The Pat Metheny Interviews

In 2007, composer/arranger/performer Richard Niles wrote and produced a three-part series of in-depth interviews for the BBC titled "Pat Metheny—Bright Size Life." This book is comprised of these never-before-printed interviews and discussions with Metheny, whom Niles has known and worked with since 1974.  TheScreamOnline is proud to present the following excerpts. Be sure to see the Special Offer at the end.

In this excerpt, Metheny discusses his earliest influences:

It all kind of kicked in for me… right around 1963/1964 — with the Beatles and everything — and the guitar suddenly appeared in the panorama of all things that a kid might be interested in as a very significant, cultural, iconic figure of... something. In terms of my own awareness it manifested in this incredible interest in the Beatles and that zone of music. It's hard to separate that initial attraction to the instrument from what that particular moment was.

That moment was one that just kind of coincidentally intersected for me with pre-pubescent angst and all that stuff that starts to kick in when you're ten or eleven years old. Ironically, as I look back on this now, that was also a very interesting moment in time for world culture. That's literally the moment that the world shifted from black and white into color TV, photographs, and everything else. I do think that for any kid there's something about becoming nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old where the world shifts from black and white into color. But for me it was a literal thing. Along with that comes a certain amount of natural wanting to make yourself distinct from the world around you in the form of rebellion or whatever.

The guitar became something like that for me because, the truth is, the last thing on earth my parents, my brother, anybody would have ever wanted me to do would be to play the guitar. The guitar, for whatever reason, in their consciousness represented everything not so good. It was not a band instrument; it was not a wind instrument; it was not a classical instrument. It was something that actually turns out to be correctly identified with a major shift, a major chasm in the universe at that moment — and I was attracted to it.

My present for sixth grade, if I got such and such score on such and such test, was the right to buy a guitar. Because by that time I'd lost interest in school anyway, but if I could keep my grades up, I would have the right to earn the money to buy a guitar. So I made that mark and was allowed to buy a guitar, which is a guitar that I still keep around (an ES140 3/4, which was a Gibson, kind of miniature guitar that I got for $60 from a guy). That was the beginning of the end or the beginning of the beginning. From that point forward I literally became a different person.

What's interesting in all of this is a moment that kind of goes to your original question of "when did it all really kick in." It was when my brother brought home a record called Four and More, Miles Davis Live. I always hear this thing about jazz being something difficult to transition into: you have to learn a lot about it, you have to study it; it's very foreign sounding. That may be true for most people but for me, within the first five seconds of the needle touching that vinyl my life was a different life.

All I wanted to know and all I still really want to know is what happened in those five seconds? What was that? As much as rock and roll might have offered me a window into rebellion against my parents, my brother, and blah blah blah, it offered me a far wider window to become interested in jazz. Because not only could I rebel against all those people, I could rebel against all my friends and everybody else I knew in my little town in Missouri as well. Plus, and this is maybe more important, whatever that music was, it was fascinating and inviting in ways that I had never experienced before.

NILES: Did you know much about jazz culture and jazz history? Had you already been introduced to that a bit by your parents? What was your conception of what you were listening to?

METHENY: Yeah, I shouldn't paint a picture of my parents as being hostile to jazz. Their sense of jazz however would have been Glenn Miller, that sort of thing. The sort of popular jazz of the forties that was in fact the soundtrack of their romance together; their favorite is "Stardust" and right up and down the line in terms of popular music of that era, which was in fact triplet-based music. It wasn't country and western music; it wasn't the polka music that my grandfather played. So the music they were playing around the house was in fact a version of swing music and that kind of feeling was a feeling that I would have heard my entire life. We would go to the Kansas City Jazz Festival or to hear Clark Terry play because he was a trumpet player or even to hear Doc Severinsen, who at that time was a well-known trumpet player many years before he became this iconic, Tonight Show, bandleader guy. He was a trumpet star.

