz-aware. I know that the rap usually goes that jazz is supposed to be this very complex, detailed art form that you have to spend an entire lifetime learning about and everything like that, in order to appreciate it or even comprehend it, and that may be the case for some people. But for me, as an 11-year-old kid (this would have been 1965), Mike had a copy of a Miles record called Four And More, and literally within 30 seconds of hearing that record, I would say my life changed. It was like somebody walked into the room and turned on the light. And pretty much every waking minute from then until now has been devoted to trying to understand what that thing is, and what it was that kind of happened in that burst of attention that opened up in my brain that has really caused a lifetime of research and incredible pleasure and incredible joy of trying to kind of crystallize what that quality of music is that has been so incredibly absorbing for me.

TP: How did you move to the guitar from the trumpet?

PAT: Well, in 1965, 1964, around that time, I would have been 9-10-11 years old, that would coincide almost exactly with what happened in the world, where suddenly the guitar became not just a musical instrument — it really became kind of an icon of an entire movement. It kind of transformed the world. You can almost measure the flow of the culture in that sort of pre-1960, post-1960 thing. So much changed. And somehow, the guitar was then and, as I’m speaking right now in 2006, I would say remains a sort of focus of whatever that thing was. Its focus comes into play in the culture, in the music itself. But for me as a little kid, it was just the THING of a guitar. It just kind of represented all this stuff, and somehow got on my radar. And I started to draw guitars and look at guitars in the Sears Catalogue, and want to know about guitars. Electric guitar. Does that mean you like plug it into the wall? Thank goodness, I didn’t try that, but that did occur to me that that’s what they meant.

So kind of coinciding with that, my parents, being parents of kids in the ’60s, to them the guitar represented everything that they feared about what was going on outside of Lee’s Summit. That pretty much caused them to really be concerned, as my interest in the guitar grew — which, of course, as a 10- or 11-year-old kid, was like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. It was like, that made it even more appealing, that they didn’t want me to do that.

So it happened that kind of close to our house, in fact our neighbor behind our house, it was a mom and a dad with two kids…the dad had an electric guitar. The kids knew about it, but they had never seen it. So we, like, snuck into the closet after school one day, before the guy came home, and looked at it, and it was this Gretsch Country Gentleman Electric Guitar. It was like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life. And the kid’s mom saw that we ad done that, and, rather than getting mad about it, the guy was actually kind of excited that his kids and one of the neighbor kids had shown some interest in the guitar. In fact, he was a bluegrass guy, as were many of the people around Lee’s Summit, that being a very popular form there. He had weekly kind of jam sessions, where a bunch of guys would get together with guitars. At that age, that was probably the first time I sat close to somebody who could really play, and it made quite an impact.

That would be sort of going along in parallel to just kind of rock-and-roll bands that were kind of exploding around the world, and certainly in the United States at that time. I heard a lot of kids practicing, older teenage kids playing kind of the pop and rock music of the day with their instruments in garages, literally.

The ironic thing in my case was that for all the play that this iconic guitar cultural thing may have had on my interest in the instrument, as soon as I got one, which would have been when I was about 12, because I’d heard this Miles record, I immediately turned my back and totally lost interest in anything having to do with pop culture, and particularly rock-and-roll, and became completely, you know, a jazz snob. I would make the most jazz-snobby-guy-in-the-world look liberal. I was completely, absolutely devoted to trying to understand the language in a pretty pure way. But my version of what that purity was, in fact, quite ecumenical. I mean, I was very interested in all aspects of what jazz was at that time, and kind of tried to make it my business to understand what that was, and to spend many, many hours listening to records and really concentrating on it. Which made everybody very concerned about me. As a parent myself now, I understand, in a way that I never understood before, what it’s like…what it must have been like to have a kid, 11 or 12 years old, devoted completely, 10-12-14 hours a day, to this music that was probably quite foreign…not probably…was quite foreign to everyone.

But the luckiest part for me was this geographical connection to Kansas City. Because once I started to get some kind of a flow going on the instrument, which would have been a couple of years later (I would have been 13 or 14), I started to get the chance to play in jam sessions with older Kansas City musicians, and almost immediately they started hiring me. All through my junior high and high school years, I was able to work in Kansas City 4-5-6 nights a week with great musicians. In junior high, it was just occasionally. Starting in high school, it was pretty much regularly.

The Kansas City scene at that time, which would have been 1969-70-71-72, was very active. Just a little geography here. There’s Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. It’s basically one city, divided in the middle. The Kansas City, Missouri side had kind of one scene; the Kansas City, Kansas side had another scene. But it happened that because of liquor laws at the time, the Kansas City, Kansas side was able to stay open very late, and that had a different kind of feel to it and also brought a lot of players to Kansas City to continue to do gigs that I was able to hear and also to play with sometimes.

The main group of players that I was playing with around Kansas City… I had no way of knowing this at the time, because that was pretty much all I had access to, but it was an incredibly exceptional group of people, particularly a drummer named Tommy Ruskin (who I still play with occasionally out there, who is literally one of the best drummers I’ve played with), a piano player named Paul Smith and a trumpet player named Gary Sivils. Those three guys pretty much took me under their wing, and during those years would hire me and use me on lots of gigs.

I kind of got to learn how to play from playing. It wasn’t a theoretical, music education kind of situation. It was more that there were players who were excellent players who were coming me a chance, but at the same time they were expecting me to play as a professional. I had to do some funny stuff to make this happen. In order to even go into a place that served alcohol, I had to get a special permit from the Mayor, because I was by that time about 15 years old. It became kind of a thing, that there was a teenage kid playing in these places with all these older musicians. I suppose I probably became somewhat of an attraction. I played on a lot of jazz festivals and stuff around that time, kind of billed as this young guy who could sort of play. But the main thing for me was just the opportunities that I was able to have around Kansas City with guys who could really play. That was the main focus of I think my early life as a musician, was just trying to absorb the realities of what I was expected to do each night.

TP: I’d like to ask a two-part question. First, for purposes of this museum, concerning an interview that will be seen by people who may not be familiar with Kansas City’s role in the history of jazz, perhaps you could talk about that and whether you were aware of this during that period of time. Secondly, kind of a related question: Although it wasn’t a music education situation, I’d assume you were under the influence of certain guitar players, emulating them or transcribing them or just absorbing them. If that’s the case, who were those players and what were the characteristics of what they did that you incorporated into what you do?

PAT: The details of my life around Kansas City, as a teenage guy playing nightly with the better players around town, sort of was typical I think of what younger players go through, in the sense that I would kind of absorb and shed styles kind of like a snake. I would be completely crazy about so-and-so for a while and do everything I could do to emulate that kind of feeling, and then I would switch to somebody else. That seems to be quite a common trajectory for guys.

But in my case, there were a couple that were really, really big. The main one was Wes Montgomery. In fact, the first couple of years I played, I played with my thumb, I did everything I could do to sound as much like Wes as I possibly could. He’s a good model for a young guy. He plays great notes. He’s got a great feel. Then there’s this whole sub-sub-sub-level of things about Wes’ playing that I feel, even to this day, are almost completely unappreciated, even by the most astute jazz people. To me, he was really one of the greatest improvising musicians ever, particularly on a melodic level, which to me is the hardest and most difficult to discuss or quantify part of what it is to be an improvising musician.

Through my kind of very willful attempts to try to incorporate Wes-type things into my playing, it was an interesting difference between that time and let’s say a post-1980 period in jazz. Because at that time if you sounded like somebody else, it was sort of not cool. People didn’t really… I mean, I would take some heat for that. While kind of in this period that we’re in now, a more reflective, some would say conservative, certainly more fundamentalist type view of jazz, it’s totally fine to sound like somebody else. In fact, nobody would even question it. But lucky for me, particularly given my particular political bent as far as jazz goes, I was very discouraged by people to try to emulate other people. The message was loud and clear. The idea was to try to find your own way of playing, your own way of hearing, your own way of thinking, which to me is in fact an essential part of what makes jazz the incredible form that it is.

And I was very lucky to have that kind of hammered into me, by not only musicians. There were a couple of fans, who were older jazz fans, who followed the scene very closely, followed me closely, who would have these talks to me on the breaks. “How come you’re playing that Wes Montgomery stuff? You should try to get your own thing.” I was happy just to be on the gig and to be able to hang whatsoever. That discussion was a little bit past where I was actually at.

But there was a point when I was 16 or so that I was… I got pretty good. I could do a pretty good Wes thing. And it always would get a lot of house. People would always dig it on that level. But it just kind of struck me. It’s like: My favorite guitar player is Wes Montgomery, this guy who found this completely unique, absolutely singular, innovative way to do this. That’s what you’re supposed to do. From that moment, actually up until very-very recently, just the last few months, I have physically been unable to play with my thumb or in octaves. It’s like I just won’t do it, out of respect and out of the incredible love that I have for Wes.

That’s something that’s really set apart from any other musician I could mention. His thing was very, very important to me. But I also realized that what’s so great about it was its singularity. But in fact, that’s what I could say about every single figure that I think is important in jazz, is that there’s one of them, and there will ONLY be one of them — always. To me, there were a few figures like that. Wes would be one. Ornette Coleman would be another one. Certainly Miles Davis would be one. They are real models for me in their individuality. As much as people have tried to emulate all of those guys… I would even add a contemporary of mine, Jaco Pastorius, one of the most imitated musicians ever, probably. No one can do it. No one will ever be able to do it. Because you can’t imitate this stuff. It just is. It’s like somebody’s voice, when it’s the real thing. That lesson was brought home to me quite early, kind of thanks to Wes. That’s one more thing I have to thank him for.

