A couple of weeks ago, my editor at Pulse Magazine dropped me a line and asked if I’d be interested in doing a piece on Pat Metheny’s upcoming appearance at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach. In turn, I dropped a line to Pat Metheny’s publicist and asked if it’d be possible to hop on the phone with the noted jazz guitarist for a short interview.
I got a quick response, but it was inform me that, although he was up for doing an interview, he wasn’t doing any more phoners now that he was on tour, so it’d have to be by email. Having mixed feelings about email interviews because of the mixed results I’ve had with them in the past, I wrote back and, figuring it couldn’t hurt to be frank, said that I was up for that option if Metheny was someone who took email interviews seriously.
Fortunately, he does. Unfortunately, it took slightly longer to get the responses to my questions than I might’ve hoped, which meant that the amount of space for the piece ended up shrinking, necessitating that the conversation be trimmed somewhat.
You can find the Pulse version of the piece by clicking here, but for those interested in reading the conversation in full, now you can.
Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny – who appears at the Sandler Center on Tuesday evening – made his recording debut in 1974, working as a sideman for legends like Jaco Pastorius and Gary Burton. While it didn’t take long for jazz fans to recognize him as a powerful musical force in his own right, Metheny has nonetheless spent much of his career trying to surround himself with the strongest musicians possible in order to make the most of his material. In an email interview with Pulse, Metheny discussed the origins of his guitar playing, his lone foray into the pop charts, the process of putting together his current outfit, the Pat Metheny Unity Group, and whether or not he ever wishes he’d sold out.
Pulse: You started playing the trumpet when you were eight years old, but you shifted to guitar at age 12. What led to the change in instrument?
Pat Metheny: Probably that my trumpet playing brother, Mike, who’s 5 years older than me, was so good at such a young age, and I was always being compared to him. I didn’t really like that part of it too much. Also, trumpet was – and is – a hard lifestyle. Brass players in general have a difficult time, due to the variables in what it takes to get a good sound. I always kind of just wanted to do my own thing, too.
And I fit chronologically right in that demographic of people who saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Suddenly the guitar had a place in the culture that took it from being simply a musical instrument to an almost iconic emblem of everything that was about to happen. Where my story differs from the other gazillion people who got interested in the instrument around that time was that I heard a Miles Davis record shortly after I got a guitar and I became devoted to wanting to understand what that music was all about.
You’ve recorded a few albums under your own name and quite a few as the Pat Metheny Group. Do you have any specific criteria when it comes to deciding what material is going to be yours and what’s going to be recorded by the band?
I don’t make any distinction, really. It’s all my thing regardless of the setting. Certain combinations of people suggest certain approaches, and I always try to surround myself with the best musicians suited to play whatever the conception is that I have for whatever band I have going at the time. When I get a good group of musicians, I try to stick with it. I almost never “fire” anyone. Each thing seems to keep going indefinitely. One thing may not be active for a time and another will be, but they’re all simmering in there somewhere.
How was it collaborating with David Bowie on “This Is Not America,” and was it odd to hear the result being played on pop radio? That’s the first and only time you’ve ever actually been in the singles charts.
It was the one time I tried to write something like that, so I have a 100% track record! I’d done the score for The Falcon and the Snowman, and at the end of the scoring process, the producers expressed interest in having someone sing the main theme that I’d written. Bowie’s name was suggested, and although I wasn’t that familiar with him, I got a few of his records and agreed that he had a great voice and was a perfect match for that song. He was great to work with.
Are there any almost-happened-but-didn’t moments in your history where a planned collaboration fell through and, for whatever reason, never ended up coming to pass?
Not quite like that, but 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.
Is there one studio album in your catalog that you think serves as the best gateway drug into your music?
There’s such a huge variety of things there. Usually if someone asks me, I kind of size up what I think they might be into based on whatever I can tell about them. Usually a Song X person is a different person than a Beyond the Missouri Sky person. The best for me is the rare individual who understands that it is all meant to go together as one thing – like chapters in a long novel. I really do think of all of them as one single long record.
In regards to your most recent efforts, what’s the difference – if any – between the Pat Metheny Unity Band and the Pat Metheny Unity Group? And what led to the inception of the whole Unity thing in the first place?
I think part of my job as bandleader has always been to present a platform or a sensibility that has some kind of a distinct vibe or atmosphere. The artwork on the covers, whatever name I give it, or how it’s billed all works together to convey some kind of feeling of what the music is going to be.
As far as the Unity thing goes, this is such a special group of musicians. I really wanted to do something with Chris Potter, and Ben (Williams) and Antonio (Sanchez) seemed to be the perfect rhythm section for it. Then 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, the consistency of the playing was at a super high level, and we seemed to always get to something night after night.
We all wanted to keep it going, and my sense of it was that we’d 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’d already done together as a place to build from and expand outward from. To me, this new recording (Kin) is exactly that. I’m so happy with the way it all turned out.
What can fans expect to hear on this tour?
The focus is obviously on the two records we’ve made together, but this band can really play anything from any point along the way. It’s been fun finding some older ones to mix in there, too.
You’ve spent a substantial amount of time teaching music over the years. Do you foresee a point when you’ll retire from touring in favor of teaching and just recording when the spirit moves you?
I do enjoy teaching, but playing, writing, making records and being a bandleader is where it’s at for me. I have no plans to stop.
Lastly, you’ve got a ton of fans, you’re revered by other guitarists, yet the average mainstream music listener at best might know your name. Do you ever wish you’d sold out?
I work pretty hard to stay below the radar. Of course, I’m here doing this interview, and I’d like people to come and check out the music, but I really wouldn’t want to be more known than I am now. Just enough to continue the research.