Kind of the same way there are guitar freaks, there are trumpet freaks. And our family was trumpet freaks, which included all styles of trumpet playing including jazz. So yes, I was dragged along to all these different kinds of concerts than involved trumpet that included jazz concerts. So in that sense I was aware of jazz but they were not really aware of it in the hardcore sense. It was more in a general sense.

Once I started really, especially with Miles, he instantly became my favorite musician and I would have to trace every early attraction to wanting to understand what jazz is to something in that Miles quintet. And I have to say there was also something about Tony Williams — the way he was playing, the sound of the ride cymbal — that had an immediate resonance to me in terms of what I was feeling in the culture. Even in Lee's Summit, Missouri, there was something about the way he was playing that in fact truly did represent a change, a major change.

I was already aware of this rock and roll kind of change because of the Beatles and everything else, but there was a much deeper change going on in the world that we'd have to historically attribute to the civil rights movement. The whole sense of black power, of what was happening in the African-American community in America, and in Kansas City just down the road also figures into this in a pretty big way for me.

NILES: O.K we have the influence of Miles. Then of course I remember in the old days you once said that you didn't really have formal guitar training. You actually told me a story about when you discovered Wes Montgomery. You bought a bunch of his albums and you piled them up on one side of your record player and as you memorized each album, you put it on the other side. I think you said, "When I'd memorized all of them, I went to Kansas City." Do I remember that correctly?

METHENY: Hearing Wes Montgomery was another massive, major change for me. There was a quality that Wes' playing had that was very much like the way Miles' music affected me. I now realize forty years down the line what some of the specific qualities that make that sound have that sort of power are.
But at the time, as a twelve-year-old kid, there was something else going that was absolutely compelling about the way Wes was playing that just made me want to listen to it again and again and again. Through that process of listening you naturally memorize things; you memorize not only what Wes was playing or what Miles was playing but what was happening underneath them and around them. Also, I think that for me really understanding a few records kind of allows you a window into the whole thing.

And there was one Wes record in particular called Smokin' at the Half Note, which was a current record at that time, recorded in December of '65. That record became an incredible touchstone for me. But I was such a fan of Wes that all of his records, including the records that were also current at that time (which were widely dismissed critically — which were records that he made for Verve and then later A&M) those were favorite records for me too, for completely other reasons. They, in a much more concise way, were able to describe things that to me felt very current and very resonant and unbelievably deep.

When I think about Wes or Miles, I would also describe those two guys as being the two guys who have left a sonic residue that has pervaded all of music, not just jazz. To me there's only one other musician of recent times who I would include in that category and that's Jaco Pastorius. Their sound went way beyond jazz; it was something that became... you can't turn on the TV without hearing something that's reflecting that sound in popular culture. Plus, even in the most extreme nooks and crannies of the avant-garde that sound is also part of the vernacular. It's pervasive. There are very few musicians who reflect that kind of human depth in their sound. To me Wes was the guitar equivalent of Miles in that sense. Besides the process of trying to understand the mechanics of it (like why is he playing this note and not that note?) there was just this depth to it, this sound thing, which was incredibly important for me.

NILES: In terms of formulating your concept it seems to me that those artists you've mentioned already — Miles, Wes, and the Beatles — sum up a lot of the qualities that people would associate with Pat Metheny: with Miles, the lyricism; with Wes, the soulfulness; and with the Beatles, the catchiness, the tunefulness. I often say to my students, "All innovation is synthesis." Discuss....

METHENY: I like the idea of looking at those three important artists as fundamental because I think in many ways that's true. I would also note however that the three qualities that you ascribe to those three guys could also be flipped around. I mean as much as people talk about experimentation in music (and when we hear the term "experimental music" we all get quickly a picture in our mind of a certain style of playing). I would contend that the Beatles were amongst the most experimental of people that made records at the time, delivered with an unbelievably high batting average.

