Pat Metheny - On the road to guitar perfection

Pat Metheny talks about the time he spends at home as the civilian life. Even for someone whose uniform has been nothing more official looking than his habitual stripy top and a pair of jeans, it’s not an unreasonable term.

For years, Metheny spent most of the year travelling the world with an operation that involved military-style organisation as the Pat Metheny Group rose to be the biggest draw in jazz. The sense of Metheny’s band invading a locale was never more palpable than the balmy summer evening in the mid 1980s when residents of Putney arrived home from work to find a fleet of pantechnicons blocking their streets.

They had driven overnight from Barcelona and were parked around the Half Moon, one of the London pub circuit’s great music venues. With the best will in the world, the Half Moon’s back room, never mind its stage, was never going to accommodate the equipment it took to mount a Pat Metheny Group concert. So a compromise was reached. The group shrunk to a quartet, a small city of keyboards, amps and percussion went back in the truck and Metheny played a conventional jazz gig – or at least it was conventional jazz compared to the son et lumiere spectacle that had already sold out the mighty Hammersmith Odeon across the Thames for the following three nights.

In those days, Metheny and his guitar could not be parted and if there was a possibility of turning a night off spent practising alone in his hotel room into a session playing to real live people, Metheny would grab it. His road crew just had to fall into line like lower ranks following the top brass’s orders.

The arrival of two Metheny offspring has had the effect of reducing the guitarist’s concert schedule and almost – almost - weaning him off his guitar habit.

"I’d have to say that now, if I was stranded on a desert island, I think I could live without a guitar," he says with a definitely maybe tone. "Whereas before I’d spend up to three hundred days a year on the road, now it’s more like one hundred. But in terms of where I want to be as a guitarist, I’m not there yet."

At fifty-two, Missouri-born Metheny has lived through a remarkable period of development in guitar technology, advancements that he has, he happily concedes, wilfully embraced. His body of recorded work ranges from solo acoustic compositions and jazz trios to the symphonic amalgam of synthesisers, Brazilian percussion, sunny melodies and rocking out that is, arguably, presented most persuasively on the Pat Metheny Group’s Imaginary Day CD. And that’s before we get into his collaborations with – among others – Herbie Hancock, free jazz godfather Ornette Coleman, radical guitarist Derek Bailey, and David Bowie, who crooned to the Metheny group’s streamlined groove on This Is Not America.

"When I started playing, as far as jazz was concerned the guitar was relegated to a very particular sound and a very particular style," he says. "That’s not to denigrate the musicians involved. I love Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell, who I’d rate as the first rank, and then there was Joe Pass, Jimmy Raney, George Benson and Pat Martino, all great players, who took the guitar through bebop. But although these guys had their own strong personalities, they would still create essentially one single sound throughout an entire evening.

"That hollow bodied guitar sound was the beginning for me and in many ways it’s still the central part of what I do. But the guitar can now do so many other things in terms of texture, orchestration, different tunings and so forth that I hadn’t heard in a trio or in a group with a piano, and I just figured, Why Not?"

The great thing about the guitar, for Metheny, is that it means something different to everyone, be it Megadeth playing through sixteen Marshall amps or Segovia performing solo classical music in a concert hall.

"There are a zillion shades in between and I enjoy exploring them," he says.

The musician he is currently exploring these shades with is Brad Mehldau, who is widely regarded as the brightest jazz piano talent of his generation. Since they got together as a duo that has now developed into a touring and recording quartet, Mehldau has talked with enthusiasm about getting to play with someone he grew up listening to. Suddenly Metheny, who was still a teenager when he made his first record with bass guitar genius Jaco Pastorius, pianist Paul Bley and drummer Bruce Ditmas, felt like a veteran.

"It’s a scary thought but it’s also interesting because the difference in age between Brad and me – I think he’s about fifteen years younger – is much the same as the age difference between me and guys I’ve played with like Gary Burton, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette," he says. "I never felt that much of a kid with these guys. It wasn’t like playing with Roy Haynes, who’s of my parents’ generation and has been around, well, quite a few blocks now. And actually, I find it easier to relate to someone like Brad than the guys six or seven years younger than me, who are dressed up in their suits and playing music that my parents used to listen to. I listen to these guys and I’m baffled, not moved."

When he and Mehldau got together he felt an instant connection. The jazz press reacted enthusiastically to the results, with Jazzwise magazine proclaiming the Metheny Mehldau CD the jazz event of 2006. The pair have since released another album, Quartet, adding bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, to similar critical approval and Metheny reckons that following their recent American tour, they’re ready to take the music up to another level.

"Brad and I had never played together at all before we went into the studio to make that duo album but we had a sense that we could work together," says Metheny. "And right from the get-go we discovered that, musically, we had a lot to talk about. The first track on that CD, Unrequited, was recorded within twenty minutes of us sitting down together in the studio. We both just played the way we play naturally and felt free to go on from there because we have a similar way of looking at rhythm.

"We can be playing the wildest thing and suddenly we go ‘boom’ together, right on the downbeat. I’ve had that with other musicians, drummers particularly, and I had it with Michael Brecker and with Lyle [Mays, the Pat Metheny Group’s keyboardist] of course, who’s been on this journey with me almost from the start. This thing with Brad, though, is one of the most exciting musical encounters I’ve ever had."

How far the Metheny-Mehldau Quartet goes beyond the European tour that brings them to Glasgow Jazz Festival has yet to be decided. Mehldau, like Metheny, has his own group and over the years Metheny has remained committed to his group with Mays while managing to fit in his various side projects. Justifiable promiscuity, he calls this.

It’s the great attraction in playing jazz, he says, that the musicians have to live every millisecond that they’re working. And although he’s moved down a gear workload-wise, the thrill of creating in the moment and the challenge of finding new ways to present the music are as strong as ever.

"If you look at Miles Davis’s career, you get this incredibly varied picture," says Metheny. "Yet it wasn’t just a set of disparate ideas, it all comes together as a kind of narrative because Miles had this very personal voice on his instrument. All my heroes – not just Miles but Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard – they all have that quality. It might not have the same impact as someone who’s really flashy but to create a personal voice that speaks to people individually and provides a link so that everything you do – not just one solo or one record - adds up, that’s my goal."


From The Herald, June 23, 2007

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