“I said, ‘Really? You don’t practise any more?’ He said, ‘One day I just sort of realised I could play.’ I’m wondering if I’ll get to that level… we’re about to find out!” Pat Metheny just wants to understand music

 Pat Metheny.
Pat Metheny.
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Like Django Reinhardt or Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny is that relatively rare thing: a jazz guitarist who has become a household name. ‘Jazz’ doesn’t begin to cover his remit, though, since this Lee’s Summit, Missouri-born virtuoso is similarly well-versed in fusion, Latin music, progressive jazz, synthesised music, film scoring and more.

Metheny started out on trumpet, but eventually convinced his parents to gift him a Gibson ES-140 guitar for his 12th birthday after being wowed by The Beatles on US TV. “Up until then the guitar was the only instrument they flatly refused to have in the house,” he tells Prog, “so you can imagine the appeal!” At 15, Metheny won a scholarship to jazz camp with venerable US jazz journal DownBeat sponsoring him, and at 19 he became the youngest-ever teacher at Boston, Massachusetts’ prestigious Berklee College Of Music.

Rarely photographed sans broad smile, Metheny gained fame and acclaim as a jazzer with a rocker’s big hair. He famously deployed a gnarled old toothbrush as a strap lock on his beloved Gibson ES-175, but it was tone, form and composition that obsessed him, not visual aesthetics. On early albums such as Bright Size Life, Watercolors and As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Metheny established an imaginative, asymmetrical guitar style of melting fluidity. Few players are so instantly recognisable.

In 1977, he founded The Pat Metheny Group, a fresh, forward-looking ensemble in which he made innovative use of guitar synthesiser. Co-members included keyboardist and co-writer Lyle Mays, and together they explored Latin rhythms on landmark albums such as 1987’s Still Life (Talking), a Grammy Award-grabbing masterpiece whose guests included Brazilian percussionist Armando Marçal. Minuano (Six Eight) and Last Train Home are wonderful entry points to Metheny’s catalogue.

Having worked with countless pioneering artists, including Jaco Pastorius, Steve Reich, David Bowie, Ornette Coleman and Joni Mitchell, Metheny continues to be a prolific and admirably restless creative. He has composed on a 42-string, custom-made Pikasso guitar (Nigel Tufnel, eat your heart out!), and his groundbreaking 2010 LP Orchestrion utilised robotic electronic instruments that played themselves.

“To me, jazz is more like a verb than a noun,” Metheny once said. “It’s a process more than a thing.” And so he continues with his ‘process’, rising early each morning to play music and search for new ways of expression. Chatting via Zoom from his home in New York City, Metheny parses his latest LP and plenty more besides. A gorgeous palate cleanser ahead of the “extremely ambitious” new record he hopes to release next year, Dream Box comprises simple, transporting compositions drawn from his extensive archive.

Dream Box is arranged for two guitars and nothing else. Do you find it useful to restrict your palette?

Yeah, sometimes. Because all of us in our lives these days are dealing with option anxiety. Endless possibilities where, with music, say, you love all different kinds of stuff and you have to make sense of it all. But with this album, Dream Box, there really wasn’t a plan.

How would you describe it?

It’s so unlike anything else I’ve ever released in the sense that it was almost inadvertent. The tunes come from different eras – and most of them I’d pretty much forgotten about until I rediscovered them in my archive. Musically, I suppose it’s a little bit like [1976’s] Bright Size Life, me playing a harmony part and then improvising over it. Back then that almost felt like science fiction, but now every guy on every street corner can do that with a looper pedal!

Did you have lots of material to choose from?

Yeah, dozens and dozens of tunes. I’d just record them and put them away. I rarely listen back to anything that involves me. But on this last tour I thought, “Okay, let’s just have a little look and see what’s there in the archive.” I found myself revisiting the tunes that are on the record a lot and thought maybe other people might enjoy them too. But I can’t say there was a concept.

Assembling the tracklisting, were you transported back to different times and places?

You know, I wish I was like that! I envy people who say, “I was dreaming of this beautiful sunset, then I went to my instrument and found something that was a perfect evocation...” But for me, music is so all-consuming that it sets up this world of intrigue and I get totally lost in it. Later on, when it’s done and I’m driving around in my car listening to a tune I’ve written, that’s when I’ll notice if it works with the sunset. But I have almost no memory of recording these particular tunes.

That’s surprising, given how good they are.