Wes defined his own time through a sound that could only be of his time. To me, his simple playing on some of those later records where he just plays the melody of "Windy" or something like that…To me (and I'm filtering this through something that we would now call a post-modern sensibility) it's much more avant-garde in a way to be able to play a solo that's eight bars long, that's that deep, than it is to play forty-five minutes of playing free. I wouldn't say that Wes was necessarily looking to do that–I think he was just doing what he did.

If we're going to talk about Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery and the Beatles, what's interesting about those three artists is that we could sit here and talk about all three of them for about fifty hours and look at it from 360 degrees, from the tiniest detail to standing in outer space and looking at a marble on earth and talk about them as well and it works on all those levels. So that's another thing that to me connects those three things, the sort of durability of what those things represent.

NILES: It's interesting that you mention the tune "Windy" because there's a motif in that tune that is not dissimilar to the last phrase of "April Joy"—the feel, the phrasing.

METHENY: One of the mandates of the jazz form that is often overlooked is that it's a form that is quite unforgiving in its view towards nostalgia—it doesn't actually work. I don't think I've ever really heard somebody play in a style that precedes his or her time on earth. In a way it might be really, really good but it's not going to make me not want to hear the people that did that first.

I've always tried to embrace what I love and what I feel around me now. That was true early on. And in fact part of the reason that I started to write tunes was because there was a way I wanted to function as an improviser that I was not really able to do playing on a blues or playing on a jazz standard. I could play in those settings and it was fine and it's still fine; I still enjoy doing that. But there was a certain quality of something that I was not able to get to as an improviser until I started writing tunes that referenced everything that I loved. That includes a lot of qualities about having grown up out there in Missouri, a lot of qualities that are in fact related to what was happening in pop music at the time.

And there were certain things having to do with the instrument, with the guitar itself, that had not really been looked at and were fascinating and interesting and worthy to me.

Yet at the same time my earliest success as a player, around Kansas City when I was thirteen, fourteen years old, was under the auspices of sounding as close to Wes Montgomery as I could. It was a thing around town at the time. I was this little kid, I had braces on my teeth at the time, I played with my thumb and I could do a good Wes Montgomery imitation—just like there are now several thousand other people who can do it. There was a sense of acceptance and applause and ‘getting house' and all that stuff that came with that.

Yet, even at an early age, there was something about it that bothered me. I knew that as much as I enjoyed stepping into that guise, it wasn't really what I had to say. There's another, maybe more important part of this, which is that I loved Wes so much that I realized that in fact it's disrespectful to sound like somebody that much. Wouldn't it be better to look at Wes and say, "Wow. This guy found a way of playing that was all his own, that didn't sound like anything that had preceded it." Why not go there, find my own thing, as a tribute to Wes rather than the overt "Here's some octaves," and so forth. So there was a point where I just said, "Ok, I'm not going to do that any more. I'm going to willfully stop ever doing that." Then there's a period of roughness after that because that is part of what your vocabulary is, but it was a worthy moment for me to get to that place.

NILES: And what age was that? Because I remember you talking about the fact that you were failing school and your parents said, "You're not going to touch the guitar now until you get through school." You said that not playing the guitar helped your guitar playing enormously because you got into this "creative visualization" of your fingers playing the fretboard.

METHENY: Well, things happened. I look back on it now and realize that things were happening pretty quickly for me. I seriously started playing I would say when I was twelve and was starting to work gigs when I was fourteen around Kansas City, first with more what I would call amateur-type musicians (other kids my age or a little older) where we could get gigs. But pretty quickly after that, by the time I was fifteen, with some of the best players in town.

