Blesok no. 38, September-October, 2004
Pat Metheny: Speaks of Now
It's been five and six years since the releases of the conceptual stretches of “Imaginary Day” and “Quartet”. In that time much has happened regarding the entity known for the past 25 years as The Pat Metheny Group. After an extensive interim world tour and recording both live and studio albums in a trio project with the extraordinary rhythm section of Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart, Metheny decided it was again time to write and record new group material to bring on the road. Though mainstays pianist/keyboardist, Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby have remained, for the first time in 15 years, a core member has moved on to pursue his own group. An exceptional drummer and sonic counterbalance for the group, Paul Wertico had become an integral part of the group's sound and left a large shadow to fill.
Consequently, Pat first heard drummer Antonio Sanchez (w/ Danilo Perez, Burton, Liebman) while sharing the bill with the Danilo Perez trio and was impressed by his fluency with the musical language they share. As luck would have it, percussion/vocal/ bass phenom, Richard Bona (w/ Mike Stern, Joe Zawinal, Mike Brecker) was also available and along with soulful trumpeter/vocalist, Cuong Vu (w/ David Bowie, Dave Douglas, Laurie Anderson) extend, extrude, elicit, surround and support the core of this group in a new but familiar way.
Though all substantially younger than the remaining members and all from vastly different cultures and geographies, all three grew up with a shared affinity with the group's music, that is at once apparent. As in past reorganizations, you sense the energy of the new beginning and few limits to it's potential.
For Metheny, it's been a long and eventful journey. The latest necessitation of change. Among the notable events that complete his bio include being the youngest teacher ever at both the prestigious Berklee College and University of Miami (19 & 18), releasing contemporary classics, “Bright Size Life”, (w/ Jaco & Bob Moses), “Question and Answer” (w/ Dave Holland & Roy Haynes) and “Rejoicing” (w/ Charlie Haden & Billy Higgins) and nearly redefining the guitar trio and the possibilities for guitar in improvised music. This meant fusing the one time disparate elements of rock, folk, Brazilian, experimental, even chamber, neo-classical and gospel influences, and filtering all through the context of a very driven, unique jazz sensibility. It also meant choosing players as carefully as orchestrations and instruments, for what they alone could bring to the table.
In the search for distinctive sonorities and textures Metheny commissioned various custom instruments: the 42 string Pikasso guitar (double neck w/ sympathetic strings), a fretless nylon string guitar, a sitar guitar and employed the Synclavier and Roland guitar synth and odd tunings. Digitally delayed signal effects for ambient enhancement became a much emulated hallmark of his guitar sound. Along with Ibanez, he also developed his own distinctive signature model guitar, the PM-100. And after 13 years in the making, the new “Pat Metheny Songbook”, containing 167 original scores, is now available.
In the meantime, Metheny has been awarded 14 Grammies to date (with an unprecedented 7 consecutive awards), scored major films (“A Map of the World” and “Falcon and the Snowman” etc) and performed with an overall creative pantheon of the music industry. Among them: David Bowie, Mike Brecker, Gary Burton, Ornette Coleman, Jack Dejohnette, Donald Fagan, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, Dave Holland, Joni Mitchell, Joshua Redman, Sonny Rollins and John Scofield.
So, what's next? Both update and selective retrospective, “Speaking of Now” probably best sums and captures the spirit of the Metheny group perspective: without compromise, to honestly and sonically comment on the moment; where they are now.
AAJ: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Pat. Aside from the new music what tunes are you doing this tour?
PM: The book for this band is so big and there are so many of the older tunes that are still so much fun to play that it makes it really hard to decide exactly what will be in a given setlist for a tour like this. The challenge will be to squeeze it all into the 3 hours that we have to play each night. I have not really figured out yet which of the older tunes we will play, but it is always fun to see how the old ones work next to the new ones – sometimes they have a whole new life.