Yeah, well, most of the stuff in my archive I would never want anyone to hear, and these ones on Dream Box are the exceptions. I always try to finish everything, but I’ve come to realise that I need to write 10 tunes to get three that I like. And it’s not only liking them – I have to know that the tunes are really resilient and robust so I can pound on them improvisation-wise for 200 nights in a row when I’m touring. Some stuff you just can’t play that often without wanting to jump off a bridge!

You’re one of a comparatively small number of jazz guitarists who has become a household name. Do you enjoy that status? We guess it makes you a kind of ambassador for jazz guitar...

Well, when I hear words like ‘jazz’ and ‘rock’ and ‘classical’ – and I’ve been hearing those terms for over 50 years now – it feels like a kind of pointless intellectual exercise to try and delineate between Herbie Hancock and Ravel and whoever else. Music is all just one thing for me. You have to be careful about applying terms or categories, otherwise you end up with a political discussion rather than a musical one.

Maybe people forget that it was seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show that first kindled your interest?

Exactly. And as long as there’s creativity and high-level content, count me in! Creatively speaking, what The Beatles did in seven years is just staggering. But running in parallel with that was the Miles Davis Quintet of the 60s, which, for me, was probably the highest point of human achievement that has occurred so far. Of course The Beatles and Miles played different types of music, but both represent the aspirations that I hold close. But if we’re talking creativity, let’s talk about JS Bach for a second. Man! His sheer imagination was astounding, and he turned it into deep art.

True. Although Bach had fewer distractions to contend with: no TV, no smartphone... Perhaps that helped?

But it’s a choice, right? There’s no reason why any of us can’t live without those things, too. I have three kids and a fantastic wife, and those guys are doing all kinds of stuff on social media. But I’ve never looked at Twitter [X] or Facebook or any of that crap. And I don’t feel like that meant I missed out on anything that would have made me a better musician! I’m just trying to understand music and get better, that’s my focus.

Do you feel like aspects of your world are passing away?

Maybe, but I pay enough attention to know what’s going on. When I play a town now I don’t see posters advertising the show. But my people tell me that everything is promoted and sold online now, and I know I have representation on Facebook. But I find it kinda weird. Because then you’re just talking to the same people in the echo chamber. But if you want to keep playing gigs you have to have a presence online. And I understood very early on that the best place for me to become a better musician is on the bandstand, not in my room practising. So whatever it takes, you know?

Are you still disciplined with writing and recording?

Yes. I get up at 4.30am or 5am every morning and work on music. Of course I have the same impulses as other people and I can be distracted, but I look at politics and old guitars online for a few minutes and then I get back to work.

You’ve played with so many great musicians – Jaco Pastorius and Lyle Mays, to name but two. They are both gone now, but do you still think about them?

I do. I look at my records and a good chunk of the people that I made them with are not on the planet any more. Jaco and Lyle, but also people like my best friend in life [double bass player] Charlie Haden and [saxophonist] Michael Brecker, probably my second best friend. My thing is to try and honour all of those guys while I’m still here, and the best way to do that is by continuing to strive for what music can offer when it’s at its best.

Still Life (Talking) in 1987 was a landmark Pat Metheny Group record. What do you think was special about it, and what was its significance for your career?

Okay, just as a little parenthesis thing here before I answer that: when people start talking about which record of mine is their favourite, I can usually guess their age to within four or five years. The other day a kid of about 18 came up to me and said, “I really love your stuff, but when are you going to do something really creative again?” So I’m waiting for what that might be, and he goes, “You know - like [2010 robotic instruments LP] Orchestrion?” And all across the age spectrum, people have these different records of mine they like most.

Anyway, now I’ll answer your question! That was a special record, because it was the first time I was ‘unleashed’ in a way. It was the first time I didn’t have to hurry. In my early career, much of my recording was done under the auspices of ‘two days to record and a day to mix.’ Also, Still Life (Talking) was pivotal, not just because of the music, but because I learned a lot about how to make a record. I’ve since realised that maybe my main ally was [Pat Metheny Group bassist] Steve Rodby.

Steve was a big part of how the records sounded and on Still Life (Talking) he stepped into a role where his amazing skills as a co-producer became clear to me. Even now, until it goes through Steve, it doesn’t really exist for me. He’s the person I’ve learned the most stuff from. And that would probably surprise people, because he takes a sort of back-seat role even though he’s one of the most astute studio musicians I have ever been around.

What are your memories of working with David Bowie on the soundtrack of [1985 spy film] The Falcon And The Snowman?

