It’s about time

Pat Metheny shares a few thoughts about his instrument, how Creed Taylor influenced a recent album, and keeping a light touch

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It was the cover. The cover kind of said something, and then it kind of said something else, because the times and the world had changed around it. Art does that. Art is supposed to do that.

There was a tornado on the cover.

In 2019, Pat Metheny had gotten off the road with his band—drummer Antonio Sanchez, pianist Gwilym Simcock and bassist Linda May Han Oh—and wanted to record. Opting against a straightforward quartet record, he embraced a broader vision for where he wanted to take this now well-functioning and well-traveled band, composing more than a dozen new pieces of music, completely different from the setlist the band had taken out on the road and, as he explains it, threw pages of new material at them. In the studio.

“No rehearsals,” Metheny says. “‘Let’s just go in with a pile of music I would compose just for this crew—an entirely different book from what we had been playing live—and see what happens. The Miles quintet approach.”

The result was From This Place, a vast, occasionally brooding and amber-shaded offering—glimpses of his own prairie-folk jazz melodicism bob to the surface, and a few moments catch the longtime Metheny listener by surprise, not the least of which was Meshell Ndegeocello contributing vocals to the title track. But even in its most inspired flights of improvisation, the offering burns with a low intensity, mostly glowing coals after a flame.  

But what caught most reviewers’ ears was the orchestration—after the players had started to find their way into the material, Metheny found himself reworking the songs to accommodate orchestra strings, with veteran arrangers Gil Goldstein and Alan Broadbent building out a lush, at times almost Brahms-like fabric to the compositions, with Joel McNeely conducting the Hollywood Studio Symphony.
 It felt new and somewhat daring to Metheny’s critical audience—although very few, if any, bothered to note that Metheny had been here before, both in soundtrack work and on his 1992 Secret Story release. We asked him if Secret Story in any way had provided a template for this expansive arrangement.

“There is a connection to Secret Story” Metheny says of the expansive arrangement of From This Place, “in terms of scale and . . . orchestration, but there is a significant difference between them. 

Secret Story was originally going to be a record where I played everything myself, and in fact there was an early version of it that was like that. I correctly realized . . . the project would be much better served by having the parts I was playing in a just okay way played [by] folks who do whatever ‘that’ was all the time. And of course the most significant part of that was getting an actual orchestra rather than the Synclavier. It was a fairly arduous process, a bit like working backwards.”

As Metheny’s band played, the guitarist started hearing things that weren’t on the page—yet.
“I understood quickly that these pieces were demanding orchestration, expansion, and color,” he says. “Somehow while composing, I had the sense that the nature of what I was working on for these upcoming sessions contained a broader view of something, but I wasn’t able to identify it until we actually started recording.”

Unexpectedly for anyone familiar with the times, Metheny points to an unlikely early inspiration for the strings-plus-improv model—the Creed Taylor (CTI) jazz records of the 1970s. 

“It is unlikely” he notes, in characteristic Metheny understatement, “that the recordings of the CTI label of that time would likely never be thought of as “avant-garde” by garden variety jazz critics of that, or probably any other era. But from my seat as a young fan, the idea of an excellent and experienced arranger like Don Sebesky taking the improvised material of great musicians like Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and weaving their lines and voicings into subsequent orchestration was not only a new kind of arranging; it resulted in a different kind of sound and music. 

“It was a way of presenting music that represented the impulses of the players and the improvisers at hand through orchestration in an entirely new way. I loved those records.”

To be sure, From This Place represents a significant milestone in Metheny’s lengthy and Grammy-rich career (he has 20). But timing, someone once said, is everything, and just as it was released, COVID dropped a hammer on the whole world, and that tornado, which one may have seen as an expression of the turmoil surrounding the fraught politics and social agita of pre-election America, suddenly looked a lot like the revenge of an angry atmosphere, plowing across the barrenscape of our lives. What do you do when the air itself is the enemy?  

But Metheny shrugs it off. Well, the unfortunate timing thing, anyway.

“I think FTP came out something like February 23, 2020. There was a lot of excitement on the release—it actually was in the top 10 Billboard chart that week—it actually placed higher than Justin Bieber (which we all got a kick out of). But as we know, a week or two later, the world changed.”

