The mercurial Metheny is one of the truly consistent and pivotal figures in modern music. As a recording artist he has ventured in to so many stylistic areas even his most prolific peers have struggled to keep up. He also frustrates his critics with this suppleness; Metheny sees nothing wrong with switching styles as often as he changes his guitar on stage. His latest forays have the feel of an Olympic decathlete as he long jumps and pole vaults through or over any hoop or hurdle he chooses. From the international smash that was 'Imaginary Day' his groups last full-length recording to last years beautifully orchestrated soundtrack 'A Map Of The World' to this years back to basics trio album 'Trio 99-00' with the prodigious talents of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart, Metheny has proved himself a true renaissance man.
He's also produced fellow Group member, Lyle Mays' latest solo release and collaborated with Michael Brecker on his album from last year 'Time Is Of the Essence'. Does the man ever sleep? However times are changing not only in the music scene as a whole but also in Metheny's never ending voyage of self-discovery. Once a young upstart himself debuting in Gary Burton's band in the early 1970s Metheny has since pursued his own personal vision of music collaborating with some incongruous combinations of players from the grandparents of pop David Bowie and Joni Mitchell to the freakiest of free jazzers Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey. Pat has always trodden his own, sometimes critically unpopular, path but he has also built a huge global audience who find that 'other' something in his music that so many other artist's lack. I met Pat the morning after a tumultuous performance with his special quartet featuring the talents of Hammond organ genius Larry Goldings, Stewart once again on drums and the gargantuan talents of Michael Brecker on saxophone.
Despite his 20 plus years as a pivotal figure in instrumental music, and as one of the premier guitarists of all time, Metheny's nature to question and probe the status quo for something deeper and more meaningful remains undiminished. Returning from a morning jog, dressed in shorts, sunglasses, and his trademark wild hair bundled in to a black beanie, Metheny's commitment to his fitness regime is maintained even in London's grimy early morning traffic. With forty minutes before the tour bus departs we sit down to chat and I find Metheny in an extremely talkative mood, the exercise having banished any cobwebs from the musical excesses of the previous nights performance. I start by asking him if this special quartet and his own trio, who toured only three months ago were a natural antidote to the cinematic scale of the Group. "Not particularly, you know I'm lucky that I get to do so many different things in general. The fun of it for me is to really like throw myself completely into you know, total environments, or very specific vocabularies and try work within those zones, to hopefully come up with things that have some kind of connection to all the other things, but more important are appropriate to what those things are supposed to be. You know this thing of the Group playing for a couple of years and then me doing other things and then back to the group has been a cycle that has recurred regularly over the last twenty years. Right now I'm at the end of one of those in between cycles and it happens to have been a very fertile one in a lot of ways. But, yeah, the next thing up is to start writing some music for the Group, we'll make a record probably beginning late this year, going in to early next year and then back in to the group zone. Which you know that at this point I'm really, really looking forward to. This way of working it's like I have a whole new appreciation of all the things that can only happen within the group, which is exciting."
You need to leave that stuff behind to appreciate what you've got I ask. "You know in the group, when we are in the middle of a tour I just love it so much because it's so expansive. As much as I enjoy playing in all different situations with the Group it's so open ended in terms of what it can be I mean we can kind of really invent what it is each time out, it's pretty unlimited stylistically. Part of the whole idea of the group from the beginning has been to obliterate the idea of idiom anyway, and that's one of the things about it that you just don't find that anywhere else, especially these days."
At the heart of Metheny's albums runs a rich vein of narration drawing the listener in to his emotional travelogues. I asked him about this indefinable, ephemeral quality to his music, and to music in general, and it's source in his work. "It's something that's always appealed to me as a fan, as a listener. The players that I was inspired by the most was Miles Davis would be top of the list but also Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Gary Burton, Stan Getz, Lester Young, um, even Ornette (Coleman), Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett you know all of them are great examples of players who really used their ideas to move the plot along in more than just short little phrases. I think that's just my taste, I just like that, and I tend to be attracted to players and music that has that quality to it. Now that quality to me can appear in a lot of different forms not necessarily relegated to playing harmonic based, improvisational music, where all those guys I just listed come from. For me, it's the hardest thing to talk about, it's the hardest thing to quantify and it's probably the least recognised aspect of what separates a really good player from just an OK player, because it's hard for people to even know it's going on when it's going on, this thing of being able to play melodic kinds of ideas that sort of keep evolving. It's like when somebody's talking and they keep adding one phrase to the next phrase but they are all connected there's sort of a logic that connects all of them as opposed to someone says something about - 'wow look at this CD (picks up CD), and oh yeah, here's a fork! (Looks out of window feigning distraction) Yesterday I was like walking around here', you know a lot of players are like that. A lot, I mean most, like the vast majority of them!"