I had no interest in school anyway but by the time I started really working gigs I was barely hanging on, to the point where, for one quarter, my parents actually forbade me from playing at all. I had to put the guitar in the closet and all this stuff. There was a benefit to that for me on several levels: One is that I had to really find a way to continue to practice because I think they didn't quite understand the degree to which I was already there. So I had to develop this way of visualizing the geography of the instrument, which I could probably space out even more by the time I got some chops* doing that, in terms of school. The other thing was that it became pretty clear to me (and I think even to them) that the train had already left the station, so to speak; there was no stopping any of this. From my Dad's point of view, I think that once he saw also that I was starting to make some actual money playing gigs it became a pragmatic thing — "Well, it seems like it's working out." And then as long as I could pass whatever grade I was in, it was O.K., and I kind of somehow faked my way through school.

*Technical instrumental ability, first used to denote the talented lips of a great trumpet player, as in, "Louis Armstrong had incredible chops!"

In this excerpt, Metheny explains why the message is more important than the medium:

The "Instrument" of the Idea

NILES: I think it's significant that we call something we play notes with a musical "instrument." The word "instrument" is significant. It is no more than an instrument we use to express ourselves, like we use a spoon to drink soup or a doctor uses a scalpel to perform an operation. Many people get hung up concentrating on the instrument rather than the expression, like concentrating on the shiny silver spoon rather than the delicious soup.

METHENY: Yeah, that's a good one — I'll have to use that! I do think that there are musicians who are in love with their instrument to an extreme degree. I was never that into the guitar. I liked the guitar. I was attracted to it like a billion other kids, probably because of The Beatles. In 1965, what the guitar represented was certainly comin' right up Sixth Avenue towards me as an eleven-year old kid. But it was never like, "Wow! It's the guitar!" It was more about the music with the guitar as a component of that. I wanted to understand all of it, not just the guitar part.

And in a way, the guitar remains an oddball in jazz. It has some difficulties as an improvisational instrument because of its very limited dynamic range, dynamics being such an important part of expression. On the other hand, I feel very proud to often be included in a small group of guys who have worked really hard over the last 30 years to bring the guitar into the improvisational panorama of what's possible by offering some stuff that you can't get any other way.

Whether I play the piano, or the trumpet or the guitar, I'm going to play the same thing. I'll play it better on the guitar because I can play it better. But the idea starts for me before the instrument, because it's not the guitar that I'm playing — it's the idea.

What I always try to explain to people is that many players are really involved in playing their instrument and what I find is that those are the players that you tend to enjoy for a little while. And maybe by the second tune you enjoy them a little bit less and then the third tune, a little bit less. Then by the fourth tune you're either asleep or out of there because it's mostly about them playing an instrument. It's certainly that way with me in a much more condensed form. I very quickly get a sense of somebody's connection to either instrument or idea as his or her entry point.

For me, the idea is completely the dominant factor, because the truth is I don't really play the instrument that well, relative to several hundred thousand other people. The playing of the instrument is almost incidental because the idea should dominate and should win.

Additional commentary by Richard Niles:

There are many dilemmas facing artists today. The first was voiced by Frank Zappa when he wrote, "Artistic freedom is often dependent on adequate financing." Most artists have to ask themselves, "Can I make enough money to eat by doing this?" And that inspires many artists to base their artistic choices firmly on the intent to achieve a financially positive audience/business response.

The other dilemma some artists become aware of goes something like this: "I can play my instrument to a high degree of fluency, I have the ability to write intelligently on a number of subjects, people admire my paintings, etc. But what is the point?"

Unfortunately we live at a time dominated by sensationalism and glitz when finance is more or less the only question some artists consider.

But the intent of artists such as Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and The Beatles was deeper. They managed to make groundbreaking music and attain widespread public acceptance while maintaining the highest creative standards. Pat Metheny, one of the most consistently innovative artists of our time, would certainly be on that list. I would maintain that it is the concept behind a work of art rather than the art itself that is significant.

We talk about "what an artist has to say" with their music, painting, or writing. That message is the result of what Metheny calls years of "research" and develops over time. Developing a concept and expressing a message is more than just being a practitioner of an artform. It is about being a fearless explorer searching for questions as well as answers, defining not only who we are, but also who we should be. Although it might seem melodramatic, it can justifiably be called a heroic quest where the artist must risk failure just as a mountain climber risks falling as he scales the "impossible" peak.

