Guitarist, bandleader and composer Pat Metheny has enjoyed a stellar career and managed the difficult feat of maintaining popularity while constantly tackling new artistic challenges.
From his early days with Gary Burton right up to his latest project with his Unity Band, Metheny’s continually been willing to operate in different musical arenas, while simultaneously developing innovative instruments and collaborating with great musicians in numerous genres.
He’s done acoustic and electric projects, rock and jazz, straight-ahead and avant-garde, orchestral and combo sessions. Metheny’s embraced electronics and pioneered unusual instruments like the Synclavier and 42-string Pikasso guitar, yet also explored standards and familiar pop tunes.
Metheny’s among the most honored musicians in history. Besides winning 20 Grammy awards in 12 different categories, he’s only the fourth guitarist ever voted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame. The 2014 winner of the JazzTimes Reader’s Poll as Best Guitarist, he’s even enjoyed three gold records, a rarity for anyone who works regularly within jazz.
Metheny and his latest ensemble the Unity Band will be appearing at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16 at the Ryman Auditorium, 116 5th Ave. North (For tickets, please click here). He graciously consented to the following interview via e-mail:
Ron Wynn: What would you say are the differences between your current band and other groups you’ve had, and what musical attributes were you seeking in choosing its members?
Pat Metheny: This is such a special group of musicians. From the first notes we played together in early 2012, through the recording and then all the touring that we did to follow, there was an instant connection that seemed to go beyond the usual kind of thing. We had such a great time together and the consistency of the playing was at a super high level and we seemed to always get to something night after night.
I look for musicians who can help me get to the sound that I am hearing in my head during a particular period and also musicians who inspire me as a fan of music, as a listener. Chris, Ben and Antonio totally fit that description. The first Unity Band project of a couple of years ago was incredible. We all wanted to keep it going, and my sense of it was that we had only scratched the surface of what it might be. My instinct was to push it to be something else, but that that something else could have the benefits of all the playing we had already done together as a place to build from and expand outward from. To me, this recording is exactly that. I am so happy with the way it all turned out. And live it is getting even better.
RW: As a composer who’s written pieces on all types of instruments, do you decide beforehand what kind of piece fits a particular instrument, or do you compose it and then determine whether to play it on an acoustic or electric instrument?
PM: Because I started out when I was very young as a horn player, I still think “in trumpet.” And I write almost everything at the piano – so those instruments are part of my consciousness too. But the thing is, the ideas are the same whether it is “in trumpet” “on guitar” or “on piano.” I deal more with conception and ideas first – they way they are executed into sound happens way later. Guitar allows a certain immediacy for me because I have played it so much and for so long, so it is my best translation device.
Once I have something written or a conception of what a piece can be, then I kind of let the piece decide what sound seems to suit it best. It is usually pretty clear…this one wants to be on acoustic, this is very loud and electric, etc. Sometimes that is all built into the conception from the ground up too.
RW: You’ve built some very unusual instruments. How did you get the inspiration and/or ideas for them?
PM: To me, music is all about creativity and a kind of open exploration. At the core I am mostly a guitar player. I like the guitar. To me it is attractive because it is so undefined. If you say the word “guitar” to 50 people, they will get 50 different images in their minds.
However, at a certain point, it seemed to me that there were many things I could be doing with the instrument that went beyond what traditional “jazz guitar” players had done before, especially in the area of texture and sound. I wanted to think of the guitar as more a flexible orchestration device that I used to communicate ideas rather than just a destination in and of itself. The natural thing for me was to try to expand the potential and one of the symptoms of that approach has been getting some new instruments built and figuring out ways of using them in a musical way.
RW: You’ve both graduated from and taught at Berklee, perhaps the nation’s most influential site for jazz in academia. Why has Berklee been able to develop so many great musicians in many areas?
PM: Actually, I have to correct you – I never was a student at Berklee. I did teach there for 2 years – from 74 to 76 after teaching at the University of Miami for a year in 1973.
Teaching is something I have done at various points along the way since I was really young. And always, I get more out of it than anyone. I love the process of helping people in any way that I can. I do take it very seriously though, and for that reason I can’t do it to much these days. It is really just a question of time. I have three young kids at home, so between the work that I do coming up with ideas, writing music, making records and doing tours, I want to spend as much time with them as possible. But someday, I think probably will get to teach more than the occasional things that I do now. I hope so.
RW: You began on trumpet, then later switched to guitar, and you also incorporate the synthesizer and various electronic elements into your music. If you hadn’t decide on being a guitarist, what other instrument might you have chosen?
PM: In a way, the instrument is so way down on the priority list that it kind of wouldn’t matter. Again, the ideas come before any instrument for me. I have different degrees of fluency in piano and trumpet and of course guitar would be my primary “language” – but if I sit down at the piano or pick up a trumpet, I play the same ideas that I would on the guitar – just nowhere near as well! I think any instrument would be fine.
RW:How did spending those early years with Gary Burton influence you?
PM: It was huge. Being in Gary’s band was like joining the Beatles for me. That was my favorite band and if I had never done anything but that for rest of my life I would have been happy. On a practical level, I couldn’t have been around a more inspiring set of mentors. From Gary, not only was there a huge musical inspiration but a very strong set of requirements to hang with what he was looking for from the band and how it fit into the culture at large. He was a tough leader in a really good way. Steve Swallow, the bass player was also a giant inspiration and influence on me.
RW: You’ve collaborated with everyone from Ornette Coleman to David Bowie and lots of people in between. Is there anyone out there you haven’t played with that you would like to in the future?
PM: The list of people that I have played with is also a pretty good list of all the musicians I really love. More than other things, I would like to do more with those guys! Looking backwards, I had various open ended invitations from Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson and Ray Brown to do projects and always felt like we could do them…but we never got to them before they passed away.
RW: You’ve done so many different and intriguing types of musical things. What qualities attract you to either a particular situation, genre, or musician?
PM: Originality. I like being around musicians who seem to be unique, where there is just and only ever will be one person like that. And also, that they are solid and complete musicians who can really deal with the music in a total way. But the most important thing above all others is their listening skill. The way someone listens is the way they play.
RW: After all these years, you still do an extensive amount of touring. Do you envision a time when you’ll cut back on the number of shows?
PM: Yes, I can imagine that. At this point, if I never played again, that would also be fine. It has kind of gotten to the point now where everything is music whether I am actually working on music or not.
RW: It’s had to imagine there’s something musical you’d like to do that you haven’t, but if there is, what would it be?
PM: Actually, I feel like I am just beginning to almost start to see what it might be like to someday be a really good musician.