But to follow through with the specific of it: Along with Wes, there was another major figure for me, Jim Hall, and also Kenny Burrell was a real important guitar player for me. But I listened to everybody. I always, especially at that time, kind of made it my business to know certainly every guitar player that had ever been on a record, just about, and, as much as I could, all the other instruments. Which is again pretty much par for the course. That’s pretty much what everybody does, I think, if you’re serious about it. You spend those years, weeks, months, days, hours, in a kind of complete, total immersion into the music. Because the truth is, it’s so vast, it’s so complex, there’s sort of no other way to get to it other than that.

TP: I don’t know if this is too esoteric for this purpose, but I’ll throw it out anyway. You developed a musical syntax in a way that involved phrasing it a not-guitaristic way, but in a horn-like way, maybe somewhat influenced by your brother, who is a trumpet player, and you also were, as you said very ecumenical about the type of music you played as a kid. I think I read on your website that you played Albert Ayler charts maybe in a garage band. You heard Ornette’s New York Is Now in 1968 or 1969. You had Jim Hall, Django Reinhardt; there were all these different musics you were sorting through. Since the style that you were emerged with in 1978 and 1975 was so immediately distinctive and attended-to, I’m wondering if you can (a) talk about those people, and for the people who will be seeing this, who they are and why they’re important, and, as much as you can, how you assimilated those different languages into your language.

PAT: I think for this general area of music that I find myself sitting in and that I’ve participated in throughout my life, there’s sort of the playing and then there’s sort of the conceptual thing. Having a concept, having a way of thinking, to me, is at least as important as how you actually render it into sound. In my case, I think because I started out as a trumpet player myself, my whole family is trumpet players, there’s trumpet everywhere in my list of favorites… Miles certainly is a huge one, but Freddie Hubbard would be right there with Miles in terms of just my sheer love of their music. But I’d also have to add Clifford Brown right there, in a very specific way in terms of phrasing. All of those players (and then, I could start listening saxophone players, too) had a huge effect on me in terms of how I wanted the conceptual spirit of the music to sound. A lot of that has to do with phrasing.

To me, phrasing was the aspect on the guitar that was kind of lagging furthest behind in terms of what sort of was the vernacular. In fact, it’s quite difficult to get the guitar to emulate the sense of singing, breathing, particularly on an instrument…an archtop guitar, which is what’s traditionally used in jazz, which has a kind of dry quality to it. It’s quite different than in Rock, where there’s a lot of sustain and distortion and all that sort of thing. There’s a real challenge to coordinate these two acts together, the picking and the fingering. It’s different than tonguing, where it’s just kind of one thing with breath, or a piano where it’s kind of one action. There’s a bunch of weird things about the guitar that became my business, that became sort of part and parcel of what kind of almost every waking minute was directed towards.

The general way that the guitar sits into my overall view of music is one of being a tool. It’s simply a way for me to get ideas out. Yet, I’ve had to reconcile the limitations of the instrument — and particularly my limitations with the instrument, which are significant — to hopefully come up with a way of making my voice present in all of the world of possible sounds that’s resonant and true.

That process began in high school, for sure. But by the time I left Kansas City, and somehow was given a mercy graduation from high school… They never should have let me out. I basically had not taken a book home since the sixth grade, and was functionally illiterate, I might add. But somehow, they did let me go. And much to my parents’ relief, right around that time, the Dean of the University of Miami in Florida heard me play a gig in Kansas City, and offered me a full scholarship to go to the University of Miami, which was just, like, unheard of. I mean, people were wondering what was going to become of me. I certainly wasn’t going to get into any real college under my own academic steam. And with this opportunity, I also was really ready to get out of Kansas City by that time. As much as I loved it, it was great, but I had done pretty much everything I could possibly have done there, and was also really looking to move — and of course, wanted to move to New York, for which I would not have been anywhere near ready at that point.

So Miami became a place that I went. I started to go to school there, and I lasted about six days. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to bluff my way through college courses the same way I’d bluffed my way through junior and senior high. I told the Dean, “Thanks, but I can’t do it.” And they offered me a teaching job, to teach improvisation. They sort of had just opened up the program to electric guitar, suddenly had a lot more students than they had teachers for, and I was quite experienced, if not very old.

So that worked out good, and that’s leading me to this conceptual thing. Because it was that year, the of…

[PAUSE FOR TAPE BREAK]

I remember the first class was History 101, and I’ll never forget — they were talking about the Romans. I was like, “The Romans…” Just to show you how… But it was like detail, and everybody was like, “Yeah.”

Also, I’d never been around East Coast kids. I’d only been around Lee’s Summit kids. This was like New York and New Jersey… They were so sophisticated and so smart. I was like, “Man, I’m not going to be able to pull this off.

[ROLLING AGAIN]

TP: Why don’t you start back in with they offered you the teaching job because of so many electric guitar students.

PAT: It was during that time in Miami that the conceptual aspect of what music is, how it fits into all of this thing, kind of almost on an existential level (which wouldn’t be age-appropriate for age-18), started to really kick in.

I also, at that point, encountered one musician in particular, but there was a whole group of musicians who were much, much more advanced than any people my own age I had ever seen. In Kansas City, there were a couple of other younger guys who were good friends of mine who were really good players. But just to cut to the chase, about the second week I was there, I went to a concert that was led by Ira Sullivan, who was a really good musician and quite a force around Miami at that time, and out for one tune came a guy, a bass player whose name was Jaco Pastorius, and he proceeded to pretty much make me want to just get on the bus and go back to Kansas City. I really had no way of knowing that there weren’t people like this in every single city in the United States, because I had never been anywhere, and as far as I knew, this was typical. Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t.

We became very good friends. We talked after the concert, and it happened that we were on some gigs coming up. Really dumb gigs. We both had to do that to just pay our rents and stuff. But we became like very involved in each other’s musical aspirations. Of course, that led to things later. But we’re talking about…this would have been 1972. This is several years before Jaco joined Weather Report, before I joined Gary Burton even. Jaco already…even though he was only a couple of years older than me, he had already gotten a certain amount of underground attention as the bass player with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, and in fact, they had been in Kansas City just a month or two before I moved to Miami, and everybody was talking about this bass player. Then I finally put 2 and 2 together, that this was the guy.

We did gigs together often, and not long after my stay in Miami I played a gig back in the Midwest with Gary Burton, who… I kind of skipped over that part in the earlier section. But of all of the things that I loved as I was becoming a jazz fan, Gary’s band had a very special place, because it was a group that was doing all of the things that I wanted to hear in terms of great harmony and great playing, all that stuff, but also, somehow, they were looking at the broader picture of the culture and involving themselves with that as jazz musicians, and as much as people kind of give credit to Bitches Brew and what happened with Miles and all that stuff, that’s actually two, almost three years later from what Gary and those guys were doing, in terms… Doing a different version of that idea, but at least as effectively..

So when I got the chance to play with Gary, it was the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1973, in April, and it was sort of like getting to play with one of my major heroes of all time. I played this one concert with him. I was invited to teach on a couple of teaching things that he was also in, just coincidentally, a month or two later. We played a lot more then. Then, basically, he invited me to come teach at Berklee, when he was teaching. When I moved to Boston, I started to bring Jaco up a lot to play with the drummer who I was playing with a lot, starting to play with Gary — Bob Moses. That became the trio that became Bright Sized Life.

I would say from that period of time when I left Kansas City up through the years that I spent teaching in Boston, right up to the recording of Bright Sized Life, that’s when this conceptual thing that I think involved me taking all of these materials, and playing all these gigs with all these different people, and sort of distilling them into what became whatever the sonic message is of that band, those tunes, and that record.

TP: Before we discuss your career once you recorded that album, I’d like to talk to you about Boston and Berklee. During the years you were there, the student body included a number of guitar players who’ve influenced the sound of jazz music over the last 30 years. Forgive me if my chronologies are off, but John Scofield would have been one of them, Bill Frisell would have been another, Mike Stern would have been another. John Abercrombie was a little older. Mick Goodrick was around. These are people who have a big impact on the sound of guitar in jazz today, as, of course, have you. So I’m wondering if we could speak about the climate in Boston at the time, what ideas were in the air…

PAT: It is an interesting chapter. It’s a funny thing in my case. Historically, in retrospect, I am often grouped in with what people call “fusion,” which is actually a term that… I don’t know any musicians who actually use it. It was a marketing term that sort of emerged actually not really until the late 1970s or 1980s.

In fact, I was, at the time of living in Miami in 1972 and 1973, and particularly when I moved to Boston, a complete reactionary to the whole idea of heavy electric guitars, backbeat, drums, distortion on instruments and all that. In fact, to me, it was very problematic on a kind of orchestrational level. And virtually all of the music that was available in terms of jobs, you know, with well-known musicians involved some form of this kind of playing. Like, it was a sort of post-Mahavishnu Orchestra, post Bitches Brew way of thinking of the guitar. It was real fast and lots of pentatonic stuff, lots of string-bending and stuff. My thing was completely against that.

When I moved to Boston, the climate there, I would say, was almost entirely defined by a guy who was the reason I moved to Boston — Gary Burton. With him as the sort of center, there was a lot of stuff orbiting around that. Some of that came in the form of students, some of that came in the form of people who had been around Boston who kind of were able to crystallize their way of thinking through their experience of playing with Gary. But nevertheless, make no mistake about it, it’s a Gary Burton-centered universe in Boston in 1973-74-75-76.

On a guitar level, the kind of instant guitar fit for Gary when he moved to Boston was a guy named Mick Goodrick. Mick was a player of the same generation as John Abercrombie, who had also attended Berklee and sort of came up through the Berklee way of thinking, as Gary had many years before. Mick was also a musician who was a sort of non-traditional thinker in terms of what the guitar could be. I first heard Mick on a tape…it would have been summer of 1973, when I was teaching with Gary at this band camp type of thing — and I was instantly struck that, whatever I was trying to do, this guy was already basically doing. When I moved to Boston, we got together immediately and started playing duets, and did duet concerts, and continue to do duet concerts every now and then to this day. You occasionally run into musicians where you have a sort of instant rapport, and it was that way with me and Mick right from the beginning.