Artists who can do this take us with them on that journey, inspiring us to ask the same questions of ourselves and take the same risks, looking at our lives in the light of their experience. And when we do that, we look beyond the instrument — beyond Metheny's guitar, or Shakespeare or Dylan's language, or Dali's brushstrokes — to the ideas and the possibilities they suggest for us. That connection gives us a sense of direction in the existential maze of the 21st century. We should be grateful to artists who take the risks we dare not take, who show the way when we feel lost, who say the things we feel but can't express.

The Future

NILES: Music: The challenges for the future and the dangers in the present? Discuss.

METHENY: The challenges for someone starting now are exactly the same as they have always been—but with the additional burden of each decade of new information and innovation that creative artists are required to absorb, or ignore.

It's not easy. The thing we see a lot of now is younger players who are very capable, even exceptional musicians. But they get to a high point of fluency without having much of a story of their own to tell. When I hear many young saxophone players, I have the feeling that there are 500 channels on your cable TV, but there's nothing to watch. There's a lot of stuff, but in terms of someone who can crystallize the feeling of their generation into a language that's unique and their own, and at the same time is addressing all the stuff that they've rightly spent eight or ten years practicing in high school or college, it's odd that there haven't been more musicians who have managed to jump that hurdle.

I also have to say that, on a political level, being original has become less of a goal. Politically we live in an era of Fundamentalism versus Modernism. That's the general conflict: in the political world, and in the jazz world the Fundamentalist movement is significant. And that movement makes a case to say that it's O.K. to sound like Coleman Hawkins, and if you do it great, that's enough. But that's a break from the jazz tradition. Historically, there are few examples where a revisionist view of the world has held sway. I do find the parallels between the political climate and the jazz world fascinating. They mirror each other in many ways.

Additional commentary by Richard Niles:

A good example of this "revisionist, fundamentalist" climate in jazz would be an artist such as Diana Krall. But this does not only apply to jazz. It could be justifiably said that there have been very few artists of the last fifteen years or so, in ANY genre of music—rock, pop or "classical" — who are doing innovative, groundbreaking work. This is certainly not a comment on their talent or abilities. Is an artist such as Beyoncé talented? Absolutely. But is she innovative in the sense that Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, or Bjork were innovative? No. These artists changed the way we define popular music using new poetic devices, new compositional and instrumental techniques and new forms to "crystallize the feeling of their generation into a language that's unique and their own." Compared to any of the above artists, Beyoncé can be seen as merely a phenomenal singer and performer.

The significant question is why has music veered away from the "tradition" of originality, ingenuity and inspiration? One reason is the change in the structure of the music business in the 1990s. Record labels of the 1950s and '60s such as Atlantic, Stax, Motown, and Capitol were run by music-loving entrepreneurs such as Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, Gamble and Huff at Philadelphia International Records, Berry Gordy at Motown, and Johnny Mercer at Capitol. Significantly, all were musicians and songwriters. A&R, the people who discovered and developed new artists, were typically great arrangers such as Quincy Jones, George Martin and Arif Mardin. As arrangers, they had the expertise in music to recognize the difference between talent and true inspiration and to be able to identify how to best advise and record these artists. But during the late Eighties and Nineties large multinational conglomerates began to take over these smaller companies to the point where in 2005 the Warner Music Group, the EMI Group, the Universal Music Group, and Sony/BMG were responsible for 81.87% of worldwide music sales.

When the conglomerates took over they, perhaps expectedly, chose A&R people who spoke their language, the language of the ‘bottom line'. A&R executives began to be drawn from people with expertise in marketing and sales, not music. As the late producer/arranger Arif Mardin told me, "We don't have a lot of creative record executives. In the old days it was more for the music than the money. Record companies were run by music-lovers who appreciated great voices. Today we have ‘bean counters'. So the whole business is in decline and there will have to be some regrouping."