AAJ: Long set. You've now played a good portion of your work for extended periods in trio, quartet, septet and larger formations, including the groups of others (Mike Brecker, Roy Haynes), even the big-band collaboration this summer. What arranging allowances do you have to make for playing the same music in larger or smaller formats than originally arranged for? And do you prefer one over the other?
PM: Erlend is a very talented arranger and the charts that he wrote were not for a traditional big band instrumentation. There was a string quartet, 4 woodwinds and a large rhythm section. What I liked about what he did was that he took the pieces and really made them his own.
But that kind of a special project playing situation is rare in the mix of things that I usually do – mostly I get to play with my own bands, which is something I consider to be a real privilege. The varieties of formats and instrumentation's that I am able to work in bring out different things and offer the chance to work on different aspects of things that I hope to get together someday. The group thing is in many ways the most open ended because so much of what it is has no real precedent. we are often dealing with music and instruments that could not have existed during any previous era because of the advances in musical instrument and studio technology, and we seem to be more and more on our own in terms of the way we are addressing issues of form and the kind of obliteration of style that seems to be part and parcel of what living in this period of time seems to indicate. Yet, at the same time, regardless of context, my basic goal is pretty simple actually – to try to find something in each setting that seems resonant and true and musically attractive to me. Whether it is in a trio, or the group or a special project big band or whatever else is almost secondary.
AAJ: How would you describe the new disc? What can new listeners expect and longtime listeners expect that's new or different about this one?
PM: I would describe it as a fairly major leap for us, although it is maybe a more subtle than overt one. From start to finish, the music was just pouring out of everyone. And like with most of our records, you have to listen to it a bunch of times to get all the things that are going on, the subtexts and details and the ways the pieces are developed. as far as 'new and different' goes, it all speaks for itself in the language of music – there are many aspects of the melodies, the kinds of forms that we use and the way the whole band (particularly the rhythm section) plays together that is quite unlike previous editions of the band or previous records. Having said that, I think we have always been interested in focusing on developing our own vocabulary of sounds, harmonies and maybe most of all, melodies. Our band has always remained 'backwards compatible' with itself – by that, I mean that the things that we did from the gitgo are still useful and pertinent to everything that has happened since. I don't think we have ever rejected anything from a previous period and said, 'wow, what were we thinking? We will never do anything like that again'. The things that we dig about certain harmonies and chords I think have only deepened through the years. and we have learned a lot over the years, that is for sure.
But, the whole idea of having to continually make things 'new and different' is an interesting one. Obviously, there have been places along the way where I have come out with records that sounded almost nothing like the previous ones. I think that sets up an expectation that it should always be like that, that anything less than that is somehow just that; less. For me, the utmost thing in any of these records – or in any musical endeavor for that matter, whether it is a gig or a practice session or whatever – is to address the emotional aspect of what music offers us. Everything for me is about the feeling. all the instruments are tools for us to hopefully reveal emotions and feelings that are distinct and have some resonance. When doing interviews like this, or whenever words and music intersect, there is always a tendency for that to get lost in the parallel grammar of description. It is easier to talk about form and what kind of strings and which recording technique was used and who is new in the band and all that than it is to just acknowledge that all the verbiage in the world pales in the face of one really well played note. everything that goes into music making for me is important, from the way the music is conceived and designed and executed to the fun that we have while making it. But all of that happens in the service of, hopefully, capturing a true feeling that could only be expressed the one way that it is expressed in that particular moment of sound.
AAJ: This is the first time in a long time that you've come back on tour after having changed not only the 'peripheral' members (for lack of a better term) but also a core rhythm section group member. How have things changed with the absence of Paul Wertico after 15 years ('83-'98) with the group?