I was teaching at Berklee. By that time, Mick had stopped teaching at Berklee and was sort of just teaching privately. But among the students who I had at Berklee was a whole array of guys who have gone on to do different things, but the guy who I would say was my star student in a lot of ways was a guy named Mike Stern, who continued to be a student of mine for about 6 years, off and on — but especially during that first couple of years there, he was somebody who I know I had a certain amount of impact on.

Another prominent name… I got a phone call one day from a guy who’d just moved to Boston from Denver. He wanted to come over and take lessons – Bill Frisell. He came over with his 175, and just already had a way of playing, but it was very Jim Hall-esque at that time. I said “You don’t need any lessons; what the heck are you talking about?” That was quite a few years later. It was late 70s by the time he got to town.

John Scofield was another guitarist who predated me actually in Boston. He had graduated from Berklee by the time I got there. He’s a few years older than me. But he’d already started to do gigs with well-known musicians, and in fact, after my stay with Gary… I played with Gary for three years. John took my place almost right afterwards. Although that band didn’t record, he did play with Gary for a year or so.

But all of this is sort of revolving around Gary, and I have to put a little sub-paragraph here, which is: Not just Gary Burton, but Steve Swallow, who was also teaching in Berklee at that time, great bass player, one of the greatest electric bass players ever. Swallow’s thing I think particularly had a major impact on me and John Scofield. We both played a lot with Steve. I of course played with Steve for the three years that I played in Gary’s band, and John would have, too. But John and Steve also played together a lot in other situations. Steve and I played a lot together in other situations. I would hire him to do gigs whenever Jaco couldn’t make it. Steve and Mick and I did a lot of trio gigs. But Steve had a way of phrasing and a way of getting around the instrument that I think certainly impacted Sco and I a lot. We both know it. We joke about it a lot. We know what these Swallow kinds of things are that we both do. We’ve taken them in very different ways. But Swallow deserves a special mention for that Boston period as someone who was very prominent and very influential.

The big thing for me of all big things was that in 1974, after kind of checking me out for a few months, Gary Burton actually hired me to be in his band, which was sort of for me the rough equivalent of getting to be the fifth member of the Beatles.

TP: You haven’t yet mentioned what instrument Gary Burton plays. When they edit, perhaps… People won’t know.

PAT: The day that invitation was made official, I could easily say that was the happiest day of my life, prior to the birth of my first son. It was really the most unbelievable thing. That band was the band that really I admired the most. I knew most of their tunes anyway, and had followed the development of that band since 1967 or 1968. That was it for me. If I had never done anything else except play with vibist Gary Burton for a year or two, it would have been enough for me. But as it turned out, it became the beginning of a whole bunch of other things. But the best part was I got to spend three years in a band with Gary, Swallow, Mick Goodrick for the first year, and Bob Moses, from all four of whom I can trace a million specific things that have made me the musician that I am.

We played a lot. We played all over the world. Just being on the bandstand with musicians of that level… As much as I had been around great players — Jaco, Ira Sullivan, the people I’d played with in Kansas City, I’d been doing little sideman things with Paul Bley and Hubert Laws and other people… But night after night getting my ass kicked around by players at that level was just unbelievably instructive for me.

Not to mention that Gary himself is an incredibly eloquent and spectacular teacher. I don’t think he was particularly interested in teaching me. I think he wanted his band to sound as good as it could sound, and we were playing major festivals with major groups. I mean, we played a lot of concerts opposite Keith Jarrett and his band. That was how I got to know people who later on became very important to me — Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Paul Motian. We were playing gigs at that level. He wasn’t running a master class for kids. The things that he had to say to me were things that needed to get said from a musical standpoint. It was just the best situation I could possibly have been in.

That, of course, led to Gary’s sort of suggestion to his record company at the time, which was a new company, it had just started, called ECM (it was a German label), that maybe some-day I might do a record for ECM. Manfred Eicher, who was the producer and owner, whatever he is of all the ECM stuff, had expressed an interest in me after he’d heard a concert, and the idea was sort of posted really early. “Maybe you’ll do a record for ECM pretty soon.” This would have been in early 1974.

I really didn’t feel quite ready yet, and also it wasn’t quite clear to me what exactly it was I wanted to do. Gary also offered me a lot of really great advice around that time. Because he himself had started making records, probably, he would say…I don’t know that this is the case, but he would say…several years before he should have. I think he started making records when he was 16 or 17. I would have been 18 or 19 at that time.

In fact, I did wait. It seemed like a long time then. In retrospect, it’s just a year. And I think I grew a lot from playing from Gary. But also, the whole way composition became a thing for me sort of emerged during that year. I wrote a lot of music, and finally settled on the band which was my working band. I wasn’t sure if that should have been the first record, or if I should have done something else. But at the time, I realized that was my thing, and that trio with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses, during a recording session that was a Gary Burton record, which was the second record I made with him, called Dreams So Real… We stayed one day extra and we did Bright-Sized Life. We had one day to record and a day to mix, and that was that. I think we did it all in 6 or 7 hours. It was very fast. I didn’t quite know what had hit me, but that was my first record in my own name, December 1975.

TP: Having the record galvanized you to write this material? Or had composition been an interest early on?

PAT: The compositional aspect of my life as a musician is something that emerged later. And it emerged out of, like, the practical reality that hit me kind of all at once — that there was a way I wanted to play, there was a kind of improvising that I wanted to do, that I was increasingly unable to fully do playing on standards, playing on blues forms, even playing on forms of modern, really hip composers like Wayne Shorter or Carla Bley or the most up-to-date stylists in jazz. There was something I wanted to be able to do that I wasn’t able to get to in those environments.

The first tune I wrote was a tune called “April Joy,” which isn’t on my first record. It appeared on a later record. But that tune was really written because I wanted to have a vehicle to do this-that-and-the-other thing. That’s kind of where my playing was wanting to go. And it was so great to be able to come up with a context for this stuff, that composition quickly became just a method, a way of setting myself up to do things. I would say that Bright Sized Life, compositionally, is almost entirely that. It’s like: Ok, I want to be able to do this; what’s a good way to get to that?” I want to have a blues that’s got a bridge that’s got a lot of these kind of chords in it. That’s “Missouri Uncompromised.” I want to be able to do something where it sets up Jaco to do his Reggae kind of thing. That’s “Omaha Celebration.” There’s a certain kind of modulation that I love; where can that be? And etc., etc. it was all very practical kinds of things.

Once I got a taste for writing, it sort of got to the point over the years, as time went by, where it’s at least as important to me as playing. The ultimate conception of my band, which came a few years later, was exactly like that. How can you achieve a balance between lots of written material, not just a little bit of written material, and improvisation. Which is kind of one of the ultimate challenges in jazz, whether it’s my band or whether it’s a big band. That thing of writing a lot of notes, having a lot of stuff there for guys to play as ensembles, and finding the right balance with improvising, is an endlessly challenging task. That road began there.

TP: In 1977, I believe, you formed the Pat Metheny Group, linking up with Lyle Mays. You’ve functioned as alter-egos over the years. Talk about how that happened, and say some words about the essential qualities that give you that synergy and what initially attracted you to each other?

PAT: The three years that I spent playing with Gary Burton’s band were incredible. I was able to not only travel around and have this incredible experience of playing with these amazing musicians, and also to get a sense of what it really is to be out on the road, but I was able to make a few records of my own. And some stuff started to happen after a couple of records. I started to win some little polls in Downbeat and this-that-and-the-other-thing. There’s that thing that happens when you’re new on the scene. You get a lot of press. You get a lot of stuff that actually never happens again at any point in your career. It’s just that thing. New fodder for the machine of it all, particularly on a press level.

After three years, as much as I loved playing with Gary, it was time for me to move on. It just had gotten to that point. Unfortunately, there were no other sideman gigs that were available/or appealing to me. There were still a lot of Rock-type gigs. Playing with Miles at that time was really more of a rock gig. There were certainly no changes involved. The one gig I was offered that in retrospect I kick myself that I didn’t take was playing with Stan Getz, which I would have gotten incredible benefit out of for a year or two. But honestly… There were a couple of other things that were floating around that I might have done. But there was this sort of funnel happening where I kind of almost couldn’t help it. I was going to have to start a band of my own. I had the desire to do it, because I had a lot of ideas, and I was really ready kind of not to be a sideman by that time.

Also, when you’re 21 or 22, you think you know everything, and I was certainly one of those kind of kids, and kind of buoyed by a certain amount of attention and dap and everything else. When I look back on what I did now, it’s like, man, I was nuts to do that. But on the other hand, in retrospect, it sort of worked, you know, that we were able to do it.

Key to that decision was, ironically, at the Wichita Jazz Festival again in 1976. I was there playing with Gary. We had actually a very strange set there. Anybody who would ever tell you about the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1976, and Gary’s performance, would tell you about it. It was an odd one. But lucky for me, at that same festival there was a group of kids from North Texas State, which was always a well-known jazz school, and I noticed that there was a quartet led by a guy named Lyle Mays, which is actually a name that I was already familiar with. He and I had a mutual friend (have a mutual friend) named Dan Hurley, a great piano player-educator, who knew both of us since we were 15 or 16 years old, and always told us about each other. Somehow he knew that we would be a good fit.

Anyway, I went to hear Lyle’s quartet, and I mean, just instantly it was like, “We would play great together.” I just knew it. Also, I have to say that it was the first time I heard somebody exactly my age… I mean, he’s a year older than me, but we were within a very close age difference. He was really addressing all the same stuff that I was interested in. There were lots of guys I’d heard around Boston who were really good bebop players, or really good free players, or really good this-that-or-the-other-thing. With Lyle, I heard that it was a guy who was kind of interested in music. Yes, the best place for us to investigate this stuff is going to be under the jazz umbrella. But it’s really looking at music in a much broader sense. And that was clear to me RIGHT away when I heard him.