The record got lost in the shuffle, Metheny concedes, but it “isn’t a huge thing for me,” he says. 

 “It takes a while for things to sink in, but good notes have a way of sticking around, so I am always just aiming for good notes.”

For a guy who has, for years, fairly assiduously maintained a schedule of tour-album-tour, Metheny settled into the pandemic with relative ease. 

“In a bunch of ways, staying in a room for 10 or 12 hours a day (mostly) by myself working on music in whatever form it happens to take is just about my favorite thing to do,” he says. “This period has easily been the most civilian life I have had since junior high school. And it makes me understand why people like civilian life.

In other interviews he’s done recently to support this tour, Metheny has occasionally referenced a question that a French critic asked him years ago, that he still puzzles over: “Are you the last of the old guys, or the first of the new guys?” 

A quisling difference-splitter might argue that Metheny is kind of both, and kind of neither, and a lengthier explanation for that conclusion probably wouldn’t be worth the trouble to write or read. 

The distinction seems relevant across one dimension. Metheny came up as a teen working an active jazz bandstand scene in the Kansas City area, spending much of his early gigging years just trying to stay on top of the changes and tempos and nuanced flourishes that his elder bandmates knew by instinct. Trial by fire. And we see today—sure, some players do it old-school, too—a whole generation of guitar players learning the instrument in the vacuum of YouTube’s instruction. And the result: Eleven-year-olds posting videos of themselves shredding John Petrucci or Tosin Abasi licks. Inspiration, or something else. 

But Metheny isn’t sure there are perils of learning the instrument from a computer screen.

“It makes us look at the whole idea of music and what being a musician is from a very different perspective, which I always welcome,” he says. “What I might say is that sometimes fluency is confused with musicianship. And for many years, they so often arrived in the same package that it was hard to separate one from the other. 

“If we think of playing as if it were a language, it is possible to become fluent in Norwegian or Dutch or Swahili or any other language. Fluent to the point of being an expert in the construction and grammar of every sentence. 

“But, if what you have to say isn’t that interesting to the other Norwegian speakers, your fluency doesn’t mean anything. It is the message, the storytelling, whether or not what you have to say is vital and interesting to the person you are addressing that counts. And if you mess up a verb or a pronoun here or there, it won’t matter if your message is compelling to hear.

“What I see sometimes now are folks whose message seems to be ‘Look at what a great guitar player I am! Look how well I play my instrument!’ It turns out that that message is a pretty boring message.”

But getting Metheny to expound on guitar technique as a thing is decidedly a challenge. 

“Playing the guitar itself was never much of a thing for me one way or another,” he says. “I have always seen it as an idea translation device more than a destination in and of itself. That said, it isn’t that easy for me to accurately render the ideas that I have into sound, and it never has been. That goes for composing too, which I do mostly on piano, by the way.
“So the thing for me has always been to prepare a lot, to play, to write and to hopefully be a good musician. I guess that means practice a lot, but I never feel like I am practicing, I am just playing. On the physical front, I have come to understand what I have to do to be ready to play on that level and it does require a certain degree of maintenance (calluses etc). But when I play, I am extremely relaxed physically, you could walk up behind while I am playing and it would be very easy to push my hands away from the instrument. I think that helps.”

Metheny brings his current Side-Eye tour to the Boulder Theater, a trio with drummer Joe Dyson and keyboardist James Francies, in support of a tidy and energetic live record recorded at the end of 2019 and released last month. Featuring a host of new pieces (including the marrow-stirring synth-spiked “Zenith Rising”) and a few old saws, including the Smithsonian-inducted and utterly indestructible “Bright Size Life,” the trio format brings Metheny back to a smaller, more intimate scale, and results are predictably luminous, provocative and grin-inducing. 

“I remain mostly a big fan of music, particularly in the community of musicians that I get to hang with, so I am always interested and curious of who the new players are on the scene in NYC on pretty much every instrument. When I hear someone I really like, I often invite them up to the house to play. There are a lot of players right now who I can see writing stuff for. This is really a setting that is built to set that up.” 

On the bill: 

Pat Metheny Side-Eye with James Francies and Joe Dyson. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 7, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder Tickets$60-$85.

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