PM: Our new drummer, Antonio Sanchez, in many ways became sort of the catalyst for the whole thing this time – he is just an unbelievably great musician and his presence really made us think about things that we hadn't really considered before as possibilities. Every time I got together with him to play, I would find myself listening to the tape over and over again and hearing different things in the way he approaches everything each time. Steve and Lyle immediately had the same sensation. for me, he is one of the best drummers to come along in a long time. He also is a very positive person with a great heart. He and Steve and I did a couple of clinics in Spain this summer and the way he interacted with the students and the clarity that he was able to communicate fairly complex ideas reminded me exactly of the way that he plays – it all goes together. I would love to do a duet record with him someday.
AAJ: There seems to be more of an intimacy/immediacy that comes across in this mix and a bit dryer, less effected guitar sound which seems to allow for more of a different, unexpected kind of presence in the mix.
AAJ: I noticed on the new disc (“Speaking of Now”) what comes across as a bit of recycling of partial themes of your own. This might not be a first, but are you surprised when people say they recognize previously recorded events in new music?
PM: I don't think that argument could be supported in actual musical terms – especially if you are talking about specific thematic material. To me there is nothing 'recycled' about any of these pieces. Yes, there is a vocabulary at work there that has been refined over 20 some years of work and I would like to think that after all of this time there are elements of the points that we have been trying to make over all that time that are by now (hopefully) somewhat recognizable – but beyond that in real musical terms, no.
AAJ: Much like Picasso said, “Try everything, but only once”, you've said that you try to change the methods of the way you compose with each project. Where did the inspiration for the music come from this time?
PM: We recorded everything together at the session – then afterwards, Steve, Lyle, myself and Rob Eaton the recording engineer for the session did our usual process of picking what we thought was the best stuff from what we played. there was a period where things were refined before we came back to mix including the addition of some extra parts by Lyle and myself – but that has been the case for many years now.
As far as where the inspiration comes from – that is a hard one. In general, for me, the lineup of musicians that we gathered for this band set up a bunch of new opportunities and the music seemed to gravitate towards those places. But in general, it is hard for me to quantify or even identify inspiration – the goal is always just to try to come up with stuff that sounds good to us, that satisfies the fairly high standards that we have set for ourselves over the years as listeners and fans of music. Ultimately, you are just trying to find the good notes.
AAJ: Can you discuss what the current band members are bringing to both the new and previous music? What made you choose these particular players?
PM: They are all very strong individuals, something that I really wanted this time around, especially after we got Antonio in the band. Richard Bona is someone who is basically a kind of unprecedented musician. His range of musical expressions are so unique to who he is as a person. The main attraction for me about him was his voice, it is just so beautiful – but as it turns out, he is the perfect percussionist for us as well. It is really special that Richard will be taking time away from his own thing to do this tour with us. It seems like this is just something he has had an interest in doing since hearing the band years ago and I feel very fortunate to have him and I am really excited to be out on the road with him in the band as well. And Cuong Vu is someone who brings a special kind of originality to the mix.
I suppose I have always sort of been looking for a horn player who I felt could offer something to us that went beyond the obvious. When I heard Cuong on the radio one night, I just had to find out who it was – it was unplaceable and completely unique – Cuong is great. And, as it happens, he is a fantastic singer too – and his blend with Richard is something special, that was not something we could have predicted. Cuong's personal relationship with the music of this band had a real impact on me too as we were putting this music together. He kept talking about how much he loved certain records in that late 80's period and how he had listened to them over and over again. It kind of made me go, hmm, maybe I should go listen to those ones again!, which I actually did, kind of filtered through Cuong's enthusiasm for them. He kind of reminded me of some melodic priorities that I had during that period that I may not have been focusing on as much in recent years.
AAJ: Yeah, it's pretty exciting to discover a player you didn't know that makes you want to drop everything to find out more about them. Do you expect that there will be further trio tours with Grenadier and Stewart or Blade as well as with those you've recorded trio records with like Holland, Haynes and Haden, or others?
PM: I am certain that there will be and I always look forward to those kinds of encounters. in all of the trio things I have been able to do over the years you will find some of my favorite musicians and people. the trio thing has been a constant for me since the beginning and i am pretty sure that it will always have a place in the mix of stuff that I try to do.