We hung out after the concert all night, and just talked, and agreed that it would be great to do a gig. And we did our very first gig together… I remember it because it was July 5 or 6, 1976, a couple of days right after the Bicentennial.

Lyle, by that way…this would just be a few months later… He left North Texas, spent a period of time playing with Woody Herman as a sort of piano player-arranger, and we did a gig in Boston with Steve Swallow on bass and Danny Gottlieb on drums (Danny by that time was the drummer with Gary Burton’s band). I can remember the first tune that Lyle and I officially played together. It was just like we had… The same thing that everybody talks about now, 30 years later. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we developed that.” It was, like, there, right from the beginning. And what’s kept us playing together for all these years is that. We have an enormous amount to discuss. We always have a lot to talk about, and it was that way right from the beginning.

The rapport that we had became kind of the basis of the band. Yet, I didn’t anticipate the extent of the compositional collaboration that would emerge, nor did I ever anticipate in a million years the length that would ensue. It just is a surprise, and a really great surprise, that we’ve continued to play all these years together.

[BREAK]

I would say that my vision of what I wanted to achieve as a bandleader actually had emerged several years prior to the time that I became a bandleader. Even prior to the time that I met Lyle, I sort of had an idea of what it was that I had hoped to achieve, which in a lot of ways reflects something that I’ve kind of chronologically skipped over, which was: As much as I was adamantly devoted to a very kind of narrow sense of music that was totally about jazz, and bebop in particular, that was a struggle for me. Because the truth is, I always loved all kinds of stuff. I always loved bluegrass. I always loved country music. I loved the Beatles. I loved Albert Ayler. I loved Bach. I loved Stravinsky. I loved actually all that stuff equally.

For me, the “Jazz Nazi” years were actually just the musical metabolism kicking in that demands absolute, total focus, because it’s so hard. It’s such a difficult language. It’s sort of like if you’re going to learn, you know, ancient Greek, you pretty much have to go completely into that, or you’re not going to get it. Jazz is a little bit like that. I don’t know anybody who’s ever sort of bypassed this sort of total immersion, 4-or-5-year stage that it takes. In my case, those four or five years were pretty much 14 til 18.

With much relief, when I got to Florida, then later Boston, that burden was lifted from me, and I could just go back to really being the enthusiastic fan of music that has really caused me to be a musician in the first place. I really play music because I love it. And my development as a player, I think, really took off when I realized that the natural course for me was that I love some music and I want to know why it works, and then I address it as a player. My whole thing as a player is that — that I have learned how to play what I love.

The conception that I think I had as a bandleader before the band started was that I wanted to have a group that could play everything that I love, that wasn’t limited to playing just this or that. And in particular, these kinds of tunes that I was writing at the time, these kinds of tunes that were on Bright Sized Life and Watercolors, had some very specific qualities to them that were not even involved with jazz kind of on a fundamental level. Particularly the whole area of rhythm. I loved even-eighth-note rhythm. By that I’m talking about rhythms that go like this [CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP] as opposed to triplet. I love them both. But the even-8th note thing at that time was really limited to these kind of Jazz-Rock type beats, and didn’t have the kind of breadth and expansion that the triplety kinds of things had. And to me, it was like: Well, why can’t they go together? And if I want to play, like, a major triad, which I love, why can’t I mix that in with very dissonant chords? Why do they have to be mutually exclusive?

Those kinds of arguments were sort of the critical mass that made the general conception of the group, I think, what it ultimately became.

The other emergent thing at that time was that the sound aspect of jazz, to me, had really gotten stuck. It was sort of like, even in 1971, how many records had we heard that were trumpet, tenor, piano, bass, and drums? It was sort of like, “Ok, got it.” It’s great, but shouldn’t we be working hard to do something else as fresh as thatwas for the 50s and 60s? Isn’t that our obligation? Isn’t that what has always happened in jazz, that people come along and look at it from a different standpoint and offer different things to it. To me, I felt like, wow, there’s this whole new set of orchestrational possibilities. Suddenly, there’s the possibility for four guys to have this gigantic, huge sound. But why does it have to be loud all the time? Why can’t it be soft sometimes, and then really loud, and then even louder than anybody’s ever played? Why do these things have to be, you know, separate from each other?

The kinds of things that I’ve been talking about the last four minutes are what the band was, and what the band became about. I would say the mission of the band for me was always one of trying to reflect the realities of the larger culture through the prism of the sophistication that jazz guys bring to the table, and to really look at the culture, to really look at the broad possibilities of it. Not to say, “Oh, yeah, well that part of the culture…that doesn’t really count because I don’t really like that.” If I think about playing on standards: A lot of those tunes, the way they were presented by the culture at large, you wouldn’t even guess that they were as hip as they ended up being through the lenses of all the great jazz guys who have addressed it?

My feeling in 1977 — and now — is that it’s our job, it’s our mandate as jazz guys, to look at all this stuff around us, and do something with it, and take those materials and offer another look at them sort of through this prism. That was really the mission of the band. We began a period of about three years of playing literally every place you could possibly play, several hundred nights a year. For a good chunk of it, just the four of us. I had hired a bass player, Mark Egan, and the drummer who had been playing with me with Gary Burton, Danny Gottlieb, who was also a really good friend of mine. That was the band.

All the money that I had saved from my paper route as a kid in Lee’s Summit, I took to my dad’s little car dealership in Lee’s Summit, and put a down-payment down on a van, and we put something close to 280,000 miles on that van in a little bit over three years. So we really hit it, and played every place you could possibly play, playing our thing. Trying to make a case for our sense of things.

I would say that the impact that we had at that time was, in the context of the jazz scene, fairly significant for a young band. We put out our first album, which was just called Pat Metheny Group, on ECM in 1978, which included the basic set that we were playing live at that time. Honestly, Bright Sized Life, my first record, it sold probably 2500 copies by that time. Water Colors, maybe 3400 copies or something like that. The first group record within a few months had sold 100,000 copies, which honestly I didn’t even know what to do. In fact, I thought I had done something really wrong. Because by that time, if you sold a lot of records and you were a jazz guy, you were automatically suspect. I was like, “But the tunes are 15 minutes long; it’s not like we tried to water it down or anything.” We were just doing what we do. The truth is, the reason we sold so many records is because we had toured relentlessly and had really developed a very solid and devoted following in that period of time. Also, I think the music really offered something that was quite unlike anything else at the time, which is sort of a key component.

TP: I’m going to read to you a comment from you on your website. You said: “There was a period where I was concerned about the amount of people who could play on chord changes. It seemed like it was becoming a dying art. Now it’s no problem at all to find guys who can really deal with the way their instrument has evolved and say something, using the correct musical grammar and putting together complete sentences.” You date that period from 1974 to 1979. Maybe this was a web interview for Musician Magazine.

PAT: Right.

TP: Can you speak to the climate in which you were making your name at the time, the milieu in which this was happening?

PAT: It’s funny, because there’s this strange revision that gets run up the flagpole and saluted in certain communities that the 70s was like the worst time that ever happened in jazz. To me, it’s quite the contrary. To me, it was one of the most interesting times in jazz, mainly because it was a time that people from lots of different communities, even on a racial level, were working together in ways that they never had before.

The music that resulted from those collaborations is to me fascinating. It was really people trying almost anything. The level of raw creativity that was going on then was so fascinating to see. If people talk about that period as some kind of commercial period, I just have to laugh. Anybody who thinks that Bitches Brew is a commercial record is out of their minds. It’s sort of like, “What planet would that be commercial on?” Not this one. There’s just this sort of look then, as if that was some kind of dark period in jazz, which it wasn’t at all for me.

When I think about what Keith Jarrett’s band was doing at that time, to me that was, in fact, the last significant acoustic music played in jazz. That was the last band that really found a sound and a way of playing that you could say that’s a band that has achieved, kind of the way the Coltrane band achieved that, or the way the best Miles quintets achieved that. They had their sound. They had their music. Every single person in the band had a completely unique conception. That has not happened since in acoustic jazz. To me, that’s very reflective of that time.

My feeling was, it was a very challenging time to be a leader and to try to come up with something, like… Ok, I think about Keith’s band, or I think about what Gary’s band was conceptually, or, more close to home for me, there was one really huge one — Weather Report. I mean, that band conceptually was…that’s about as good of a conceptual argument that can be made in music— that band at its best. To me, that was sort of the context.

The challenge was that, first of all, we were very young and not that advanced, the same way those players who I mentioned were. I was playing an instrument that was and remains a very challenging, very difficult, very odd instrument of jazz. And yet, at the same time, I do think we made a case for some stuff. I could hear the ripples of what our arguments were musically in other places a lot over the years that followed. The good thing was that we were able to improve a lot by playing so much. Just me personally, I found that was the only way I could really improve, was by playing hundreds of nights a year, and really having to address the issues that I knew I needed to work on. In fact, that’s still the case for me. As much as I love making records and doing all those things, nothing compares with playing. To me, the end product is always the gig. It’s not the record. That was certainly true during those years of intensive touring.

TP: There’s a discography posted on the web, and it seems to me that around 1979 maybe, probably because you’d sold 100,000 records, people start calling you to get your sound on their project. You did a record with Joni Mitchell in 1979. You recorded with David Bowie. You first record with Michael Brecker on that Joni Mitchell record in 1979, and then a year or two later, you release 80/81 with Michael Brecker, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. So I’m hoping you can make sense of this somewhat confused question, and bring up what started to happen once the Group was established and you started to take on other projects, and juxtaposing those projects to your activity with the Group, as has become your pattern over the last 25 years.

PAT: After I left the Gary Burton Band, lots of people were starting to call me to play on record dates and to do various things, and I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t do anything, that I was going to just try to make my own records and try to develop the band, and kind of try to do everything on my own terms.