Producer/arranger H.B Barnum told me in 2002, "The music entrepreneurs of the 1950's and 1960's will all be dead within the next twenty years. They're not part of the music world any more. Today it's about money and numbers. Profits. Thirty years ago every A&R Man knew something about music. They were players, arrangers, writers, singers. If you or I were A&R Men, we could listen to an artist and know just what to do musically. Today's A&R Men don't know or care about musical aspects. They want to know what market it's aimed at and how much it'll cost to promote it.

"So artists are in the situation where they know if they don't have a hit RIGHT NOW, they might not be around next week. They know that the A&R Man will not take five years to spend money to develop them because he believes in their talent, like A&R did with Aretha or Lou Rawls or Peggy Lee. And artists know that there's a good chance the A&R Man won't be there in five years either."

The focus has changed to entertainment designed for television marketing. Because of this, so-called ‘talent' contests like The X Factor have developed. And even if none of the artists featured on these programs sell many records, the record and TV companies still reap significant revenues from income generated by telephone voting.

Unfortunately these shows are destroying the music business because they are destroying the public perception of the creative artist. The public used to think of popular singers as ‘artists', heroes or icons. Talent contest TV presents singers as amateurs. The public is presented, for the most part, with rather ordinary, unoriginal, inexperienced ‘wannabes'.

More importantly, these performers regularly allow themselves to be humiliated by self-styled music business ‘experts' to add entertainment value to the show. It is perfectly understandable why the public would decline the offer to spend money on these sub-standard performers who show so little self-respect. Can we imagine artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, or Prince on any of these shows?

Artists who willingly put themselves into this musical auto-da-fe are demeaned in the eyes of the record buyer. Older establishment figures are judging the young when the young, talented, new artists should be reinventing the art form as artists such as Dylan and the Stones did in the Sixties.

Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman recently commented, "Many talented young people don't have a chance. The Rolling Stones would be too different today. In those days the record companies and media were open to new ideas. Now it's completely closed to only two or three kinds of music, and if you don't play those, you don't get signed and you are not played on the radio. So, The Rolling Stones would never make it now."

So, to a large extent, record companies have led our culture into a world of popular music without insight, heart, frailty or the spark human individuality. Worse, it is music without the courage or opportunity to experiment. Most significantly, the decline in record sales shows that it is also music without profit. I have listened to the overarching pride of the marketing men who boasted that their marketing expertise would result in an ultra-commercial industry.

What actually happened is that the public, presented with "act" after "act" of irrelevant and unoriginal music, has lost interest. Record sales have steadily plummeted since the 1990s. Because record companies are making so much less money, they now insist on signing new artists to so-called "360 deals" taking approximately 35% of their publishing, merchandising and performance income.

Those of us who care about the art of music must be grateful for the few innovative artists who break through, usually because of the internet which allows artists direct access to the public without having to go begging to a music business which is now not only past its sell-by-date and deaf but impoverished.


  S P E C I A L   O F F E R 

Special offer from Hal Leonard for readers of TheScreamOnline: receive 25% off plus free shipping (valid in the US only) by entering promo code NY9 at check out. Don't forget, that's NY9.

More about the book: In this series of intimate, in-depth interviews, Metheny reveals why he was driven toward music with a stratospheric drive and dedication; uncovers the inner workings of his creative mind, showing step by step how he set and achieved each of his own demanding goals; describes his methodology as a guitarist, improviser, and composer; and demonstrates his concepts and methodologies on the guitar. Niles has transcribed these unique musical performances for the book. Some of Metheny's closest colleagues, including Lyle Mays, Gary Burton, Jack DeJohnette, John Patitucci, Metheny's brother Mike, and the late Michael Brecker, have contributed to the book, which also includes numerous photographs and a discography.

© 2009 Richard Niles - All Rights Reserved