Catch Pat Metheny on the steps of London’s exclusive The Langham Hotel and you’d probably guess he was American – the flannel shirt, pale jeans and clunky white sneakers being the obvious transatlantic giveaways.
Look closer and spot the wild mane of hair, crazy long fingernails and disarmingly warm smile and he looks like an alien beamed to Earth, attempting to blend in with the natives after stealing the wardrobe from the abandoned set of an ’80s sitcom. Either way, you wouldn’t guess you were laying eyes upon one of the most talented and richly-decorated jazz guitarists in modern history.
This 59-year-old Missouri-born musician has been playing professionally since his mid-teens, has won 20 Grammys and has recorded a dizzying 43 albums under his own name – and that’s before you even mention his collaborations with Ornette Coleman, David Bowie, Steve Reich and Herbie Hancock, among others. He’s a behemoth of the guitar, usually electric, occasionally acoustic, always soulful, with a jaw-dropping ability to blur stylistic boundaries all while staying steeped in the masters of the guitar trade – whether it’s his long-time hero Wes Montgomery or his loyal late friend Jim Hall.
Nevertheless, his fanciful genre-hopping, occasionally over-glossy playing and technological pursuits have drawn their share of raised eyebrows over the years. For example, his recent Orchestrion Project saw him automate a massive array of instruments triggered by his guitar and keyboard that operates through MIDI controllers. Excessive yes, but also surprisingly effective, and summed up accurately by Metheny when he says: “I’ve been around long enough to see a whole bunch of things come and go. But good notes are good notes.”
He returns to the UK this summer to bring his refashioned Unity Group to the climax of their world tour at the Hammersmith Apollo, packing their suitcases full of busy licks and otherworldly arrangements. It’s all thanks to recording sessions from last year as Metheny, for the first time since 1980, recorded with a band that led by a tenor saxophone. Called his Unity Band, they went on to win Metheny his 20th Grammy, featuring Chris Potter on tenor and bass clarinet, long-time collaborator Antonio Sanchez on drums, and Ben Williams on bass. By adding ‘wild card’ multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi to the fold, Metheny christened his new ensemble the Unity Group, and the band have now hit the road on the same day their debut album Kin is released (February 3) on Nonesuch.
The word ‘unity’ in jazz more often invokes the wild typography of Larry Young’s legendary 1966 Blue Note album. But for Metheny, any discussion of jazz legends immediately triggers a torrent of ideas about musical traditions, inter-connected lineups and even America’s storied geography as he explains how these interconnected musical unities signal a ‘kinship or ancestral bloodline’. “It is obvious that as musicians we are often coming from disparate places and are different kinds of people, but we have a similar connection inside the music,” he expounds. “And music itself is just a single movement through time that connects everything. If I think about the musicians I love and the relationships they have with the musicians that preceded them, and the kinds of music that preceded them, what they play – and I play – is the result.”
The genealogical theme continues as Metheny says he felt there was a ‘rare connection’ that served the original Unity Band well, stemming from the strong combination of players in Chris, Ben and Antonio. “It meant the whole was greater than the sum of its parts – it gelled in every way,” he adds. “We played more than 100 concerts together in 2012 and it just seemed to beg for expansion and further research. However, I had been itching to write some music using more of a lush and orchestrated kind of concept that went beyond the sonic limits of what a straight ahead quartet might involve. But I really didn’t want to lose the energy, focus, and intensity of what the band had developed. I wanted to take it further. If the first Unity Band record was a thoughtful, black and white documentary of four musicians in a recording studio playing, Kin is more like the 3-D IMAX version of what the band could be – but with that hardcore thing still sitting right in the middle of it all.”
That hardcore thing anchoring the middle of Kin is the stunning 11-minute title track which combines the frantic patter of hushed cymbal work and skittering electronica, enveloped by the languid, downbeat bass of Williams while Metheny doubles up effortlessly with Potter to provide the groove. In spite of its bright recording, the track could have been siphoned off one of Metheny’s old ECM recordings with its luxurious soundscape that happily co-exists with its rather pensive tone.
“As the years have gone by, I started to take the process of making records a lot more seriously,” Metheny says. “Particularly after I left ECM – where there was sort of a mandate you had to record for two days, mix for a day and that was it. And there was a certain kind of record that I wanted to make that was not that. There was an opportunity to use the studio itself as an instrument. Maybe Kin is an example – it took two weeks just to record it. The pieces are very involved and have a lot of different layers and moments when we throw electronics and all of the Orchestrion stuff into the music.”
But despite his interest in pushing musical technology to its limits, Metheny still has a special place in his heart for the old-fashioned album. “Recordings have a permanent value,” he says. “For me, making records was kind of an ad to get people to come to the gig. I figured that people would think that if you had made a record, you must be good. You must be well-known enough that when you show up in Peoria, Illinois, they’ll buy an advert in the local paper and people will buy tickets. And then we get to play. The goal was to get on a bandstand somewhere and play. Whatever it took to do that – that’s what I wanted. That’s where the rubber hit the road for me.”