I really maintained that until 1987, which was when I got the call from Mike Brecker to play on his first record. Sort of between 1977 and 1987, I didn’t play as a sideman on anybody’s record except for a couple of very particular things. One was a thing that came up from my friend Jaco Pastorius in 1979 to participate in a tour with Joni Mitchell, who actually had been a real favorite of mine forever, and I just couldn’t say no to it. As much as I was devoted to the band and wanted to keep it going, I did take a summer off to do that tour, and it was an absolutely incredible experience to be around her. On that tour is when I got to play with and know well Mike Brecker. We had known each other a little bit, but we became very close friends on that tour. His participation in a couple of other things was very significant probably for both of us.

From meeting Mike, a couple more years went by…I can’t even remember the exact chronology… Actually it wasn’t a couple of years. All this stuff, in retrospect, seems longer, but it was really just a year or so later. I had done a couple of records in the meantime, American Garage in my band, a duet record with Lyle Mays called As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. By that time, I had five records out under my own name, and I realized that I had made all these records and had not really documented the kind of playing that I had actually done the most of, which was more or less playing in a straight-ahead kind of situation.

Also, I mistakenly assumed that everybody could hear that all of that stuff was in everything else I was doing. I mean, it was as obvious as, you know,my two hands that that was the case, that you couldn’t deal with the kinds of harmonies and the kinds of things we were dealing with… I always saw that as a post-post-bebop thing. But I just completely underestimated the hipness quotient of the critical world and the audiences and everybody else.

So it seemed like…ok, I had become really good friends with Charlie through lots of gigs when he was playing with Keith, and had gotten to know Dewey a little bit, and Jack DeJohnette was my next-door neighbor in upstate New York where I had a place at the time, and we had played together a lot — and Jack and Charlie had never played together, so I thought that would be a great combination.

So it was like, yeah, let’s do this record. It was just going to be one record. It went so well, we ended up doing a double record. And much to my shock, it was considered this wild revelation. “He’s playing with these guys.” It’s like, “Yeah… And?” I was surprised by the surprise at it. Actually, that record is quite in line with the records that preceded it and followed it. It’s all kind of one big record for me, because my thing is to just try to play the music that I feel really close to, and that’s what was reflected on 80/81.

TP: That brings up a statement you’ve made in several contexts about the difference between style and dialect and style and sound. Perhaps this is a place to discuss your ideas on that. Because you I think resist the notion of style.

PAT: I’ve always resisted the idea of genre. Kind of the same way I resist the idea of nationality. Yeah, we’re all American. Some guys are Chinese, some guys are Japanese, whatever. But we’re all human. That’s 99.9% of it. The thing is, everybody gets so caught up in their stylistic bents. It’s a lot like religion. It’s a lot like politics. It all goes together. It’s the way people define who they are. But the reality is, we’re all musicians. This is all about music.

There was jazz before there was Jazz. This is something that doesn’t… I almost never hear anybody discuss this. It’s kind of like there were human beings before there were these four or five major religious, iconic figures that our entire culture is based on. What about all those people? The impulse to do this, to be creative with music and the sound, is something that manifests itself beautifully in jazz. But that impulse is something that goes way beyond jazz. That’s what I’m interested in.

Yeah, the dialect of jazz is one of the most incredible inventions, as a platform, in art history. As a conceptual basis to formulate your vision of what it is to be on earth, man, that’s as good as it gets. But it’s just that. It’s a form. It’s a process. It’s not anything other than a tool or a platform. When you start putting your tools instead of the result, you wind up with something that I feel is somewhat misdirected. Not to say that a misdirected person can’t come up with a great work of art. It’s more an aesthetic argument at this point.

But in my case, the beauty of jazz is in fact its malleability, and where I see it being most effective is as a way of reporting on things. To me jazz is at its least effective as a sort of backwards look upon itself. In fact, I don’t think it can even do that at all. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody do that. As much as people have tried to emulate this-that-or-the-other-thing, or wear this influence or that influence on their sleeve, you go, “Oh yeah,” but then it makes you want to go listen to the original. It doesn’t really satisfy on that level. But on the other hand, jazz is something that lives only in the people who play it at a particular moment in time. It’s really bad at sort of trying to remind us of other things. It’s really good at showing us things. I think it totally fails as a nostalgic form. It’s ok to listen to the records in a nostalgic way. But as a kind of ongoing thing, it’s really got to be about current events (that’s the way I see it), to do what it does.

TP: That being said, when you perform with musicians on these special projects who are coming out of a particular dialect or language, however flexible or virtuosic, you adapt to them. If you play with Roy Haynes, you probably play differently than you play with…

PAT: Derek Bailey.

TP: Derek Bailey. There we go. Or for that matter, Brian Blade with Kenny Garrett…

PAT: Right.

TP: …or with Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins. Can we piggyback off this rather general comment about the malleability of jazz and jazz being a music of the moment, to the way these dialects can mold themselves to suit current events, which I think you’ve been an exemplar of?

PAT: One of the real privilege and luxuries and honors that I’ve had throughout my adult life as a musician is that I’ve gotten to play with almost every single one of my heroes. The only one who I didn’t get to play with, who I was all set to play with (we were planning a project together, and I’m sad about it every day) is Joe Henderson. I think we would have done something really special, and it was just right around the time that he got sick.

But beyond that, the major collaborations that I’ve had in my life as a musician have first of all been very selective. Even though I have done a lot of things, I’ve never played with somebody who I didn’t have a strong adoration for as a player. That love is what has I think allowed me to kind of speak in these different dialects that are somewhat distinct from each other, but at the same time stay true to my own way of thinking and my own way of imagining what sound can offer people.

I am reluctant to collaborate with people. It’s got to be just right for me. The thing is, most of the time I’m going to go play in their yard. That’s largely the way it goes. It’s only recently that I’m finding younger musicians who have sort of absorbed my dialect, and it’s actually quite exciting for me to go play with them, who have a whole bunch of other things but my thing is part of it, and find that I can play my way and not have to change and not have to adapt anything. They’re kind of adapting to me. That’s part of what it is to be 50 as opposed to being 20. That’s thrilling. Probably that’s something like the thrill that some of the older musicians, if they felt any thrill at all playing with me…that’s probably what they experienced, that I was able to kind of do my thing. Yes, Roy Haynes, I’ve listened to this record, this record, this record, this record. I know you like to go so-and-so, and I am ready, willing and able to play in a way that’s going to go with that.

That’s one of the great exchanges that happens daily, hourly in jazz, on kind of every level, is this sort of shared language of it.
[BREAK]

TP: While we have this break, could I ask you to be a little specific… For instance, you’ve said that you liked the way Roy Haynes played over barlines on McCoy Tyner’s Reaching Fourth record, or you listened to New York Is Now and heard Ornette Coleman and Dewey when you were 14. For an encounter like this, I think it would invaluable if you could be concrete about the musicians you played with, and say a little something about them.

PAT: In this collaborative area, one of the most exciting projects that I was able to participate in was with… If somebody said, “You have to name your one name, that’s like the one guy you’re going to have to focus on, or take just his records,” I would be able to comfortably say Herbie Hancock. To me, Herbie in all of his different forms is…he’s kind of an idol for me, I would say. Kind of everything about Herbie is, that’s just the way you should be. I just can’t say enough about what he represents to me. And not just me. I think he’s kind of under the radar. But he’s the closest thing we all have to Miles in terms of… He’s the leader of the jazz community at this moment in time.

I’ve gotten to do a lot of playing with him over the years in lots of different situations, and every time it’s everything I hope it could be and more. But in particular, there was a period in the early 1990s that there was a quartet with Herbie, bassist Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and myself that kind of toured as a collaborative group over a six-month period. Every night, getting on the bandstand with somebody like Herbie Hancock…I mean, we’re talking about one of the greatest musicians ever, and a musician who you really have to play in his yard. He has a very strong-willed, very intense way of approaching music that demands a certain kind of attention. In my case, Herbie is one of the musicians that I have listened to and continue to listen to the most.

[BREAK TO CHANGE TAPE]

So that playing situation required that I sort of bring to the table everything that I knew about Herbie and his playing, and everything about who he is as a musician, because he’s a formidable companion on stage, each night — and very challenging. He’s not a guy that just kind of lets you play some stuff and… He’ll really throw stuff at you.

That requires a certain kind of listening skill. That’s sort of what I’ve noticed. Any of these collaborative things. As much as there’s different dialects involved, the one thing that is constant is the ability that I think you develop as a player, year after year, not only to hear what’s going on inside your own head, but kind of almost hear what’s going on in everybody else’s heads, too, and to be able to adapt on a kind of microsecond by microsecond basis to this (if you’re talking about Herbie Hancock) very high level, let’s say scientific level quality of information that’s being broadcast to you.

The more you know about somebody, and particularly the more you love somebody’s playing, the more that you’ve probably absorbed the mechanics of the way they play – I mean, just to put it on a sort of rip level. When I think about Herbie, or if I think about Roy Haynes and I think about the way he played on the four or five records of his that really mattered to me the most, like We Three (that was a record he made with Phineas Newborn) or Reaching Fourth (a record with McCoy Tyner) or certainly Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (a record he made with Chick Corea)… That spans ten years of Roy’s history right there, but there’s a quality that he brings to it that, from listening to those records a lot, when I get on the bandstand with him, it’s sort of like I know what to expect, so I can go play with him in his comfort zone, but at the same time I can keep track of my own thoughts, too.

