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Pat Metheny Q&A: A musician in pursuit of the perfect song Print-ready version

by Warren Linhart
March 25, 2019

Photo: Warren Linhart

Pat Metheny has had a long and distinguished career in music, yet he remains dedicated to seeking out new adventures.

His discography lists nearly 60 albums and these span over 40 years. He has won 20 Grammy Awards and is the only musician to have won a Grammy in 10 different categories.

His current focus is the debut of his Side Eye Tour which he explains is an ongoing series of concerts where he will perform with younger, gifted musicians that have caught his eye. The idea stems from his memories of when he was starting out and was able to work with older musicians in the Kansas City area where he honed his craft, learning from their experience. These opportunities proved invaluable. Indeed, when he was 18 he was offered an opportunity to be a musical educator at the University of Miami. At 19, he taught at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

Metheny still tours regularly. In recent years, he seems to have become a bit introspective, looking back on what he has done while constantly looking for new adventures and musicians that he identifies with to perform with him. His first Side Eye tour debuted at the Homer Center for the Arts last weekend, featuring two brilliant musicians, drummer Nate Smith and keyboardist James Francies . The show sold out almost as soon as it went on sale. Metheny had very complimentary things to say about the venue and the very warm audience reception they received. The trio had only a few dates in Japan under their belt before returning to the U.S. to gear up with less than three days before commencing their 17-city tour.

Warren Linhart sat down with him after his sold-out performance Saturday, March 23, at the Homer Center for the Arts.

Warren Linhart: I remember years ago reading articles about you teaching at Berklee and this was before becoming familiar with any of your music. Teaching gifted students in music involves tolerance, careful listening, a solid understanding of the fundamentals while exploring and sharing many musical ideas. How did those early teaching experiences affect your career path?

Pat Metheny: Well it's kind of unusual that I was thrust into not just teaching but college level teaching at a very young age and in both cases it was kind of odd how it went down. The back story really had to do with what happened before that. I grew up in the Kansas City area and was lucky to grow up there at a time where there were a lot of gigs but not too many guitar players, so I got a lot of great playing experience starting when I was 14, 15, 16, 17 years-old, playing five and sometimes six nights a week with some fantastic musicians. So by time I was a late teen, I had been a professional musician for a while. Whatever teaching I did back in those days was fully built around the realities of what being a professional musician was all about and even under those conditions my state was still being formed myself because I'd only been playing for a few years by then.

Basically, when I look back on what I was teaching, it was whatever it was I was working on to tell you the truth and there were plenty of things that then, like now, are fundamental things that I'm still working on, that I would probably still be inclined to impart to somebody because they're the kinds of things. -- it's not like you ever really master them, they're kind of infinite in their application.

W.L.: You have said that it is your responsibility to come up with alternative ways to think about things and this might include ideas that have simmered on the back burner so as you approach a new project, especially one with your group, that sounds like something of a bigger picture than some of the side projects that you've done. How do you arrive at a theme to start a project?

P.M.: The whole concept of a group, to side projects, to this, to that, doesn't resonate with me. It never really has. It's kind of... everything is the same to me, and everything that I've done whether I call it that or not is Pat Metheny Group, one way or another. The fundamental way that I go about putting anything together has to do with what story do I want to tell, what kind of universe do I want to kind of explore, and at different times it involves different kinds of musical destinations and whatever I'm interested in at a particular time.

W.L.: Is it at that point that you think about the musicians you want to work with?

P.M.: Yes, finding the right musicians, and once I've done that then it's a matter of finding what those people are really good at and that sometimes that takes a while. I like hanging around with people for extended periods of time, that way I can learn what their strengths are, and without going too far into that, what their weaknesses are too and try to come up with an environment that A: is telling the story that I'm interested in at that time, and B: allowing everybody to shine and do their best... including me! I want to put together an environment, like tonight is a great example, everybody's smiling and happy. James is really great at this, Nate's really good at this.

I've got 500 tunes at this point. Let me find tunes which are going to feature what these guys are unbelievable at. I would say in general having done many kinds of things over the years from very complicated extended detailed stuff to very simple stuff, more and more I'm finding that the simpler stuff is actually the harder stuff in a way. It's easy for me to find people who can play really complicated, but to find people who can play really simple and play some other more dense kind of stuff like from one tune to the next is extremely difficult for me and it's always kind of been that way. Each thing is a very particular thing and yet at the same time, it's all the same thing to me.

W.L.: You have incorporated voices, careful layering, colorful texture and spatial considerations to your projects. It's been very interesting to examine and listen to how you've introduced these elements into your music. The paths you've taken have opened up many new adventures. As an example, take the energy of a locked quintet on your album "80/81" to the sonic intricacies of "Secret Story" (which many regard as one of their favorites from your extensive catalog.) [This album has been remastered with a fresh look at new mixes.] You've always changed directions to what suits you at the time.

