On September 18th, five weeks from today, Pat Metheny will embark on a 2-1/2 month tour, the first leg in duo with bassist Larry Grenadier in various U.S. venues, with the second leg comprising six weeks of one-nighters in Europe in trio with Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart. This trio first launched in 1999, a while before 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 sillness 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.
What follows is the unedited transcript of our conversation.
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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?
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.
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.