Distraction is easy when there's so many factors that a musician must be aware of I add. "Well it's just that people kind of, because the vocabulary, especially younger players, the vocabulary is so immense at this point, just what you have to know to be able to like 'hang', that once you get to the point where you can actually speak - people are like 'wow, look I can talk'. The things I said before about it's very difficult to quantify it and it's also it's hard to appreciate it by people, because it doesn't get talked about as much that that's sort of a goal. I mean I was lucky to be around Gary Burton at a very young age where I would, basically, get yelled at for not connecting things. To him that was as much of an error as if I played a lot of wrong notes. It's like this whole idea was to sort of keep this narrative thing going and if you didn't do that you weren't really doing the gig. I think he got that from Stan Getz and you know it's something that you have to make it a priority or else you start playing some hip stuff and you know it sounds cool, and everybody likes it, then everybody goes home, but it doesn't add up to something."
It's Pat's melody's that often remain with the listener as an overall impression of his music, above and beyond his incredible playing. "And I think that it's something again that whole idea of sort of development, of improvising. It's something that you can find in a lot of different forms it's not something that is necessarily relegated to melody. Like for instance Roy Haynes or Max Roach would be incredible examples of that. I mean, on a completely different level, somebody like Cecil Taylor has an incredible sense of form or Derek Bailey would be great example. Their basic way of connecting things has a different set of priorities but it's exactly the same thing I'm talking about the way it all goes together is what makes more than the little parts of it."
Metheny made his recording debut a young bassist, some guy called Jaco Pastorius, I wanted know how their paths had first crossed and how his personality and musicianship had affected him. "Well we were best friends for four or five years when we were both really young before anybody would have known anything about either one of us. I met Jaco when I was seventeen he would have been about nineteen at the time; he was a couple of years older than me. We very quickly developed a not only strong personal relationship but musical relationship because we had so many things in common in the sense that we were both pissed off (laughs) at the development of our respective instruments in jazz and felt, almost kind of reactionary to the jazz scene at the time, which was ironically what now has become, what they call now 'fusion' which of course now most people include he and I both in that thing! (Laughs) Which is sort of a weird thing that's more or less just a historical anomaly. Yeah, we were both really interested in harmony, which at that time was not very much of a thing a lot of, cos I'm talking '72, '73, '74 which was sort of when people were really playing mostly one chord kind of vamps, sort of the post Mahavishnu thing.
" I was personally, as much as I love John McLaughlin, I was like Wynton Marsalis, (Laughs) I didn't want to know about fuzz tone and all that I wanted to play in chords, I wanted the groove to come more from the cymbals rather than the backbeat. And Jaco was doing things way differently in another way, which his whole thing was more of a lighter kind of funk thing you know, as opposed to a rock and roll thing. We had a lot of very strong similarities early on and continued to be very, very close up until the time he joined Weather Report and then his lifestyle went in a different direction. I was always very straight, as was he up until that time and when he started drinking and stuff he really became a different person we were less close you know. Although we were always tight, I was one of the few people that I think could really talk to him because I knew him from so many years before he became 'Jaco', you know, and also because we really did have this very special musical relationship. It was a very unique time and we were very, very close always. Even though we weren't very close towards the end because of the differences in our thing you know I know that I was one of the first people he would call when he needed somebody or something and vice versa. "
The importance of playing with and being inspired by your peers has always been key to Metheny's development, and this was never truer than his continuing partnership with Brecker. Their approaches couldn't be more different but opposites attract and Brecker's double Grammy winning 'Tales From The Hudson' benefited hugely from Pat's contribution, I wondered if Pat looks forward to playing with the 'most influential' sax player around. "It's always great! He's like an encyclopaedia of harmonic information. There are very few musicians that I have been around that I even know about, that have that many ways of getting from point A to point B with interesting little twists and turns and things that you would never ever think of, that happen in micro milliseconds of like 'what the hell was that!' you know? You have to listen to the tape afterwards to figure it out. He's just got so many resources and he got just such great time. That's another thing for me that I really kind of need, is just being around people who can really groove that hard, and who can really play with drummers like that. And Mike's got that." I asked him how their two approaches compliment each other. "I think part of the thing that makes it a nice combination. it's always the reason we keep coming back to it is that we have entirely different ways of going about the thing. His thing is the ultimate in the vertical way of playing sort of like going up like that (indicates wave like pattern with finger) all the time and my thing almost totally horizontal. Yet at the same time we have a really natural blend, when we play a melody together we always look at each other like 'wow that really sounds good!' (laughs) we can really phrase together. I think that contrast is what makes it an interesting combination."