Metheny’s first solo studio effort took place as an afterthought to a 1975 Gary Burton ECM session in Germany. It spawned the now-legendary Bright Size Life. “After 40 years, it’s a funny thing. It’s a classic, right? That’s what people say. But believe me, for the first 10 years it was out I don’t think anyone even knew it existed. For me, I felt pretty good about it. I knew we could play better than that – we did it in six hours. Jaco [Pastorius] was jet-lagged out of his mind as he’d never really travelled much and he stayed up all night in Stuttgart walking around. We had been playing together a lot, but I knew that we could do better. It sold only 800 copies in 1976. I remember getting the royalty statement and it said: “Australia – 1”. I felt like writing that guy a letter!
“And then a few years went by and people started to dig it. That’s proof to me that if you worry too much about the short term as a musician you’re going to get lost. It’s just too distracting. The most important thing to worry about is yourself. Anything else is a guess. Music is an incredibly faithful thing in which to place your energy. It’s like a bank – if you put in one minute of attention you’re going to get 100 hours back of what you’ve invested. I’m a musician because I am a fan of music – it’s always been really natural to learn about what makes the music I love and what makes it work. I’ve been very lucky in that I have been able to live that way and keep the clothes on the backs of my kids and pay the rent – which is a challenge,” Metheny says with a grin.
California-based and sporting a decent tan amongst the winter grey of West London, Metheny admits he came to fatherhood late with kids who are now 15, 13 and four. “I got to that place relatively late in my life – which was probably a good thing as I enjoy every second of it now in a way that I may not have when I was younger,” he says. “Before you have kids you think you’ll have a baby which is blank sheet of paper to influence – but after having the kids I realise that they are all totally different and very much their own people. Because music is so much a part of my world when my boys have their friends come over and see all of my guitars they say wow! Whereas my boys are like – whatever. That’s dad’s stuff over there. My eldest son – who is a big dance music fan said to me breakfast the other day: ‘You know, Dad, I really understand now that any music with an electric guitar is so 20th century.’ Let me get this right – Any music with a guitar, I asked? ‘Yeah, I think so. The whole idea of playing instruments seems so old-fashioned.’ I could only laugh. But my four-year-old daughter – she can sing anything I can play. She has a good ear. But their musical life is their musical life and they enjoy coming to the concerts. But they cannot believe that anyone likes me. If someone asks me for an autograph they find it funny. After all, I’m the dude that takes them to school.”
When it comes to staying power, Metheny’s four decades and counting as an in-demand guitarist allow him some perspective on music’s changing fads. Born in the small town of Lee’s Summit near Kansas City, he shows a bit of Midwestern pragmatism when he reflects: “I’ve seen a whole bunch of these changes – even me personally, the fads that make me very hip one day and totally unhip the next. I could do a pretty good Wes imitation as a 14-year-old and it actually got me an enormous amount of ‘house’ – so here’s the kid who sounds like Wes Montgomery, they’d say! I realised pretty early on that I didn’t want to do what Wes did. I wanted to find my own way of playing. And when I thought of all of my favourite musicians – whether it was Miles Davis or Gary Burton – they all found a way to really be themselves in the music, even if it had references to other things. But it was fundamentally about being a musician on a conceptual level that was unique to them and about where they came from. So there was a point for me when I had to physically prevent myself from doing ‘the Wes thing’. Instead, I went looking for something that could create that same glue or connection from one idea to the next.
“However, there are some musicians going through life like a snake that sheds its skin. One day they are like this, and now they’re this. They have a whole different persona, clothes, whatever. For me, it’s entirely the opposite. Right now, I’d be very happy to play the music on Bright Size Life – it still seems viable to me, the basic argument I lay out there in musical terms is valid and as a musician it reflects my own personal kind of infinity. I can see a million ways to look at it,” he says.
“If you worry too much about the short term as a musician you’re going to get lost. It’s just too distracting. The most important thing to worry about is yourself. Anything else is a guess.”
– Pat Metheny
“As a 21-year-old, Bright Size Life acted like a foundation that I’ve been building on over the years – another wing to the house, a closet, another storey, now we’re going to have an extension in the back yard that will hook up with a tree. It all seems like it is one continuous structure that is all connected even though it’s being presented in very different ways in terms of the sound. But conceptually, philosophically and musically, it gives them some continuity, I hope.” Or as Metheny summed up in his induction speech into Lee’s Summit High School’s hall of fame: “Many people have commented through the years about a special quality that they detect in my playing and my writing; a certain rural something that is usually traced to my being from here in Missouri.