P.M.: The primary part of how you arrive at something is to have a kind of vision somewhere in some form or another of what a destination might be like in terms of a story, in terms of a narrative expositional type description through music of a particular environment, a certain kind of world which manifests itself in a certain kind of sound, and for a certain kind of sound, you want a certain kind of person to play with you, or it's a certain kind of guitar, or it's a certain kind of mixing or reverb. There are infinite details that come to bear on the result but you have to start with a conception and for me, if I think about all of my favorite musicians, it has very little to do with genre, it has mostly to do with creativity and conception, and for me creativity is something that determines for me as a fan the degree of how much or how little I'm compelled to listen to it. It's like it's very rare that there's music that is sort of like something else that I keep returning to.

W.L.: What is it then that would make you want to return to a piece of music?

P.M.: What I keep returning to as a fan of music is music that has an identity to it in a creative and conceptual level. For me personally, the sound factor is the thing... people say they know that it's me when I'm playing because they recognize it but the truth is I use nine or 10 guitars and use them in all different kinds of ways so you wouldn't necessarily notice it from the sound but mostly what connects everything is the conception. If I think about Joe Henderson or Gary Burton or Ornette Coleman, you just say their name and you get a picture of what that world is and it's a conceptual picture.

Yes, they have a sound, they have a way of being as a musician, but there's an identity to it. In today's musical community, we're not thinking about this kind of music or that kind of music. We can play with Beyonce tomorrow or we could go play with the New York Philharmonic or we could play with Dolly Parton or John Zorn. It's not a matter of style, it's a matter of creativity and understanding of music in the biggest sense. When I think about the community of musicians... like Herbie Hancock or Chris Potter, the people that we know that are part of this, people use the word "jazz."

Nobody likes that word. We don't really have a word for it, it's kind of like "Uber Musicians." It's kind of like musicians who weren't being linked to this or that. We're going to deal with music in the biggest sense but within that to have a conception of what that might be is the next hurdle. Some of my favorite musicians- Duke Ellington, Bach, The Beatles -- they are all creative musicians and the creativity transcends the politics because to me, when people start talking about this is jazz, or this is punk rock, and this is heavy metal, all those discussions are political discussions, they're not musical ones.

I'm not interested in the political side of sound, I'm interested in the musical side.

W.L.: In the news recently, there have been stories about the upcoming Woodstock anniversary and also some about Joni Mitchell turning 75 [Mitchell wrote the song "Woodstock" which was made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.] You were part of the terrific band that was on the tour to support her album "Mingus" back in the 70s. (Mitchell's album "Shadows and Light" was subsequently released with performances culled from that tour.) Thinking back now, what was that opportunity like for you and what did you come away with from that experience?

P.M.: She's great. If think about the musicians that I've been around that really impacted me, if I think about the gigs that I played that have been unbelievable, they've mostly been with people who are fluent in the broadest sense of what music is, there's a kind of a sense of infinity when you're on the bandstand with people like Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, or Ornette (Coleman) -- you're dealing with infinity. For me, that requires a broad knowledge of music. There are lots of musicians who are dealing with a not broad realm of music but one where that realm goes very deep. Joni didn't really have a whole range of things, it was like a sliver; BUT, it was way, way, way deep and that is just as valuable and important as anything else. The main thing I carried from that experience is the admiration for how great she is and was.

W.L.: Your recordings are impeccable, and they've demonstrated that you are very particular about sound quality. Media as we know it (CDs, DVDs) is going away though interestingly, vinyl is making a resurgence. Streaming is the way it's going and many people are not happy about that. Not to get you riled up but what are your thoughts on all this?

P.M.: I feel like right now is a particularly bad time for those kinds of issues, but it's also the method of interfacing the music that we as musicians hope to offer to everybody and the way people are receiving it. It is absolutely horrible, not only in the sound department, but in dealing with Spotify, Apple music... any of these, it's a nightmare because they all suck.

Their interfaces are horrible. The whole thing is a big mess. I have 100 percent confidence it's going to get a lot better someday, but I don't know when that will be. I don't think anybody has actually figured out how to get music to people where they can really experience it because the truth is no one has heard any record that any of us have made for the last 20 years in the way we've heard it in the studio unless you have a fantastic system at home and you buy the hi-res versions and even then I have a feeling a lot of people might not notice the difference. Good notes are good notes and something that's great will be always great. I am lucky to have been able to live a life where I have invested every bit of currency that I have into music which is a bank that's pure gold. You can not beat good notes. They live through everything.

Bach is a great example, there's nothing that will ever change that, so I just invest in great notes and try to learn about more great notes.

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Added to Library on March 30, 2019. (3916)


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