On August 12, Pat Metheny turns 53. His face is now creased with the light lines of middle age, but he still has a broad, easy smile, a seemingly eternal tan, and his trademark tangle of wild hair. On this warm, late-spring afternoon in Manhattan, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and cut-off jeans, he looks more like an aging, carefree surfer than one of the most important jazz voices of his generation. It’s a youthful appearance that belies the fact that his band’s first album — the white-covered Pat Metheny Group (ECM) — was released in 1978, nearly 30 years ago.
Not surprisingly, his most recent recorded music suggests a mature artist still searching, still evolving, but also taking stock of his career and the world around him. It’s a stance that can be heard in the development of a certain passage, in the choice of a guitar sound, in an off-handed reference to an earlier piece. Also, through his music, he is now explicitly addressing broader concerns. He has called the Pat Metheny Group’s most recent and ambitious release, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005), “a protest record” about the state of American culture.
“It’s a record … that represents our desire to reconcile complexity in the face of a culture that rejects complexity, and to honor the impulse that we have to understand things through nuance and detail in the face of a culture that is more and more, year by year, rejecting nuance and detail,” he said during an interview last year with National Public Radio. “To me, the meaning of the title, The Way Up, is our way of saying that simplification and ignorance and lack of awareness is not going to lead in the right direction, particularly in the context of American culture. That kind of lowest common denominator-type of cultural gravity is beginning to carry with it a weight that is the weight of the majority, and we are resisting that with every ounce of our being.”
The Way Up is a demanding, 68-minute work that takes off from where previous Metheny discs such as Secret Story and Imaginary Day, with their overarching, suite-like designs, ended. In typical easy-on-the-ear Metheny fashion, the album almost casually lays claim to an unmarked plot of contemporary classical-jazz territory. It earned Metheny his 17th Grammy Award.
But if Metheny followed a certain path on The Way Up, as usual, he tacked sharply away from it on his next project, a collaboration with pianist Brad Mehldau. The lean, almost austere duet, and group performances on 2006’s Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch) and on this year’s [i]Metheny Mehldau Quartet[i] (Nonesuch) evoke, challenge, and update more conventional jazz forms.”
And if Metheny’s musical frame of reference has evolved dramatically since his recorded debut in 1976 (Bright Size Life, a trio album featuring then-unknown bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses), so too has his personal life.
During a conversation many years ago, I asked him where he was living. He replied with a shrug and a sheepish grin before pulling a big St. Peter-like ring full of keys from his pocket. He smiles and shakes his head when reminded of that exchange. Those were the days of non-stop touring and 200-plus dates a year. He has a home now, a spacious apartment overlooking Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives with his wife, Latifa, and sons Nicolas and Jeffrey.
As he settles on a stool in his luminous home studio, before an L-shaped desk cluttered by recording and sound-processing gear, he seems like a man completely at ease with himself, but also with a few things on his mind.
From the beginning, he says, his pieces have tended to run unusually long. “Even in those early days,” he recalls, “the people who distributed ECM would literally come and say, ‘This is nice, but is there a way you can do a four-minute version of this?’ — which is laughable. But as the culture has continued to unfold, now the conversation goes like: ‘Do you think you can come up with a 30-second ring tone of that 70-minute composition?’ And for me, it’s like, ‘What?’ It’s almost gotten to the point where the whole idea of music has become one of subordination to the marketing. And our resistance to that is manifested in ways that I hope are self-evident in every note.”
For Metheny, developments such as a “sound-bite culture” are byproducts of profound changes brought about by technology — changes we are only beginning to understand, never mind manage. “We are all having to deal with one of the major revolutions in human history,” he says. “Our brain is being asked to do new things. And the many changes that have happened in our lifetime — think the communications revolution — dwarfs the industrial revolution. And I feel we are still so early in this process. We are in the primitive stage of what this is going to be, and so it is with music.”
Still, he rejects the pessimistic notion that “nothing’s happening” and sounds remarkably optimistic about the possibilities of art to cut through the clutter. “There are plenty of good things happening. There are people doing really good work. There is an intrinsic value to good notes, good sound, good music, good art, good writing. You have to look down the road. I understand it’s hard to do when you have to pay the rent, but then, this is something that comes from being 52, instead of 18. [i]Bright Size Life[i], the year it came out, sold — and I think I can even remember the number — 1,146 records. Years went by and people understood what it was. Now it’s considered a classic and has sold almost half-a-million copies. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Metheny has had an extraordinary career. He has collected many awards, but more notably, he’s created an impressive body of work while succeeding on his own terms. He’s managed to sustain the rarest balancing act in popular — not to mention jazz — music: attracting rock- and pop-size audiences while maintaining a high level of artistic quality and integrity. He comes, he once said, “from the most liberal wing of the jazz party. That wing has the most diverse, inclusive definition of jazz.” So while, by now, even the most recalcitrant jazz fundamentalist would concede his brilliance as a jazz player and improviser, his recorded output stretches from hummable pop-jazz and knotty post-bebop to lush film music and noise experimentation. He’s collaborated with, among others, Ornette Coleman, Milton Nascimento, Anna Maria Jopek, Toninho Horta, Derek Bailey, Steve Reich, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell.
