Making melodies with jazz's favorite guitar wizard
By Jon Garelick
MARCH 6, 2000: It's hard to think of Pat Metheny as entering middle age, but the boy wonder of jazz guitar -- and easily the most popular jazz guitarist alive -- is now 45, and for the first time ever he finds himself the senior member of a trio that he's leading. "I've crossed into another demographic now," he tells me, with a laugh, in a phone interview. The current trio includes much-in-demand bassist Larry Grenadier and the remarkable young drummer Bill Stewart. Their new Trio 99/00 (Warner Bros.) is typical of Metheny in its mix of country-tinged acoustic ballads and driving, straight-ahead jazz. The trio play the Somerville Theatre on March 5.
In one way or another, Metheny's been a leader since the beginning of his career. As a teenager he was not only a member of Gary Burton's quintet, but he also taught at Berklee College of Music. His use of guitar synthesizer and "chorus" effects pretty much set a standard for guitar sound and technique, and his version of jazz-rock fusion (a term that's taken on evil connotations among jazz and rock fans alike) has been integral and uncompromising -- a mix of jazz, rock, country, and Brazilian influences that's part of a personalized musical voice. That sound is most readily identifiable in his Pat Metheny Group recordings, where the keyboard and synthesizer player Lyle Mays is a crucial contributor.
What's more, Metheny is infinitely adaptable, fully committed to whatever musical situation he finds himself in. Driven by his twin inspirations, mainstream guitar god Wes Montgomery and living avant-garde deity Ornette Coleman, he's become the quintessential jazz artist, completely schooled in the vocabulary, with limitless chops and boundless melodic invention. Beginning with vibist Burton, he's worked with a long list of jazz heavies that includes Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, legendary avant-garde guitar experimenter Derek Bailey, and young tenor-sax phenom Joshua Redman. Metheny composes sweet, pastoral film scores, like the one for the recent A Map of the World, and has fashioned lyrical duet albums with Hall and Charlie Haden, but is also capable of the solo guitar skronk-fest Zero Tolerance for Silence (Geffen, 1994) and his touchstone 1985 recording with Coleman, Song X (Geffen).
Despite these disparate sounds and approaches, Metheny's work is all of a piece. The trio records have always held special significance for jazz fans -- deep jazz channel markers along a wide-ranging career, beginning with Bright Size Life (ECM) in 1976, with bassist Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses, followed by Rejoicing (ECM, 1983), with Haden and Billy Higgins, and Question and Answer (Geffen, 1989), with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes.
When I ask Metheny about the differences between the new trio and the others, he's quick to credit age as a factor. "This trio is probably for me the most closely related to the trio with Jaco and Moses, in the sense that I'm able to mold the trio-ness of it a little bit and because I'm more or less contemporaries with the people in the band. When I play with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, to a large degree I've had to -- and this is true of a lot of older musicians I've played with -- you have to play in their world. And that's beyond great to do. But with Larry and Bill, it can be anything. We have in the book all of the music from all of the previous trio records, and they can do all of those tunes and understand all of those trios."
Metheny is finding that he's become part of tradition, his work studied and learned by every young jazz musician. "There's one thing when I first played with Bill in John Scofield's band that really stunned me. It's the kind of thing that I do in my regular band, but, oddly enough, it's almost impossible to find drummers who can do it. Basically, I've found only two: Danny Gottlieb and Paul Wertico. Without getting really technical about it, it has to do with touch and a way to play eighth notes that's just incredibly hard for drummers to do. When we played with John, I brought in a tune that I'm used to bringing in and never hearing so-called jazz drummers play it the way I hear it. Bill played it perfectly. And I was like, 'Wow, how did you know how to do that?' And he said, 'Well, I've heard your records.' "
The way Metheny hears those drums is in a two-limbed approach, laying down a rock groove in the snare and kick drum while playing "swing" jazz triplets on the ride cymbal -- and it creates a kind of elastic funk throughout the album. Metheny compares Bill Stewart's double-edged style to the mix of funk and jazz that Billy Higgins created on Lee Morgan's soul-jazz prototype "The Sidewinder." Stewart's abilities encouraged Metheny to try John Coltrane's classic "Giant Steps," a tune that's usually taken at breakneck speed, with the current trio. Metheny slows it down to what I consider an almost Brazilian kind of lilt. "A samba is way faster than that," Metheny corrects me. "And it's not a bossa, and it's not the 'Sidewinder' thing, and it's not a New Orleans thing, and it's not a PMG [Pat Metheny Group] thing. It exists in the cracks of all those things, and it's hard to find guys who can do it."
The band also drives through a big up-tempo take on Wayne Shorter's "Capricorn," the show tune "I've Got a Lot of Livin' To Do" (from Bye Bye Birdie), Metheny's ripping blues original "Soul Cowboy," and an acoustic version of the PMG tune (written with Mays) "Travels."
Those last two show Metheny's -- and the band's -- range. The former is an electric-guitar showcase, with fast cascades of notes tumbling this way and that, but never breaking the overall melodic arc of the solo. The latter is a simple folk-like melody that seems shaped to fit a text. Which prompts me to ask if anyone's tried to write lyrics for Metheny's music before.
"Actually, they have in that case," says Metheny, and then adds with a dying fall, "but they're not real good. There's actually a lot of people who have written words to a lot of our tunes through the years and done vocal versions of them, and I'm sorry to say that not too many of them are really happening." But as Metheny sees more PMG tunes entering the standard repertoire, he's hoping that some day he'll be able to take a group of songs, "find the right lyricist for each song, and then get the right singer and do a record that's really about the songs."