I’ve been around some pretty heavy musicians like [saxophonists] Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, and David kind of reminded me of them. He inhabited this realm where it felt like being around a master; someone working at the highest level of their chosen field.

Were you a Bowie fan before it?

I’d have to admit that I went into that project not knowing a whole lot about him, but that’s a statement about me, not about his wonderful music. Our paths crossed when I was off on another trip, but I did already have a tangential relationship with a few of his hits. When Lyle [Mays] and myself were writing the score for The Falcon And The Snowman and [director] John Schlesinger suggested David sing on it, I had to do some research. But it did seem obvious that he’d be perfect for This Is Not America, because it was right in his zone musically speaking.

What did he bring to that song?

I had written the main melodic content of This Is Not America in about five minutes while I was watching Schlesinger film a few scenes. David came to an early screening, and I gave him a few versions of that theme. The form and the tune stayed exactly the same, but David found this whole other world inside of it that was just incredible. And wrote the lyrics, of course. Getting to watch him do his vocals was wonderful, too. Two takes and done. Also, he was a great guy. One of the smartest people I’ve ever been in a room with.

Bowie played sax and admired John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, plus his final album Blackstar was very jazz influenced. Did you talk jazz with him?

Well, when we worked on This Is Not America, that was right around the time that I had done [1986’s] Song X with [saxophonist] Ornette [Coleman], so we talked about Ornette a bit. As regards his own sax playing, David would probably have been the first to admit that it was closer to rock’n’roll than, say, Charlie Parker, but he was great at what he did.

What’s the longest you’ve gone without playing guitar? Do you sometimes let the field fallow so as to get inspired?

The longest I’ve gone is probably right now! I haven’t picked up a guitar for about six months, but that’s because I’m in the middle of making an extremely ambitious record that will come out some time next year. It’s sort of a continuation of the Side-Eye band project where I employed a rotating cast of younger musicians, but by this point pretty much everybody is younger than me, so they’re not too hard to find! I’m scoring for other instruments, and I’m searching for a certain kind of musician, the kind that can play simple and complicated. It’s a record that’s emerging as this whole other thing, and it’s been kind of complex to unravel.

So when will you pick up your guitar again?

Well, the last gigs I played were back in November 2022, so I’ll have to resume my guitar-playing soon. Mike Brecker, for all his genius, didn’t play as much as you would think for somebody at that level. I said to him, “Really? You don’t really practise any more?” He said, “Yeah, well – one day I just sort of realised I could play.” So now I’m wondering if I’ll ever get to that level. I guess we’re about to find out!

Ah yes, your upcoming European tour! It isn’t coming to the UK, sadly. Has our government’s red tape made it less appealing?

No, I think it’s just the way it panned out. Plus I did play at the Hammersmith Odeon [the Eventim Apollo, in June 2022]. However, I am acutely aware of the current difficulties for musicians travelling in and out of the UK. It’s a real drag. I wish we could go back in time and undo a few things – not just for you guys, but for us here in the US, too. It’s been a period of horrible propaganda appealing to the less than enlightened.

Perhaps that’s the danger of social media’s hall of mirrors?

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

What’s left for you to achieve?

For me, achievement is an internal thing. I make new music and put it away in the folder, and without wishing to sound snotty, I don’t really care if anybody else hears it or not. Ever since I heard the Miles Davis live album Four & More aged 12, I’ve always wanted to understand music; why I love it so much. For me, music is sort of a symptom of something, something very good. In terms of what others might call career achievements, my life has already been light-years beyond anything I could have imagined as a kid playing in the basement of our house in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. When I was 18 I got to play with [vibraphonist] Gary Burton, and that already felt like a huge achievement. For me, that was like singing with John and Paul on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Do you have a sense of your legacy? Are you starting to put your house in order?

Yes, but for practical reasons. From 1974 until now, I’ve never stopped amassing stuff, both recorded music and gear. After every tour, whatever equipment I was using would go into this warehouse I have in Kingston, New York. It’s been a kind of ritual: finish the tour and pack everything away. So there’s this place that is beyond description in terms of its messiness and disorder, but the process of sorting it out has finally begun.

To what end?

It’s not for the reasons you mentioned. It’s because I’m a senior citizen and when I check out, hopefully in about 35 years from now, I don’t want my kids to have to figure all that crap out! If you’d like to help us clear it out, you’re welcome! There are pieces of gear in there that were useless in 1976, but now they’re vintage. I’m like, “Really? You want that first-generation MXR digital delay that doesn’t really work? And you want to pay $1500 for it? Be my guest!”