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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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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.
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…
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.