AAJ: What is your current philosophy on the recording process and preferences of software, hardware?
PM: Making records was never a real priority for me. only in the past 15 years or so have I felt comfortable with the process or the results. early on, at ECM, it was so difficult for the most part, and not that satisfying, although the results of those sessions have their moments, I guess. but these days I enjoy it more.
As far as software and hardware goes, there are many equally viable ways to get your musical ideas documented now, and each one of them can yield great results. I have done fully analog records and fully digital records and like both. This record was done without any tape, as most records are these days. That turns out to be an excellent way of working for me and this group in particular and I feel real comfortable with that. But, in the end, it is only the music that matters – how you do it is really not of that much interest to 99 percent of the people that hear it. I know in my own case as a listener, I don't care if someone did whatever they did in an hour direct to 2 track or spent a week or a year in a studio going to digital 48 or whatever – as long as it speaks as music in a way that conveys the spirit and intention of the cats – they I usually like it.
AAJ: Was the writing or production done in your NYC studio?
PM: Yes, all the writing and arranging was done there. The actual recording took place at Right Track recording, right across Broadway on 48th street.
AAJ: I didn't realize you also played piano. How long have you been playing and would you ever record it?
PM: I have been using the piano as a writing tool since I was a kid – it is so much easier than the guitar, especially for checking voicings, moving lines, etc. I can't really say that I have any interest in recording on it, although I did play one track on a record once and have played it on various film scores. I have often played keyboard parts on things that have wound up on various records, but I am not a virtuoso or able to play much beyond just what I functionally hear while I am writing.
AAJ: We saw the trio when you came to Austin and it was one of the freest, most dynamic shows I've seen almost anyone do. And much larger than other trios sound. I'd done an interview with Eric Johnson that day where we'd both commented on looking forward to hearing the 'Bright Size Life' material revived. Do you feel more or a different kind of freedom when you play trio now and was it anything like playing those tunes with (Bob) Moses and Jaco?
PM: I remember that gig well and always really enjoy Austin. Yes, playing in a trio is quite unlike anything else, and I especially enjoyed the trio with Larry and Bill. I was really glad that we documented our time together in the live record that came out last year – I felt like we were lucky to actually capture some of what made that combination work so well on tape. I can't say enough about how much I dig both Larry and Bill – not just as musicians, but as people.
As far as Moses and Jaco goes, that was really a whole other thing. That was such a special band, and the time when that band was active was a real interesting time for me, an interesting point in life. Jaco and I were both really interested in challenging the status quo of our instruments and jazz in general and Moses was already a master. We had a great chemistry together. We were both really on a mission – there was a lot of energy there.
AAJ: Absolutely. Hopefully live material from that group will appear at some point. As far as “Speaking of Now”, some might describe the music as somewhat “world” influenced – for lack of a better term – sensing more West African influence mixed with the group's penchant for Brazilian sounds. Was it a conscious thing to incorporate certain aspects or sounds of particular cultures this time, or is it ever?
PM: First, like many musicians, I really dislike the attempt to quantify music by style in general. I just think that it basically fails in the face of the music in question more often than not. we live in a world where someone like Richard (Bona) grew up in a small village in Africa, I grew up in a little town in Missouri, Cuong Vu was born in Vietnam, Antonio in Mexico, etc. – yet, we all speak the same language of music, even a very specific and fairly difficult dialect of it, and I think we all do so with an individuality that goes beyond the 'national boundaries' of where we are from or even the 'style' of music that we are called onto play at a given point. Humanity is moving more and more into a zone where that kind of 'demographic' – one that addresses common goals rather that geographic locations – is the norm and has been for some time, and this is just the beginning. The glib and superficial term 'world music' is an insult to all of those people who happen to play music and weren't born in the same place that the marketing guy who dreamed the term up happens to live – other than that it is meaningless.