But it's not just the soloists that matter in such small groups; the superlative talents of Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart make up one of the most compelling trios around. "That has been a sort of life changing one for me, in a really good way. You know that trio reminds me the most of the trio with Jaco and (Bob) Moses, although it's kind of inverted. Like Bill is more like Jaco and Larry's more like Moses but it's very similar dynamic in that it's like this constant conversational thing. And it developed so much over the first tour we did, which was what caused us to make the record - then I think by the time we got here it had gotten even more in to a thing and hopefully we are going to have a live record that will come out that will represent it all." Metheny's obsession with the musical machine he so brilliantly plays is another area in which he has sought to innovate. Sometimes playing a 42-string guitar, four harp-like necks and one six string conventional one, plucking anything that vaguely looks like a string, Pat plays multiple parts with an indefinable Asian influenced sound producing spine tingling results. His synth-axe trumpet sound still makes a welcome appearance to lift his solo section incredibly high as does his traditional hollow body jazz guitar. I wondered does form always follow function with his string flights of fantasy. "It is case of that actually. I mean to me one of the things about the guitar that is pretty cool is that it's an instrument that has yet to really be defined. It's sort of in a constant state of development and it's sort of open-ended idea for an instrument that people are constantly tinkering with it and have been tinkering with for several hundred years. It's very interesting, I don't know of you've ever had the chance to visit the Musical Instrument Museum in Paris - where they have six or seven cases of sort of he evolution of the guitar. I mean nobody really ever figured out exactly what it can be, to this day it's still people like me saying are going to guitar makers and saying 'could you do this, or could you do that?' I mean how many strings should it have? Well it could have forty, it could have three - it's like a really open ended idea. I kind of embrace that and try to use the different aspects of what it can be - like in a situation like yesterday there were, I don't know four, five or six guitars that appeared. And each one do a slightly different thing and add a nice different colour to it."
With Metheny being such a keen listener of everything and anything I wondered what such an eclectic individual had been listening to recently. "I go through different phases where I listen to everything and then I kind of listen to mostly the stuff that I really love. This year I've been on a total Sonny Rollins kick! He's always been one of my favourites - one of my primary records when I was growing up and I've gone back to it and it just sounds better than ever to me - is the Night At The Vanguard record, there are two volumes of it. I just kind of listen to that over and over again. You know I always like listening to 'Trane, Bird, and to Miles and Herbie you know all the guys that I really love. I have to admit I haven't heard to much in like pop music in the last couple of years that has really attracted me or that has compels me to ask 'what is that?' Seems like most of the things that I hear are sort of like, well OK that's little bit of this mixed with a little bit of that, mixed with a little bit of this - I haven't heard anything that just wildly like wow, who is that and what are they doing, you know? Which is kind of disappointing for me, it's just there's so much going on in the world that there should be some new music to go with that and I just don't hear it."
I suggest he might feel he could fill this gap. "Well I mean, I do my best but I'm kind of in a definitely in a demographic now that's different. You between the ages of 18 and 25 you do stuff at that age that you just can't do at any other age and it almost has to come from somebody from that age because their in the time in a way that somebody like me isn't like me just isn't and you know what I think is it's kids that age their jazz, their music is computers. I think a lot of the real creative people are doing that they're just not really involved in music they're doing other stuff - I understand that too, that's a fascinating thing. But I do think that a lot of the really creative minds that may, at an earlier point have out their minds on jazz or music are putting their mind their mind on other things now, in this generation. Which is a little bit sad for me because the computer world, the Internet world is such a soulless world. It's a form that sucks up people's creativity and leaves them standing there as these empty givers of creativity without really too much to hold from it, because their creativity is usually obsolete in a couple of weeks, six months, a year later and all of the energy and time has been absorbed in to the vernacular but they don't really get to say 'hey that was me that did that' it's like their thing is some applet in cyberspace, last years version of somebody's website.
" One of things that is great about the 'arts' is it really is this sort of bank account that whatever you throw in to it you get back ten times what you put in to it. And that's something I don't see about the hi-tech world is that it really takes something; you don't get much back other than your own personal sense of growth. It's a hard world it's a very cold world and technically I'm a jazz guy! (Laughs) It's also a community of musicians that's really cool you know especially the jazz world it's like there's always like these interneural fracases that break out between this bunch of guys and that bunch of guys and this school and that school, and the old guys and the young guys, and sometimes the black guys and the white guys and sometimes the electric guys and the acoustic guys. You know there's always all these little stupid ass things but you stick a bunch of jazz guys on a bus together for a ten-hour bus ride and everybody's gonna hang and have a great time, and share their tapes. I was once on a bus with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Chuck Mangeone quartet, the Woody Herman herd and the band I was in, the Gary Burton band. At the beginning everyone was in their little corner of the bus but within like five minuets it was like, by the time the bus ride was over it like completely integrated. And that to me says so much about the jazz world as a whole."
Text © Mike Flynn