Tag Archives: Pat Metheny

A July 2015 Jazziz Feature on Drummer-Composer Antonio Sanchez

In the weeks to come, I’m going to try to upload more posts that document pieces I’ve written with “younger” musicians — well, no longer that young. Here’s a July 2015 Jazziz feature on in upcoming weeks. Here’s a feature on the great drummer — and strong composer — Antonio Sanchez.

 

Jazziz Feature, Antonio Sanchez, July 2015 – “Beyond Birdman”

By Ted Panken

In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part “Meridian Suite.”

Specifically, the work gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.

I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite(tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.

The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three — both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.

“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”
Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, Migration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”

In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”

He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”

Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.

“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’

“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”

BREAK

Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”

For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”

“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”

McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”

Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”

He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”

A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”

At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”

While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”

Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”

After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.

“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”

SIDEBAR

Title: Movie Music

Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.

“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.

“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”

Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.

“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.” —TP

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For Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2015

For drummer-composer Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about him for Jazziz in 2015, framed around his soundtrack for the film Birdman and two  contemporaneous releases.

*_*_*_*_

Beyond Birdman, Jazziz, 2015

In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part Meridian Suite.

Specifically, it gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.

I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite (tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.

The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three— both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.

“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”

Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, [igration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”

In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”

He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”

Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.

“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’

“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”

BREAK

Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”

For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”

“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”

McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”

Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”

He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”

A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”

At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”

While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”

Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”

After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.

“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”

SIDEBAR

Movie Music

Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.

“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.

“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”

Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.

“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.”

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Filed under Antonio Sanchez, Christian McBride, Drummer, Jazziz, Pat Metheny

For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.
“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.
“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]

In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music. “It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”

Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.

“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.”

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and…] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I’m not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars…] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he’s a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He’s 45.  And he’s from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He’s self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn’t knock you out, but you like and respect it, you’re really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you’re going to agree to do the Blindfold Test…] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It’s not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn’t sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don’t go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways…] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

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Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  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.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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Recent Pieces For The Morton Report

For the last few months, I’ve been contributing pieces to a general interest zine called The Morton Report, which is starting to make its presence felt in the more mass market regions of the Internet. If anyone’s interested, I’m offering links to an interview with guitarist Stanley Jordan in conjunction with his new recording, an interview with graphic designer Cey Adams on the branding of Def Jam, a review of Columbia/Legacy’s recent official issue of five Miles Davis concerts in Northern Europe in the fall of 1967, a review of the new Manfred Eicher documentary, Sounds and Silence, and an email interview with Pat Metheny about his recent Nonesuch release, What It’s All About.

Also, if you haven’t seen it, the current issue of DownBeat is running a feature article of mine on Steve Coleman.

I’ll return to the archives next week

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Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar

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

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

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

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

There follows a lengthy conversation from 2006.

What follows is the unedited  transcript of our conversation.

* * *

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

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

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

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

Are they a bit too oblique for you?

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

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

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

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

It’s the underbelly of Americana type of thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you quantify what that is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

45, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Are you close to meeting that aspiration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve certainly always embraced technology wholeheartedly.

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

You had to plug in.

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

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

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

Not Wes Montgomery?

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

[ETC.]

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

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

Nothing else to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should also ask you about your favorite guitar players.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Pat Metheny (April 10, 2006):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[PAUSE FOR TAPE BREAK]

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

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

[ROLLING AGAIN]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAT: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAT: Derek Bailey.

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

PAT: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK TO CHANGE TAPE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Well, you don’t necessarily know…

PAT: [LAUGHS]

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

PAT: Yes, sometimes.[LAUGHS]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Can we also talk about the guitars?

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

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

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

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

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