AAJ: Yeah, and I'm sure that's how it came about. It's very vague. What part of the world are we talking about? All music is world music if it was created on the planet. Still, at this point, we are all aware of what is being referred to by that term, as we are by other marketing or artist codified terminology (Dub, Funk, Blues, Hip-Hop, Trance, Electronica, etc). For many, Jazz is a deceptive term as well. Obviously, it can mean a dozen different things to as many people (Dixie, Rag, Swing, Bop, Hard Bop, 'Free', Cool, Latin, Fusion – whatever). The terms merely exist so that consumers have at least a general idea what they might be buying – if they haven't heard it – and for one-stops to bin product accordingly.
PM: By the same token, I would like to know what bands or musicians there are out there in the 'world' that play music that has the same specific qualities that we represent in the work we have been doing for the past 25 years with this band? Particularly in the areas of melody and harmony, I just don't see much anywhere quite like it – even within the Jazz world, let alone from other areas – and that may be for better or worse I might add. Whenever we welcome someone into the band, they are not just encouraged to bring who they are to the bandstand, the required individuality that they bring to the table is a big part of what it takes to get this gig in the first place. But, because the compositional and improvisational demands of this band are so specific (and that is not a bad thing in my opinion, most of the bands that I admire most in history have had an aesthetic that was quite specific and usually quite demanding in the areas of being able to imply the sense of the universal within a dialectic framework that is clearly outlined either by the leader or better, by the way the music itself is designed to be played) the musicians who play in this band have to be able to envision a sound that fits in with what the tunes and the vibe demand first and foremost – but still be themselves. And if they happen to be from Pluto – cool.
AAJ: Of course. Would you say that each album has its own focus or theme or are they pretty much chronicling/mirroring the groups journey?
PM: Right from the start, a big part of what bandleading has been for me has been to direct and focus the groups attention to specific areas of investigation and exploration. this may be the formulation of certain questions, like how big can we make a quartet sound? How far can we develop things compositionally and still retain an improvisational balance with that development? Can we address 'x' and still retain our identity? And tons of specific musical issues having to do with the particular roles of the instruments within the rhythm section, the way the solos themselves unfold over time and a million little things.
But having said all that, the details and even the bulk content of the pieces have to primarily succeed as envelopes for emotion and storytelling. It is really easy for me to talk and talk about all the cool little things that I love about music in a kind of a technical way – but at the same time all of those things are minor in comparison to the more fundamental importance that lays beneath it all; which is the vibe of it, the feeling that we are able to achieve that gives it's flavor and identity and the emotional impact that we are able to achieve through all the work that we put into making all of the elements come together to tell a story as best we can.
AAJ: Do you find that the current audiences at festivals overseas appreciate different aspects of what you (and other jazz artists) do more than domestic audiences?
PM: I was hoping I would never have to say yes to that question – for many years, I was very fortunate to be able to say that the audiences that would come out to see us anywhere in the states could rival those that we found anywhere else in the world. But, I can't anymore.
This country has really changed. It seemed to start around the time that Reagan first got elected. the culture of America now seems to be far less concerned with art in general. people don't want to leave their houses too much and feel much more inclined to just sit in front of their TV's and hang on the internet and just chill out at home. People resent having to pay taxes to support education – particularly for the arts – while they are oblivious to the cultural deterioration that surrounds them. It seems that they really, honestly, just don't care.
A couple of years ago, I went to see Aretha Franklin at Madison Square Garden. she was headlining a kind of all-star bill of musicians, and she was the last one to come on, it was probably about 10 pm when she hit the stage. It was killing. You could not have asked for more, Aretha at her very best. But after a few tunes, I noticed that people started leaving, then leaving in droves, while Aretha was up there singing her ass off. by the time her set was over, at about 10:45, there were maybe 500 people left. it became clear that everyone just wanted to get home – it wasn't like they weren't digging it or were offended or anything, they had just had enough for the night, they came at 7:30 and were tired and just wanted to split. It struck me at that moment how the culture had changed. It was so rude, so disrespectful, so shallow – so remote-control-tv driven a behavior. And since then, I notice it now too at our shows – about 20 minutes before the end, people leave to beat the rush. I see it at sports games – the local hometown team is behind, let's all split.