Regardless of whether it’s playing a single chord with Joni Mitchell, or playing some really complicated stuff with Herbie, or trying to find Roy’s pocket, it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s like I’m happy playing lots of notes, I like playing very simple, I like playing very loud, I like playing very quiet… All of those things are kind of incidental almost to the human exchange that happens. That’s where it’s at for me. That’s the fun part. That’s where, in all of these cases, you see the exceptional quality that these guys have. Yeah, they sound great. They’re amazing virtuoso stylist musicians. But that’s kind of not even the coolest part. That’s the part that most people who are listening to it are going to get. But when you play with somebody night after night after night after night after night, that’s when you really get to see what the REAL deal is with somebody. Man, every single one of the giant kind of heavy cats that I’ve had the opportunity to play with, you just admire them and respect them more after you do it, because you see how deep it really goes.

To me, Herbie Hancock and Roy Haynes are both like real models of sort of how to be, what it is to be on earth — besides the fact that they are just the greatest musicians ever.

TP: You’ve also been involved in…I’ll use the word advisedly…esoteric projects with Ornette Coleman in the mid-80s, Song X, which you just reissued this year, and a project with Derek Bailey. I think it would be interesting to hear about how the Ornette Coleman project came about.

PAT: I know that people have often described my thing as being eclectic or sort of all over the map. I’ve even heard “schizophrenic.” Throughout the life that I’ve had as a musician, there’s always been a fair amount of talk about my particular case.

For me personally, it’s just natural that the things that I’ve had an interest in as a fan and as a player, I’ve offered my take on it through a recording or a gig or whatever. And there have been a variety of things. But I have a hard time qualifying any of them as being esoteric or even out of the ordinary. Because in fact, all of the music that I’ve played is music I’ve kind of grown up with and that I’ve had a consistent connection to, right from the beginning.

One of the projects that happened a little bit later, after a few years, I’d made 11 records for ECM and finally was ready to move on to a different situation, and was able to start my own record company, basically, which is sort of what continues to this day, where I make records and have different companies distribute them… The first record that I made under the auspices of this new thing (Metheny Group Productions is the name of the company)… I’d been playing a lot in the early 1980s in a trio with Charlie Haden, my good friend, great bass player, and Billy Higgins, a great drummer. We’d done a record together, which was actually the last record that I made for ECM, called Rejoicing. We’d played about a year together on the road before and after the release of that record.

Of course, Charlie and Billy came to prominence playing with one of the major figures of our time, Ornette Coleman, the great alto saxophone player and trumpet player and violin player, and general giant of conception. And of course, Ornette had always been a favorite of mine anyway, ever since I got one of his records very early in my life as a fan of the music, and I’d always followed his career and his playing very closely. He came to hear us a few times down at the Village Vanguard here in New York, and was real enthusiastic about the band. He said, “We should play.” Of course, for me… I remember saying to Charlie afterwards, like, “Does he really mean that?” and Charlie said, “Hey, if he’s saying that, he means it.”

Right about that time was when I switched record companies, and I really wanted to do something extra-special for the first record, under this new thing. I got together with Ornette and explained to him that there was this new situation emerging, and what would he think about doing something? He was really into it. The result of that talk became he and I spending about two months together in a practice room. I think both had an interest in trying to come up with something that was different from anything that either one of us had done up to that point. For me, that was a real important factor in this. I didn’t want it to be just something like what Ornette was doing at that time, and it obviously wasn’t going to be what I had been doing right up to that time. But I think we both also were approaching it cautiously, in a way. The hours that we spent together in this room I think resulted in us, first of all, developing a strong personal rapport — we had a lot of fun — and also just developing the music and the way we were going to play together.

The result is a record, Song X, that came out in 1986 (it was recorded in the winter of 1985). The record had a certain impact at the time, got a lot of talk and everything like that. But the main thing that I am proud of with that record is that in fact it has functioned in exactly the way we intended. It’s a record that’s quite unlike any other record. As the years go by, I think that becomes more clear. It really sort of stands apart. That’s what we were hoping to do and what I think it kind of did.

TP: Let’s talk about your collaborations with other guitar players – you and John Scofield, you and Bill Frisell with Marc Johnson, and you with Derek Bailey.

PAT: Let me think about how to roughly connect this. Before we do that, you said you wanted to talk about Brazilian music. That would be now.

By the mid-1980s, the Group had changed a fair amount. We had a great new drummer, Paul Wertico, and I had met an incredible young musician from Argentina named Pedro Aznar, who offered an enormous wealth of sonic possibilities to the band. It sort of fixed a problem that I’d always had with the quartet of guitar, piano, bass, and drums, which is: We never had any breath in the music. I couldn’t find a trumpet player or a saxophone player who would have been able to deal with what we were dealing with harmonically without just coming out and playing bebop, which I didn’t want. Even though bebop was sort of under everything, I didn’t want to make it the up-front quality, and I struggled to try to reconcile this thing of the music needing breath. And when I heard Pedro singing, it was like: That could solve it.

Kind of concurrently, during that period, the mid part of the 1980s, I had started to do concerts in Brazil, and the minute I got off the plane I felt at home in a way that I probably never felt in the States, in terms of just this musical world that involved all these hip guitar chords that you just don’t find in any other form of popular music. And they were, in 1982-83-84-85, all-pervasive in Brazilian music. The added benefit for me was, as hip as all these chords were, there really weren’t any soloists down there that could kind of deal with what these chords suggested on an improvisational level. I was invited to participate in recording sessions with Milton Nascimento, other artists like Leila Pineiro or Celia Vas or Toninho Horta, people who were not as well known as Milton, but very evolved harmonic-type musicians. I could play my let’s say harmonic concept type soloing over these great chords that these guys were playing, which was a really exciting thing probably for all of us.

The group sort of in parallel was kind of taking this even-eighth-note thing that I was talking about before, which was inside the group’s music anyway, and with the addition of a couple of South American guys (Nana Vasconcelos first, Pedro, and then later Armando Marsao), these kind of even eighth-note beats that I was writing anyway suddenly took on this whole other flavor. Yet, at the same time, we were still writing these very complex kinds of tunes with odd meters and all that stuff.

That resulted I think conceptually in what became three records that are connected together — First Circle, Still Life Talking, and Letter From Home. All those records are often…I see people talk about them as being Brazilian-influenced. In some ways that’s true, on a rhythmic level, and certainly having Pedro (and then there were a couple of guys who followed him) singing the melodies with it gave it that sort of sheen. Kind of underneath the hood, honestly, there wasn’t much going on in Brazilian music at that time that could compare with what we were actually doing in terms of the harmonic language, and certainly the form-type things that we were dealing with. As much as I loved Milton’s records at the time, and a few other guys, we were already kind of on another road in terms of what was going on, particularly on an improvisational level. But nevertheless, there was a kind of shared freeway there for a minute, and having those guys in the band just sort of emphasized that connection. As it happened, I wound up living in Brazil for a few years during that period, which just felt right, and was part of that ongoing research.

One thing that I always mention to people whenever the topic of Brazil comes up, that I feel is important to mention, is the connection between Brazilian music and American jazz is a very unique one. I don’t really think you can see as a one-way street. It’s a real two-way street that has been going on for 40 or 50 years. Maybe I was the resident of that highway for a couple of years there for a while, Certainly, Stan Getz preceded; there’s a million other people who have done it, too. But I think you can’t underestimate the other direction, which is the impact all the American jazz guys have had on Brazilian musicians. It often gets talked about the other way, how much impact Brazilian music has had on us, let’s say. But it’s at least as much the other way.

That would start including the Jobim tunes, that are, at least in my case, the foundation of all of it. I mean, I learned those 15 famous Jobim tunes at the same time I was learning all the Bird heads and all the Sonny Rollins tunes and everything else. To me, it was part of the jazz language. That whole harmonic way of developing things compositionally I think is something that he really got from bebop. It’s not something that comes out of fado music or comes out of the older Samba forms. I mean, that’s in there, too. But we’re talking about like really overt jazz language being present kind of in all of those guys that form the basis of Bossa Nova. That I think has continued through the years. They’ve freely drawn from the kinds of research that has happened in American jazz, and that’s fed their thing, which has then fed us back. I can’t think of anything — except for maybe Cuban music, but to a far less extent — that has had that sort of cyclical thing, the way Brazilian music and Jazz has had.

TP: Let’s move on to the guitar collaborations. I forgot to mention Jim Hall earlier…

PAT: This is kind of sticking with the chronology, which is just easier for me to think of. Let me fill in a blank here, too.

By the late 1980s, I had felt like my goal of not playing on other people’s records, for the most part, in order to focus on…

By the end of the 1980s, I had sort of fulfilled whatever it is I had hoped to achieve by somewhat limiting myself in the participation of the larger jazz community. Mike Brecker, who had been a friend of mine for a long time, had played on 80/81 by that time, had never made a record of his own. He was 15 years into his career. He finally decided to do his own record. I was thrilled that he called me and invited me to be on it.

That began a period for me of being really involved in the jazz day-to-day community that I had really avoided. From 1987 until actually Brecker’s last record, which was a record called Ballads, about four or five years ago, I did lots and lots of projects, with lots and lots of different people. For the last four or five years, I’ve stopped again, for other reasons, and really basically just do my own projects now. But that was a really fun time for me, those years, about 15 years there, where I was playing on lots of people’s records.

Some of the most exciting and interesting ones were collaborations with other guitar players, and people who I really admired and, I’m happy to say, people that I’m real good friends with. We’re all sort of colleagues in our quest to try to reconcile the instrument with the larger language.

The first of those was a collaboration with probably the favorite for me, in a lot of ways, of all the guys who have emerged sort of roughly in my age group, and that’s John Scofield, who of course I’ve known for many, many years — and yet, we had never played together. John and I did a record called I Can See Your House From Here in I think it was 1994, and we did a tour that followed it. It was with Steve Swallow (as I’d mentioned earlier, he was an important figure for both of us, so it made sense to have Steve involved) and Bill Stewart, an exciting young drummer at the time, and still a very exciting player.

