Jazz Guitarist Pat Metheny: Unified as a Whole
With the 2014 release of Kin (??), Pat Metheny adds one more notch—another restlessly searching album that marks the zone between all jazz, all rock and all-world music—to his belt of aesthetic enterprises filled with zeal and innovation. With that lust for life and jumpy artist conquest, it’s hard to assimilate that 38 years has passed since the guitarist’s debut as a leader; rougher still considering that his annual release schedule finds him uniquely crafting one-man bands (recorded on Orchestrion and The Orchestrion Project), odd, small ensembles with the likes of pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Christian McBride, and making albums covering modern avant-garde’s most notorious composers such as John Zorn.
It’s not about age, as I found out from Metheny during our interview: It’s about one’s constitution. This time out, Metheny and his metabolism led him to his Unity Band/reeds man Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Ben Williams, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Giulio Carmassi— for their sophomore recording Kin (<-->). Metaphorically, Metheny put them into a Shake-N-Bake bag, and baked their blend for the tangy seasoned, maximal minimalism of waltzing gospelish ballads, scintillating roomy sambas, tight cool blues and curtly angular electro-paeans. Metheny and his Unity Group will appear Saturday, March 22 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA.
Q: So, I know as a kid your first instrument was trumpet and that you come from a family of trumpet players. Do you still hear it, use its feel, in any instrument you play now—mostly the guitar, of course? I started life as an accordionist, and now play saxophone, and I promise you I think the vibe of the bellows affects my breathing.
A: Yes, I think that starting out as a trumpet player was a very positive thing for me. By being aware of the breath element that makes up so much music, I do tend to breathe phrase by phrase as if I’m playing a wind instrument. I think this has contributed in helping me to develop the kinds of phrasing that I’ve worked hard on over the years.
Q: Bright Size Life is coming up on 40 years old. That’s the type of memory we used to have about records from Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Coltrane or Monk. What do you remember most about conceptualizing it, and do you think you create in much of the same manner now than you did then?
A: My sense at the time was that I may only ever make one record and that I wanted it to be a real honest statement about what I wanted to communicate. I spent a long time really thinking about what I wanted to offer. At the core conceptual level of it all, a lot of what has happened since is basically all coming from the sound that you hear on Bright Size Life back in 1975—a kind of modern version of what jazz guitar could be. However, as time has gone on, it’s been really natural for me to expand the palette beyond that to many other kinds of things. I’ve always seriously looked at the fundamental idea of what a guitar in jazz can actually be. To me, at the point I came along, it was kind of defined in a way. I wanted to look at the instrument from the ground up on a sonic and textural level while still dealing with the jazz language and vocabulary, but hopefully in a personal way. That caused me to have to invent a bunch of outlets to achieve that.
Q: Not counting solo albums, duets and such, what signals in your mind the need to bring in Lyle Mays and the rest of your Band (last time, 2005’s The Way Up) and the Unity Band?
A: All the tours and records kind of blur together—it all feels like one big thing to me, like a book with different chapters that are moving the plot along in different ways but always about telling a story from a singular point of view. I’ve had a lot of different bands and groups over the years—and they all kind of continue; nothing ever feels obsolete to me. It’s more a process of constant expansion. Each platform seems viable. Having been a bandleader now for all these years, I always try to find the right people for whatever it is that I’m especially interested in at a particular point. Sometimes it happens that a certain combination of people has a kind of momentum or urgency or fire to it—I always try to pay attention to that. That’s what is going on with the Unity thing these days.
Q: How has the Orchestrion changed how you approach an everyday set of six strings, albeit custom made ones?
A: It’s really more of a conceptual expansion than anything—it has opened a whole new set of possibilities. To me, an instrument is an instrument and the way that one uses any sound needs to have a kind of fingerprint of some kind. For me, again, this is a conceptual thing, not really a technical thing. The whole idea of Orchestrionics from the start for me was to expand the palette of potential sound. I’ve lived so deeply on the front lines of electronic sound for 40 years but have always balanced that with acoustic sound—this is an expansion of that concept that’s pretty natural for me.
Q: When was the last time you played an old beat up store-model guitar?
A: Any guitar is fine with me. Basically they’re pieces of wood with strings on them. Guitars to me are like screwdrivers to a handyman—you have a bunch of different ones to do different jobs.