AAJ: Yeah, it's a shame. They just want to get home before they get trapped in the parking lot. Like the Zappa tune, “America Drinks and Goes Home” elicits, it's become sort of a habit domestically, even though its by no means a comment on the quality of a given program.
PM: The utter lack of deep support and energy that people used to routinely and welcomely offer to their culture has been replaced by a kind of malaise that seems to be everywhere here.
Happily, Europe and Japan have remained mostly impervious to this dumbing down thing that engulfs the states. audiences there are better informed, more enthusiastic and maybe most exciting of all, younger than ever before. And I have to say that more and more, the best musicians are coming from places other than the U.S. as a result. the ultimate irony in this however is that local musicians in these quite sophisticated and musically educated societies have the same problems in their own countries that we have here. For instance, German musicians – and there are many excellent ones – are not embraced by the German public the same way that they embrace American musicians, or at least, that is how it seems to me.
AAJ: Right. Its a strange phenomena that some artists seem to have to leave home to make it. Like Hendrix only made it to a certain level until he went to London and came back successful on a whole other level. From comparing various live tapes I've had or heard, Miles used to seem to take more chances in places like Italy than he might in California. Do you find yourself playing differently in Europe, Japan or South America than here due to your knowledge of the expectations of certain audiences?
PM: As far as Miles went, I heard him often in the states, Japan and Europe – and I don't think you could really support that argument with the actual music that he played. He usually sounded great everywhere and he seemed to me to be one of those kinds of musicians who took the audience to a place that they could rarely imagine no matter where they happen to find themselves due to the realities of geography. Maybe the one of the major elements in Miles' genius was the way he could connect with people with just a few notes and then keep them there with him all night.
I would say that it is very hard to generalize about audiences. You may have a great gig in place 'x' on one tour and it could be not as great the next time. For that matter, sometimes you play multi-night engagements somewhere and every night there is a totally different vibe. You just have to stay open to what it really happening while it is happening and be ready to be surprised. but after all this talk about audiences, I guess I need to add since this is really the answer to the question – the most important thing, and to my experience the only thing that really works, is to play for yourself – anything else is guessing.
AAJ: Yeah. No, of course Miles was almost always on, I meant that a different side of what he did was sometimes more apparent in certain geographies than others, and as honest as he was to the music this was probably not a conscious thing. What, for you, signifies a successful performance or recorded statement?
PM: How well I sleep that night after a gig. For records, if I listen to it a lot in that unique period between what happens between the completion of the mastering and the time of it's release. But having said that, I am the first to acknowledge that my own perception of whatever I do is not to be trusted one way or the other – best just to do your best and move on to the next thing with more experience and information under your belt.
AAJ: That's true. Most players have events they can point to that they feel are turning points for them regarding direction, values etc. What do you think have been yours?
PM: The big turning point for me happened when I was 14 or 15 years old and great older musicians around Kansas City like Gary Sivils and Paul Smith started calling me for gigs. everything that has ever happened to me since then grew from those experiences. I was extremely lucky to have had those early chances to learn with players at that level.
AAJ: What's coming up for you after this tour?
PM: I really hope to be able to spend more time working on the guitar itself – something it seems like have really never had the chance to do – and trying to play better in general and to refine many of the ideas that I have about improvisation. I am also so excited about the group now with Antonio – I would love to do a quartet record again with just Lyle, Steve and Antonio and play some smaller places. I also want to do a bunch of duet records with musicians that I feel especially close to – maybe like a series or something like that.
AAJ: That'd be great. Looking forward to that. The duets with Charlie Haden and Jim Hall were spectacular. Thanks for your time and all the best, Pat.