“As a musician, a record means you will be perceived in a different way than I first understood,” he adds. “In the future, I’m not quite sure how it’s going to work. Both the studios and the record companies are struggling – but on the other hand, you sit down at a club and play, someone puts their phone up and then uploads it to YouTube, suddenly you’ve got a world premiere. You don’t really get to decide what your thing is – it’s just a big, bloody scab of who-knows-what. We’re in a transition. This year, we all agree what a record is and that it’s a document of something. In 10 years, that may not be the case – or perhaps it will be something else entirely. Strangely, musicians have an exalted place in our society – but everyone’s just doing the same thing. You hear people talk about improvising as it’s some kind of magic. But hey, we’re all basically improvising our way through life.”
Metheny sat down to talk to us on the day legendary guitarist and his long-time friend Jim Hall died. The news afforded Metheny the chance to reminisce about his first trip to New York City as a teenager to see jazz legends such as Hall and Ron Carter play. “I was 13 and I had a subscription to Down Beat magazine. I saw a competition and entered by playing a Wes Montgomery tune with a flute player and a bass player, recorded it and sent it in. And when the next edition of the magazine arrived, I discovered that I had won a scholarship to go to a band camp! And at the band camp was a teacher named Atilla Zoller – a great guitarist. We stayed in touch and when I was about 15 he called and said: ‘We should go to New York and go hear everyone.’ Thankfully, parents were great – so I heard Jim every night! And I’ve been friends with him for the past 47 years. It was a very important thing to me just to see him – but getting to know him has been that much more special.”
Your parents must have been pretty easy going – that’s a big trip for a teenager, no? Metheny laughs and says: “By that time, I was already playing around a lot professionally in the Midwest – Kansas City in particular. My older brother Mike was playing the trumpet and doing the same. You know, my parents didn’t quite know what to make of me. In a way, I was an unmovable object and I had to explain to them everything I was doing – including flunking out of school. I was a terrible student and the fact they let me graduate from high school was merciful. I never studied at all – and yet everyone kind of understood I was on another path.
“The same thing happened when it came time for university. A guy heard me play and offered me a scholarship. That was the happiest single day of my parents’ life! As far as they were concerned I was doomed to oblivion. But this guy gave me a full scholarship to University of Miami – but once I got there, the truth was that I was completely illiterate,” Metheny says with a chuckle. “I’d never done any studying. Luckily, it was also the same year that the university acknowledged the electric guitar as an actual instrument, making it only the third university in the world to teach the electric guitar. So instead of the seven or eight students they were expecting to enrol, they ended up with 80 or 90. And they needed a teacher. And even though I was not qualified to be a student as I had been playing professionally, I was an experienced player by then.”
“As the years have gone by, I started to take the process of making records a lot more seriously…”
– Pat Metheny
Metheny’s next lucky break came when he shared a Wichita festival bill with vibraphonist Burton. Before long, Metheny was on his way to Boston to teach at Berklee College of Music, while joining Burton’s band as a sideman. During the day, Metheny taught the nation’s brightest guitar pupils. By night, Burton taught him. But by the time Bright Size Life was in the vault three years later, Metheny decided it was time for him to move on. “So I started to spend a lot of time thinking about how separate ideas can add up to something bigger. That was another quality that Burton and my favourite players had – this storytelling expositional sensibility in their playing. I sort of modelled myself by learning and listening a lot to these musicians – but at the same time I wanted to internalise and come up with solutions that were more my own.”
The 1977 ECM follow up Watercolours featured keyboardist Lyle Mays – a partnership that has proved to be the longest and most fruitful collaboration in his career. Metheny and Mays went on to form the Pat Metheny Group with drummer Danny Gottlieb and bassist Mark Egan in tow and promptly hit the road – full-time for the next 25 years or so. Or as Metheny described to Berklee Today: “I still believe that anyone who has something really strong musically and is willing to go out and play hundreds of gigs for little or no bread has a very good chance of developing an audience on their own terms. I meet a lot of jazz guys who are sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. It didn’t work back in the 1970s, and I don’t think it works now. You have to get out there to make something happen.”
The albums, the Grammys, the world-wide fanbase was the result of the incessant touring, allowing Metheny a degree of stylistic freedom that is as rare in the music industry as it is successful. Kin is just the next stop in his journey as he pares back his guitar flights to a rare level of economy, developing an endless supply of subtle interventions to keep the tunes pulsing along, leaving Potter to lead from the front. “I feel like as a musician, within the realm of music there are infinite possibilities, many different ways to be,” Metheny says wistfully. “I’m pretty happy playing really loud or really simply, or constructing a really dense environment or playing free – whether it’s acoustic or electric. The movable parts of the songs are what form the larger quest for me, which is always to try and understand the music.”
Pat Metheny Unity Group’s album Kin is out now through Nonesuch. The band tour the US and Europe, with a date at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on 11 June 2014.