It was just incredible to kind of compare notes with John in a very intimate way, of kind of…we’d both been so on the same road of trying to kind of figure out all this stuff that we love about jazz, and put it on this instrument, and try to find ways that we could offer these other opportunities to our fellow players that had not really been kind of presented before under what the guitar can be. I think both John and I, and the other favorite for me is Bill Frisell…the three of us are often talked about together. We’re all within a few years of each other, and I feel like we’ve all been on the same road, of trying to come up with a way of making the instrument work.

In a real tight collaborative situation, you get to kind of see each other in action in ways that were just mainly very inspiring for me in both cases, with John and Bill. John and I did this record, I Can See Your House From Here. A year or two later I did a record with Bill, not either one of our records; it was a collaborative record with Marc Johnson – it was to be the third Bass Desires records, which was his band’s kind of concept name, and for contractual reasons he couldn’t call it “Bass Desires”…something like that, but it really is the third Bass Desires record, which is a two-guitar, bass and drums setting that he came up with as a format.

In both cases, with Bill and John, it was just incredible fun and amazingly easy to play together. Jim Hall has a great saying about guitars. When you’re talking about two guitars, his response is, “One is usually too much.” I think we would all share that basic philosophy. Two guitars is a really hard one. It has to be two players who are very aware of their roles and each other, and also are capable of finding a sound together. I think that John and I were able to do that; Bill and I were able to do that. John and Bill have played together a lot. There’s a real sense of community amongst the three of us.

It’s funny, because one of the three of us I think has probably won just about very poll, like, every other couple of years, depending on which one of us has a hot record or whatever at the time. I don’t even know who’s won more. It’s kind of been passed around between all three of us for the last 15 years or so. There’s no rivalry or anything. I think we’re probably our biggest fans, and I’m so happy about that. I’ve kind of watched what goes on in some of the other instruments, and it’s like, wow, they’re really fighting each other. With us, it’s just the opposite. I could see the three of us playing together as a trio or something. We’ve got that kind of thing amongst us, which is something I feel very happy about and very proud to be a part of. When people do talk about the three of us as a sort of representative three of our generation, I am so happy to be included with those two guys in that conversation.

A few years later, I did a collaborative record with kind of the father of all three of us musically on the instrument, and that’s our collective hero, Jim Hall, who I think found a way to make the instrument work in jazz that opened up the doors for all of us that had followed chronologically. Jim’s records with Bill Evans, particularly a record called Undercurrent, and then the record, The Bridge, with Sonny Rollins, are to me two of the absolute evolutionary records in the history of the instrument. If somebody makes one record like that in the course of their career, they can be happy. Jim has made at least two, and I would add to that his duet recordings with either Ron Carter, Red Mitchell, and other people, that opened up a new way of thinking about the instrument in jazz.

Jim had never done a duet record with another guitar player, and I never had either. I think it was kind of fitting that we did this thing together. I felt like I was a representative, kind of, of all of us, able to work as a younger player for Jim and to hopefully come up with some situations that inspired him in a duet setting — and he certainly did that for me. That was a really cool project to be involved with.

Then, another guitarist that I had the chance to work with a little bit later, was a very different kind of player, but a player who I connect with Jim in a lot of ways. They have a very similar sound in terms of what comes right off the instrument, they’ve got a very similar touch, but an entirely different dialect of playing. That’s an English musician, to me one of the great conceptualists on the guitar — Derek Bailey. We did several nights of playing together in a concert situation and one full day of recording in a studio environment. It wasn’t just a strict duet setting. It was with two drummers. And the record that we came up with is one, again, that I think is unique for both of us — maybe a little bit less so for Derek than for me. But it was a way of playing that I think I played that one time, and I’ve never played before and never since. That’s always good if somebody can offer you that kind of platform. The record was called The Sign of Four.

The other major guitar collaboration for me is one that has continued for more than 30 years now, but we never made a record together, and that’s with Mick Goodrick, who is just one of the best collaborators that I have. We have to fix that. We really need to do a record. We did a concert this past summer in Montreal that was an hour of just complete joy. We just can play together. We know how to do it.

There’s one other guitar player that I’ve played with a lot, and again it’s undocumented, and I hope we would get the chance to record sometime — Joe Diorio. He’s a guy who I played together a lot with in Miami. He was playing with Ira Sullivan a lot at the time. We’ve continued to play together occasionally over the years, but have never documented it.

[BREAK]

TP: Let’s talk about the current Pat Metheny Group and Trio, and the way it’s evolved. Several things. One, although you’ve always done longish pieces, your current record (for audiences 50 years from now) is a 68-minute long-form piece. And you’ve incorporated new personnel, and personnel that exemplifies what you were saying about the current generation of musicians who’ve been influenced by your playing. So somehow, I’d like you to speak about the development of your group with comments about those post-Baby Boom musicians you’ve played with — Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart were your trio; you’re hiring people like Antonio Sanchez, Cuong Vu and Gregoire Maret.

PAT: For me, the spectrum of things that I did throughout the 1990s continued to get broken down into these three areas, roughly. There’s the Group, which I’ve talked about a lot. There’s playing as a sideman in other people’s situations, which I did a huge amount more of in the 1980s and 1990s than I did prior to that or since then. But there’s another big one, which is playing trio, which is something that’s kind of continued over the years. The first trio was with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses. The second one was with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins; I mentioned that briefly. There’s a third one, which was important, with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes — we probably played together the most of all of those three trios. We did an enormous amount of touring over a several-year timespan.

In the late part of the 90s, I had been playing a lot as a sideman with so-called younger…what they used to call “young lions,” although that’s a term that probably none of them really ever appreciated too much, and certainly, as they’ve gotten older, has no real meaning. But for me it was significant, because I was always the young guy. I was the youngest guy in every band I was in, including my own, for significant chunks of time. Everything kind of changed in the early 90s, when I did a record with Joshua Redman, who, interestingly, was the son of a guy I’d played with a lot — Dewey Redman, a great saxophone player who is on the record 80/81.

Along with Josh came a group of…a generation of guys who I felt an immediate closeness to. I had never felt a closeness at all to the generation that was immediately younger than me. I was kind of scratching my head at those guys, which was the most conservative…they were like wildly conservative compared to where I was at, and even compared to where Roy Haynes or Billy Higgins or Charlie were at. It was a reactionary thing to something. But the Josh generation, which I would include…has produced Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett, Brian Blade, Bill Stewart, Larry Grenadier…all these guys are in this zone that’s somewhere between 12 and 15 years younger than me. Which, not coincidentally, is pretty much the same age difference between me and the generation that really affected me, which was the Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett generation. It seems like there’s an interesting thing kind of throughout jazz history; you see that rough age difference as being a kind of fertile one. People who are sort of old enough, but not really old, OLD guys to them.

Throughout the 90s I played regularly with guys of that generation. Finally, towards the end of the 90s, it was time to do some more trio playing, and I picked two favorites of that generation to play with — Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart, musicians who I have the highest regard for. All the things I would ever hope for in any musicians, those guys really reflect. Individuality, incredible musicianship, and incredible listening skills.

That sort of completed the trio thing up to that point. In recent years, I’ve got a new trio going on with two other musicians of that generation, one guy slightly younger…Christian McBride is right in the middle of that zone (probably the greatest bass player of that generation), and Antonio Sanchez, a great young drummer. That’s the most recent trio that I have.

The Group has continued its growth over these years. As much as people talk about the Group, and what we have done, and what we do, there’s always lots of talk about the sound of the band, what it is and what we do…the success of the Group. But kind of under the hood of it all, it’s been largely about form. We’ve spent enormous time and energy trying to develop what the formal language can be…what it is to be a jazz group in the modern era. What is it? Is it ok to use electronics? Sure. Is it ok to use synthesizers and sequencers and all this stuff? Sure. Is it ok to present a show this way instead of just kind of stumbling out on stage and tuning up in the traditional jazz way? Why not? We’re doing all that stuff, too. But sort of beyond all those things, the actual nuts and bolts of the way the music has been put together has resulted in probably the average length of our tunes being somewhere between 8 and 14 minutes anyway.

That all led up to our most recent record (at the time I’m speaking now, in 2006), which is The Way Up, which is one tune that’s 68 minutes long. In many ways, that’s sort of the summation of what the band has always been about, which is to take ideas and really develop them. To me, that’s a viable quest, and it will always be a viable quest. The whole power of development is one that…it’s timeless. As much as I talk about how good improvisation in jazz is at these sort of markings of time in a sort of microscopic sense, there is this larger issue of music, and the way music itself has evolved over the years. If you think about the skills involved in Western orchestral music, Western Classical music, or if you think about the skills involved for the Beatles to do what they did, or the skills Duke Ellington brought to the table, or the skills that Steve Reich brings to the table — all of them have to do with the way people are able to take ideas and sort of work them over time. Whether it’s happening in a spontaneous way or in a structural way, that’s kind of the quest for me. And in the context of my band, it’s been so satisfying especially to work with Lyle Mays, to develop this aspect of what it is to be a musician.

TP: Could you elaborate a bit more on the qualities of the younger musicians you’re working with? Are they a different type of jazz musician than when you were coming up? What characterizes this generation of jazz musicians who are coming into their own voice?

PAT: One recent development in jazz that I guess I have unwittingly been right in the middle of is the way jazz, as a so-called American form, connects to the world that exists our nationalistic pride and sense of things. For me, my life as a human being has been that of someone who travels a lot. Since 1977, I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home, and for a period from 1977 until about 1992, I was gone all the time. I didn’t even know where I lived. I was just in transit. I didn’t even have a place for a good chunk of that time.

Everywhere that I’ve been, I’ve collected things, whether I wanted to or not — ideas, images, and a sense of things that have nothing to do with American, Cambodian, Brazilian, Mexican, Vietnamese, or anything else. I’ve also felt very comfortable and very confident sort of putting little stamps on my suitcase of where I’ve been that manifest themselves in sound.