Q: You obviously have a love of audacious saxophonists—Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, to say nothing of gigging with Sonny Rollins. Chris Potter sounds and feels like none of these men; not to say he isn’t inventive—he’s rootsier in my mind. What did you hear in him (and your material with him for Unity Band) that pushes you in his direction?
A: People have always asked me over the years why I never did another record like 80/81 [his album with tenor saxophonists Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker]. I think I had to wait 30 years for Chris Potter to show up. I’ve been following Chris since he first came on the scene playing with Red Rodney all those years ago. I was a fan right away and have enjoyed his playing all along. But I remember hearing him about halfway through his stay with Dave Holland and walking out of the performance feeling like he had transcended to a different level. To me, he is one of the most brilliant improvising musicians I’ve ever been around. Having him in the band inspires me the same way that it did when I wrote for Mike Brecker and Dewey Redman all those years ago.
Q: Wow. Let’s duck back one second, what was the concept/strategy for working with Zorn, his compositions?
A: I really admire Zorn and I really appreciate him and the incredible work he has done. That record kind of has a life of its own and is unusual in the way that he sets up structures that musicians can take anywhere they want. All of these pieces, and all of the pieces in the Book of Angels series are very short, just a few notes, maybe a time signature and maybe a few chords. Or none. My idea was to take those small written elements of John’s and develop them compositionaly using those initial fragments as a jumping off point. What is great about what John wrote is that the material is extremely robust, you can really pound on it and it always retains its spirit. If you listen to a few of the other volumes, you’ll hear the incredible range of musicians who have found their own individualistic entry points into this music through their own takes on John’s notes. To offer that much as a composer by leaving just a few essential indications on piece of paper is not easy.
Q: A random question: you’ve crafted a zillion albums as a leader, recorded as part of other musician and vocalist sessions. Do you feel as if you’ve ever made a misstep—a false or wrong move, obviously thinking in hindsight?
A: I probably wouldn’t have put “Forward March” as the first track on First Circle.
Q: Back to the new album, how did it evolve—and so richly—from the all the gigs you guys did before Carmassi joined the fold? You guys didn’t sound so rich, as you do on the new album, yet I dare not think that bringing in Carmassi changed the sound so much. How did you come to use him in the first place?
A: To do what I wanted to do I knew I needed to expand the palette by adding another musician. However, I didn’t want to alter the incredible dynamic of the quartet. What I really needed was a good musician who could play a lot of parts. I needed someone to kind of fill out the sound of the band; I didn’t really need another soloist, especially with Chris Potter standing right there, but I did need someone who understands the language that we’re dealing in and can contribute in a textural way and give me another voice to write for. He’s doing fine in that role for this band. Probably at least as significant or more so to the difference in this record to the one before, was my decision to do so much electronics and Orchestrionic stuff. I usually haven’t done that in these types of settings.
Q: What came first in regard to the new album—the idea of grander orchestration for this material, or the conviviality of being an equal part of the whole, if you are indeed an equal part of the fold in your opinion?
A: It was the idea of reconciling the richer harmonic language that I’ve developed on projects like Secret Story or my regular group stuff or even Orchestrion with this slamming quartet sitting right in the middle of it all. And also responding to the inspiration that I got from all the touring we did together last year and to try to push it further.
Q: There are several shades at work on the new album. What composition or jam came first and how did it wind up defining where the rest of the sessions related to the album would go?
A: “Jam” is probably not a word that comes to mind. The compositional aspect of this record is probably near the top of the priority list. I came into the studio with hundreds of pages of written music for everyone. However, for me the relationship that composition has to improvisation is a very interesting and endlessly fascinating dance—there’s no reason that they need to be mutually incompatible even taken in large measure. That’s also an undercurrent of the new record.
Q: Age is but a number, but between 150 and 250 gigs a year—your norm at any age is ball breaking. How has age affected the playing, the desire to gig more?
A: Compared to most people—I would say schoolteachers, paramedics, police and firemen and women and many many other occupations—doing what I do is nothing. I feel privileged and lucky to get the opportunity to play a lot. I take it very seriously and try to make every concert as if it is the last time I’ll ever get to play. I’ve been doing this since I was really young—my metabolism is sort of geared to do it.
This article is from the March 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.