Metheny's extreme harmonic sophistication aside, it's his song-like sense of melody that's given even baroque inventions like "Soul Cowboy" coherence: no matter how far afield his solos turn, his lines are always legible, accessible. And even with all his hardware, Metheny, unlike his many imitators, develops his narratives with an organic kind of logic. The late jazz critic Joachim Berendt pointed out how Metheny's lines generate themselves "from within." That's why jazz fans, who might reject some of the PMG material, or even some of Metheny's own playing, as cloying or sentimental, relish the chance to hear him in traditional jazz settings.
"The whole thing of trying to take melodies and really let them develop over long periods of time, that thing of using the materials that you generate either as a composer or as an improviser, and then taking them to a natural conclusion, has always been a real important thing for me," says Metheny. "And being around, specifically, Gary Burton at a pretty young age, it wasn't like a taste thing -- it was part of the gig. When I would play a solo that didn't do that, that didn't have a melodic shape and really address melody as a primary thing, it wouldn't be like, 'Oh, too bad' -- I would get yelled at! That's what you were supposed to do; it was part of the gig. And it was also manifested so beautifully by standing next to Gary and having to follow his solos, which were, and still are, these song-like gems of melody."
It's hard to imagine the soft-spoken Burton, whose liner notes introduced Metheny's first album, as a leader yelling at the prodigy most of us think of as having entered the world fully formed. "A lot of bands, especially nowadays, I notice that the leader doesn't really do much, you know?" says Metheny. "He gets together some good guys and lets them play and maybe writes some arrangements, and maybe they rehearse. But I mean, man, Gary was a leader with a capitol 'L.' Every gig, he had a lot to say, not just to me, but to everybody, about what he was missing that he wanted. After three years of it, I was pretty much ready to do something on my own, because after a while it's like, 'Man, I wish I could just play!' But looking back on it now, it was fantastic, because it wasn't just somebody talking. It was like, 'On tune, such-and-such; when it goes to the D7, you keep playing E-natural -- it should be an E-flat there.' It was very hard-core, specific pieces of information. It was great."
Which leads me to ask exactly what goes through Metheny's head when he improvises those great rhapsodies of melody. "The analogies that I've found that are most resonant when trying to describe the process of improvisation outside of the syntax of music itself have to do with reminding people of how much everybody improvises every time they speak. . . . It's the same process when you're improvising. You have a general idea of what it is that you're hoping to achieve, but until you jump into the thought process, you don't really know where it's going to wind up. I mean, there are some specific, tangible musical things that have to do with what's termed in the vernacular 'target notes.' Those target notes are ultimately the points where the melody of the piece, in sort of broad strokes, is delineated." Just as a speaker tries to avoid repetitions and ums and uhs, Metheny says, the improviser tries to avoid landing on the same notes and licks. And, I can't help but notice, Metheny's improvised speech features the same long lines of thought as his playing.
But still, how does one account for the poetry of what Metheny does? I tell him the comment I once read by another jazz musician, who said that while the audience is wondering what emotional epiphany he's going through, in fact he's trying to figure out how to get out of the bridge. How much is musical nuts and bolts, and how much is emotional expression?
"A lot of that, for me, has to do with how familiar I am with the material," says Metheny. "I mean, if I go do a record gig with [Michael] Brecker, his shit is hard, seriously hard, harmonically. He's got a harmonic vocabulary that's pretty much untouched -- I don't know anyone who's dealing with chords the way he does to that degree of complexity. On his most recent record, Time Is of the Essence, there's a ballad on there that is possibly the single hardest tune that I have ever had to solo on. In those cases, it's largely -- no, not largely -- deeply based on knowing the vocabulary and seeing, you know, G major 7 sharp 5 over F and saying, okay, that's a major 7 sharp 5 chord, but it's got a note space that doesn't fit the obvious chord scales, so I've got to include the G-sharp, the F, and the E, and the . . . you know, that's the thing that I've been doing long enough now, as most experienced improvisers would, that it isn't really a problem. But I'm not necessarily going to be hearing it just as a line. I'm going to be saying, okay, I know that's the right zone to be dealing with, and within that zone I'm going to find something I can play."
So why, then, as one critic has written, when Metheny plays Horace Silver's "Rejoicing" do we hear joy, and why when he plays Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" do we hear loneliness? Metheny's answer has less to do with how he plays than with how he listens.
"The emotional and the poetic aspect of it is in fact of course the reason for doing it. For me, as a musician, I'm interested in the hardware. I'm interested in hearing musicians like Steve Coleman or Greg Osby talk about music and checking out the theory behind it and sort of trying to understand why Wynton is so obsessed with whatever he's obsessed with [laughs] on musical terms -- I want to know all about that. But on a more primal level, I always react to things as a fan. . . . I react completely to it on an emotional level. And if it doesn't get me on that level, first of all I feel like maybe I'm missing something, especially if it's someone I admire, and that's why I do tend to go into these study things a little bit. But ultimately there's a certain point when you go, 'Do I want to hear this again or not?' And if you're not compelled to listen to it again, that primary thing of the emotional, poetic, visceral, sensory aspect of the music has not fulfilled its part of the deal. And that's an area of real concern, especially if you are dealing with music that does have a lot of nuts and bolts to it."
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