I made a record in the early 90s (it wasn’t a Group record; it’s actually unlike any record I’ve done before or since) called Secret Story, that was really just a portrait of that life. It was sort of a culmination of everything up to that time. Included on it was a Cambodian traditional hymn that I kind of re-did. I have no particular connection to Cambodia, but when I heard that music, I knew that it was something that I felt. It was resonant to me, and I was able to take that and do something with it.

The connection that I talked about before with Brazilian music is not even one that I particularly see as Brazilian or this-that-or-the-other-thing. It has more to do with harmony and love of chords. That’s a shared affection that exists there.

In parallel to that, there’s all these musicians who have emerged, who are now in their twenties and thirties, and maybe forties and fifties, teens, who grew up listening to Miles Davis records while growing up in Cameroon or in Argentina or in Spain or in Italy or Switzerland or wherever. The truth is, we all have a lot more in common with each other than we do with probably 99% of the people that live in our own respective communities, because we’re kind of in on it. We’re IN on what this language offers us. And whenever and wherever you find that possibility of conversation, it’s sort of like you’re wandering around in outer space, and you’re a Klingon and you meet another Klingon on some other planet. It’s like, “Wow!” In our case, it’s, ‘Let’s play ‘Autumn Leaves.’” You don’t even have to talk about it. You can just start playing. It’s a common language now. But it’s a language that’s spoken by a very-very-very small percentage of the population of the earth, and they are scattered throughout the whole place now. There’s concentrations and pockets of people here and there, and they probably tend to be around metropolitan areas. But it doesn’t have a thing to do with where that person is from. It has to do with who that person is.

That’s something that, without my intention, has just manifested in the population of the bands that I’m playing with. My most recent band had a guy who was born in Vietnam, a guy whose mom is African-American and his dad is Swiss, a Brazilian guy. I’ve had recently a guy from Cameroon who grew up listening to Jaco Pastorius. My current trio, it was recently pointed out to me (I hadn’t actually noticed this), a white guy, an African-American guy (Christian McBride) and a Hispanic guy — we represent the three major groups of the American population. Some German interviewer made a huge deal of this and why I had decided to do this. I was like, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, you’re right!” But that’s the last thing I was thinking about. Christian is Christian, Antonio is Antonio — whatever. But it’s not an intentional thing. It’s just the way it is now. That’s the way the community I live in looks. It’s people from everywhere who are sharing this common language.

TP: You segued into my second-to-last question that was on my talking points list, and then you raised another point that I’m not sure I want to touch on or not, but I’ll throw it at you…

PAT: No, let’s not. I know where… There’s no point in going there.

TP: Well, you don’t necessarily know…

PAT: [LAUGHS]

TP: I want to talk about being a jazz musician in a pop culture world. And as a jazz musician, you’ve been very commercially successful. You’ve made a good living, and you fill large halls, maybe arenas…

PAT: Yes, sometimes.[LAUGHS]

TP: You’re one of the few jazz musicians… Maybe 99% of the world doesn’t know jazz, but they may know your name in whatever sense they know it. And you’ve done this without being like your doppelganger, Kenny G, who’s done it by appealing, as you’ve said, people’s baser instincts. You’ve done it by appealing to the more exalted instincts in people, in a certain sense. There’s no particular question involved here, but I wonder if you can speak to what it’s like to be a jazz musician in a pop culture world.

PAT: Well, as I sit here right now, and kind of look at the larger culture, and not just my place in it, but pretty much all the musicians I admire and respect and whose musics I love, it’s not a pretty picture in a lot of ways. Because the larger culture right now, in 2006, is I would say in a fairly conflicted and… It’s at a place that’s less than at its best, let’s say.

On the other hand, I feel like we have hundreds, thousands of years to go. This is a long process we’ve got ahead of us here of civilization, and we’re still early on. It’s not that long ago that we were living in worlds with the reality of death being there at like age-25. It’s within spitting distance of where we’re at now. The whole idea of tempered harmony is a relatively new one. Down the line… Not to mention the incredible trauma of the Information Age, that I think is literally, as we speak, causing the evolution of our species to be altered. I think we’re all physically having to adapt to a completely new set of circumstances that defines our existence.

Nevertheless, it is not a culture that is particularly interested in music, in general. The things that I value in music — harmony, melody, complexity, form, structure — are really kind of not really there right now in terms of the average everyday person’s interest in what music might offer them.

But you know what? If we’re doing this for posterity, and there’s going to be six generations of people or more who might see this interview someday, all six are going to have wildly different contexts to complain in and to exalt in or whatever.

The reality that I’m shooting for is one that, as much as it is of this time, I hope it will be beyond this time. Because the reality of music, to me, has nothing to do with pop culture of this year, that year, that year, or that year, other than as a sort of propulsion device.

There is a cliche that’s one of my favorites, and I think it’s really true. The things that are the most personal are the most universal. For that reason, I feel like every musician has to understand, reconcile, wring their hands over, be troubled by, be concerned with, be aware of every aspect of the culture that they’re living in, and come up with a way of connecting that to what they have to offer as human beings that play music. But at the same time, I think you have to say a good note has a life that goes beyond just now. It just does. When you hear the best music from any period, it connects, the same way it did then… The things that are the same are always the same.

We have…all of us that attempt to be musicians have this 800-pound elephant in the room, which is Johan Sebastian Bach, who you could take almost any 4 bars that he wrote and spend a lifetime on it. The guy wrote so much music that is so perfect… And he was one of the first people to really deal with harmony like that. And he kind of did it… It’s sort of like, “Well, there you go; that’s it.” That has everything to do with the time it was made in, and it has nothing to do with the time it’s made in. And I think you can say that about Billie Holiday. You can say that about John Coltrane. You can say that about Louis Armstrong. You can say that about the Beatles. You can say that about Dolly Parton. You can say that about all kinds of stuff. It’s absolutely of that time, but it completely transcends that time.

That’s pretty much the way I see our thing fitting into it now. I am deeply involved with what’s happening in the world. It’s a very troubling time politically in the United States right now. It’s absolutely 16 horrible… Well, it hasn’t been 16 yet. But 16 of the last 24 years, as of 2008, will have been the lowest point in American politics in its history, with two god-awful Presidents who almost have completely wrecked the country — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. If we survive that, we will have done ok.

But the damage done by those two Administrations will take decades to fix, particularly in the area of education. Of all the things that are just tragic about those 16 years, the main thing is that education in America has been just decimated by greed and by the fact that people have preferred to not pay taxes, and therefore, not support the main thing that makes America what it is, which is the future Americans, for no reason other than their own selfishness. And that basic quality is one that defines the Republican eras that I spoke of — selfishness. I’m sure that it won’t always be that way. But for now, it’s a pretty bleak period, and the culture I think sadly reflects that. But there’s a lot of people trying to fight against that, and I hope to be one of those.

TP: If jazz reflects the culture or mirrors the culture, what does that tell us about jazz in our period?

PAT: I think there are very few musicians who are willing to look at it. There’s a huge comfort factor in jazz, which is it’s a much safer, more “credible” (and I use credible in heavy quotation marks) to emulate rather than to just take a hard look at it. If you play good, it’s always going to be ok. But to me, that’s not what our job is. Our job is to ask questions.

TP: Finally, since you’re Pat Metheny and you play guitar, and you’ve been involved with technology, and the cutting edge of technology for many years… I don’t know if you can do a quick soundbyte on this one. But we should touch on your introduction to the synthesizer, because you came on the scene just after the first real-time synthesizers entered the mix (Paul Bley recorded on one circa 1970), then also Synclavier, on up to the 42-string guitar you’re using now.

PAT: For me, the last 25 years have been an unbelievably unique time in the continuum of musical history, in terms of what the technology offers us as musicians. If you’d told a guy in 1787 that there would come a day where he could play something on the piano and it would write it out for him as he played it, it would have been like a miracle from God! We take all this stuff so for granted now, and it’s just an everyday occurrence. I was very…I don’t know if ‘fortunate’ is the right word… But I was right in the middle of the very early stages of all this stuff — sampling and sequencing and music notation and all that — by way of an instrument called the Synclavier, which predated MIDI and all that stuff by a number of years.

I think so far we’re still largely in shock that we can do all this stuff. When I think about the incredible opportunities that these tools offer us, and then I think about the way it’s largely implemented, at leastr at this point in 2006, I don’t think we’ve seen the real flowering yet of what that technology will offer us. That was two minutes.

TP: Can we also talk about the guitars?

PAT: I can do that, and I can also do a conclusion.

As a guitar player, it’s been frustrating but ultimately exhilarating to be involved with this instrument that has played such an important part in this culture of the last forty years or so, just as a figure instrument. In my case, in terms of jazz, I’ve wanted to really explore what else it can be besides just a guitar. I’ve had people make me weird guitars with lots of extra strings, and I’ve been involved in every guitar synth that’s come along; I’ve tried it, and a couple of them have even become important instruments for me in my range of sounds. Steel strings and nylon strings and 12-strings and tunings — all those things are interesting to me.

But ultimately, they’re interesting to me the same way a screwdriver is interesting to a guy that’s going to build houses. They’re just tools. They’re just ways of getting the sound out. The idea always comes first for me. I always think, “Ok, how can I get this to be?” It’s always driven by the conceptual stuff.

I think that’s something that will always be true with young musicians who come along. They are always going to have something that they need to express — a picture that they need to paint, a story that they need to tell. For me, that’s what it’s always been about, this narrative story-telling thing that jazz has been incredibly effective for me to use as a platform to offer what I have to offer. But I think each generation is going to have to find new things, and new platforms, and new contexts, and new ways to find their personal version of what is universal. That’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do, and I feel very proud and happy to have been part of a long line of people in jazz on the guitar who have done exactly the same thing.

1 Comment

Filed under bn.com, Pat Metheny