Music Journeys: Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny remains one of the most creative and talented musicians around. Metheny brings his Side-Eye tour to Columbus Saturday night at the Southern Theatre. In this edition of Music Journeys, Metheny reflects on career, the way he processes sound, and much more. Stick around for the Fast Five at the end for more insight and a surprising revelation. Thanks for listening.
Last Train plays...
With more than 40 full-length recordings, numerous collaborations and creative sounds, it’s hard to get Pat Metheny to choose one that stands out, but there’s no question the song Last Train Home holds some extra meaning.
"That's a special one," Metheny said. "The first five years of my life, my bedroom was five yards, maybe ten yards from the main cross country rail road track. I grew up literally with the sound of trains in my head for the first five years of life. Trains represent a lot of the aspects of the Midwest and where I grew up. It's rare that I can make that direct A to B line between life and music, and I like that it's rare. But that one is pretty straight ahead."
Home for Metheny was Lee's Summit, Missouri. Born in 1954, he grew up surrounded by musical activities.
"My dad was a very good trumpet player," Metheny recalled. "My mom's dad was a professional trumpet player. My older brother, Mike, is a fantastic trumpet player and made a few records of his own along the way. I started playing trumpet when I was very young. It wasn't jazz, it was just good trumpet playing. My parents also listened to a lot of music. I was also geographically lucky to be plopped on the earth in the area of Kansas City, Missouri. I grew up in a town about 30 miles or so away from Kansas City. One thing led to the next. I'm right in the middle of the generation when the electric guitar became a thing in the mid 60's thanks to the Beatles and rock and roll. I very quickly got interested in the general area of music I've been involved with all these years - having to do with improvisation. My brother brought home a Miles Davis record, and that changed the universe for me."
"Because Kansas City was right there, I was very quickly able to get good enough that I could start getting gigs around Kansas City," Metheny said. "I really learned to play kind of on the bandstand by being around great musicians. Next thing I knew, I was playing with Gary Burton and started my own band. The main issue for me has been the same all through the years which is to try to play good and try to understand music. That's still what I wake up every morning trying to do."
So skilled with the guitar at a young age, Metheny actually began teaching college students at the age of 18.
"By the time I was 17 or 18, I had been playing gigs for several years with great musicians, so I was already pretty experienced as a professional-level player," Metheny recalled. "That said, I was terrible in school. Somehow I got recruited to go the University of Miami at a moment where for the first time they opened up the curriculum to allow electric guitar to be an actual instrument that you could major in. Instead of having 5 or 6 guitar players as they usually did, suddenly they had 80. So they ended up hiring me as a teacher. When I think about it now, the age thing then and now has never been that much of a thing for me. I've always played with people a lot older than me and now people younger than me. Music is oblivious to that somehow. It's always about what does somebody sound like. I still play pretty regularly with Roy Haynes who's 94 now. The other day I got together with a kid who was about 15. Once you go 1-2, 1-2-3-4, you're in the world of music. The chronology of things doesn't matter that much."
In December 1975 at the age of 21, Metheny recorded his first album Bright Size Life.
Bright Size Life plays...
Since that first release, Metheny has been dubbed best jazz guitarist. He's won 20 Grammy Awards in multiple categories, and those victories came in four consecutive decades - first in 1982 for the album Offramp and most recently 2012 for the album Unity Band.
"Music has been a real consistent element of what life is for me,” Metheny reflected. “One thing great about it is how whatever you put into it, you get it back 10,000 times over. Things that I learned 20 years ago are just now starting to blossom in ways I didn't anticipate. Through music I learned about science, art, history, culture, colors. Music is a unique representation of what it is to exist in the world. It's a constant unfolding of information and inspiration."
The Search plays...
"Honestly, I can't imagine how limiting it would be to have to write words," Metheny admitted. "One of the great things about music is the way it's able to communicate itself strictly in sound. I've been around some great singers who write great words. I have to really put all of my attention to hear what the words are because that seems incidental to me compared to everything else. To me, the sound of somebody's voice carries infinite more information than anything they could ever say. But that's me. I'm somebody who's happy to deal with the abstraction of what music is. In fact, that's maybe the best part of it. It allows endless interpretation by each listener to bring their story to it, without it being dictated by a text."
He’s also been able to collaborate with some of his favorite musicians including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, and John Scofield. There's even a track he did with David Bowie.
"It was a great experience,” Metheny said of his time with Bowie. “He's one of the most genuinely smart people I've ever encountered. His ability to just be in the moment was really striking. It was a fantastic experience. That's one of the great protest songs. Despite my reticence toward text, the text of that piece has particular resonance right at the moment.”
This Is Not America plays...
About ten years ago, Metheny did something unique, even for him. With the Orchestrion project, Metheny paired himself with a number of mechanical and robotic instruments. He explained the process in a series of videos.
"Every instrument is capable of getting instructions from a variety of sources," Metheny described in the video. "Being a guitar player, mostly I gave it instructions from the guitar. As I do everything, the physical event occurs, and it's that way for all the instruments."
"The first thing I always say about that project and that whole experience is that it put to rest once and for all just how weird I actually am," Metheny laughed. "To go around the world for a year and play concerts with 100 different robotic instruments all playing at the same time was an amazing and unique experience that hadn't really been tried before. I still think it's a viable set of tools. It's not better or worse than anything else. It's different. At some point I hope to reexamine the possibilities of what can happen in that realm. Even in the last ten years, there have been some amazing advances in technology that would make the version two of that project really even more interesting. So I'm looking forward to that at some point."
Now 65, Metheny’s passion today involves working with younger artists that catch his ear to give back in the way his mentors did for him. Touring on this leg of Metheny's Side Eye Project are James Francies on keyboard and piano and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
"James is one of those musicians that comes along infrequently,” Metheny said. “He's an original. I can't think of the precedent of the musician he is. When we play, it's easy. Because I've been around for awhile, a lot of younger musicians have absorbed it. He really knows my stuff. He's able to find a spot in my music blended with his original approach. As far as drums go, this time it’s Marcus Gilmore, I’ve known since he was a kid because he’s Roy Haynes' grandson. It’s great. Marcus is one of the best drummers of his generation. Drums to me are the thing that matters more than anything.”
Metheny has new songs for the tour but also identifies which songs in his own catalog can capture the best of how the three sound together.
"What's great is that they can take tunes that have been around and find a different look at them,” Metheny explained. “We’ve been working on a version of Better Days Ahead. I'm putting the finishing touches on a couple that we’ll be playing for the first time in this round of gigs. In a way, I like both. I like hearing what they bring. I also enjoy writing music to address the strengths of the musicians I’m about to tour with or collaborate with.”
Better Days Ahead plays...
"As the years go by, I'm happy to say I've gathered more of a sense of music and what it is.” Metheny added. “I’m hopefully playing better. One interesting thing that does appear for me is that I almost feel like I don't have to play. I can just stand there and listen.”
"More and more it's about listening,” Metheny continued. “It's about inhabiting the space of where the music is more than some activity of wiggling your fingers around. To me, the best music is always coming from the response that is generated by the listener inside me rather than the guy who’s a guitar player.”