Regardless of context or company, Metheny has made a career out of making difficult, complex music sound easy. He laughs at the observation. “Well, that has been a blessing and a curse,” he says. “I think people sometimes think it’s easy. I play with some stone-cold bebop guys sometimes, and I love playing that music. But occasionally I’ll say, ‘You wanna play one of my tunes?’ And I have to admit a silent smirk as I watch them scuffle, even on an easy one like ‘James.’ I’ve watched more bebop guys crash and burn on the bridge to ‘James’ than I can shake a stick at.
“Ultimately, I have to take that people think it’s easy as a compliment because I know I’ve had the experience a few times as a guitar player. I remember going to see [flamenco guitarist] Paco [de Lucía] and thinking, ‘Well, that doesn’t look that hard.’ He’s just sitting there [crosses his legs and strums an invisible guitar, suggesting not a care in the world]. Or you go see Pat Martino, and he’s not moving. You think, ‘OK, what’s the big deal here?’ But then, look at Bach. There’s a lot of Of course in that music. But that’s the spot. When I’m writing I look for the intersection where the surprising and the inevitable meet. That’s the sweet spot in music. It’s not something you’ve heard before, but once it’s out there, you go, ‘Well, yeah, of course. It had to be like that.’”
Anyone familiar with Metheny’s music would recognize that “of course” quality — that intersection where surprise meets the inevitable. Another element that affects his aesthetics is his childhood in Lee’s Summit, Missouri — a town of 3,000 at the time — and the mark of living within vast open spaces and silence. “It’s completely ingrained in my first 17 years, hardwired in me, and it’s there. The early records reflect that approach. As my life became denser, my music became denser to the point where there were a few records — Secret Story, Zero Tolerance for Silence — in which there was not an inch of white on the canvas.”
These days, Metheny implies, he’s not so interested in what music can do for him, but rather in what he can do for music. He talks passionately about serving the piece at hand, and says that when working with longtime collaborator keyboardist Lyle Mays, the conversation is about “it.”
“We never say ‘I feel’ or ‘I want it to be;’ it’s always ‘what it wants to be.’ Obviously there will have to be starting points. In the case of The Way Up, there was a lot of talking, a few melodic ideas, a couple of guitar tunings, some beats I had — then we start this process of what it wants. ‘Does it seem it wants to be longer? Does it seem it should change? Does it seem it needs new material here?’ And it really is about just letting it try to be what it is. It’s always difficult to explain in words what happens in music, but for me, the idea is to manifest in sound things I find to be true. For me, the goal has always been to do one thing. I never necessarily wanted it to be happy, sad, or this or that. I wanted it to be what it is, what I hear.”
As he describes it, writing music and improvising are, essentially, exercises in listening. “This is, again, the 50-year-old speaking, as opposed to the 20-year-old, but it’s all about listening,” Metheny explains. “It’s only about listening and how well you can really hear something. For me it’s a conversation that goes something like this: ‘OK, here I am with Brad, Larry [Grenadier, the bass player], and Jeff [Ballard, the drummer]. They are playing, and if there was a guitar player here — and there is — what would I want him to play?’ And I hear that, and I listen to what that is. And then, much like in conversation, you are able to retrieve the mechanics of speech, and you’re instantly able to speak when you have an idea. Most good players get to that point where they are just able to play. But they are playing as listeners, not players. That’s when it gets good. All the guys we can name — Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Lyle — they are all playing as listeners. It’s that quality that makes them the musicians that they are.”
It’s a quality that has helped Metheny succeed as a performer for more than 30 years. That and a distinctly old-school, no-nonsense professional attitude has helped him connect with audiences from Boston to Buenos Aires.
“When I look at that guy in the audience, I think, ‘He took a shower, had to go and pick up his girlfriend, had to pay $20 for parking, and they are here now. They’ve been working for two hours to get here.’ And I appreciate that. But that’s all up to the moment the first note hits; after that, it’s me and it. At that point, all I can do — and it doesn’t matter if it’s the group, the trio, playing with Ornette, or whatever — is to uncover the things that have value to me. That’s why I think everybody is there. I don’t want to guess about it. I don’t want to pretend I understand something I don’t understand. I just want to really live in that moment, for what it is, for me.
“And I think every time I play — and it’s always been this way — I play like it’s the last time I’m going to play. Because every time I go out to play, I think, ‘This is it. It’s all been leading to this.’ Whether it’s a little gig playing for the kids’ birthday parties or a concert, every time I play I feel everything that’s happened has been leading up to this moment. I don’t feel the benefit of success. I don’t get it. It’s lost on me. I know there are people who have their Grammys lined up and their Ferrari out front, and they look at their bank accounts and go, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ I don’t get any pleasure out of that. My satisfaction is at [i]that[i] moment I play well. Everything has been leading up to this. And then I play, and I go, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”
This feature was the cover story of the August 2007 issue of JAZZIZ