Q&A: PAT METHENY AND HIS NEW MUSICAL UNITY

After almost four decades and 19 Grammys, Pat Metheny continues to be one of the most talked about artists in modern music. Who would think that in the summer of 2012 we would get a glimpse of where his journey began – plus a round trip ticket to the place that, for Metheny, is at the very heart of what playing in a band is about?

The new album, Unity Band, takes its name from Unity Village, not far from where he grew up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. For over 100 years, the Metheny family has enjoyed a friendship with the Unity founders, and in his formidable youth, Pat performed alongside his father and brother in a band of the same name. Not only does the new album commemorate a return to the rooted philosophy that music can be a unified way of thinking, but it’s the first time in more than 30 years that a Metheny project would come to feature the saxophone as a fundamental, partnering force on the front lines.

These past few months have seen the band touring large festivals and concert halls around the world, but this week’s rendezvous in Seattle will offer the program in a radically different context, with performances being held over four consecutive nights at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, beginning September 13th.

The highly successful and influential double album, 80/81, featured one of the most compelling ensembles in jazz, with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden (both of whom had a long association with Ornette Coleman), as well as giants Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette. The idea of revisiting this group was promising, but unfortunately, never happened again, as by the beginning of 2007, both Dewey and Michael passed away within four months of each other. For Pat, the thought of planning another project around the saxophone lingered distantly, until he and Chris Potter were invited to play on Antonio Sanchez’s debut album, Migration. Their connection was instantaneous and very responsive to the flow of ideas that surrounded both the compositions and improvisation. Its lasting effect planted the seed for something bigger.

For those already familiar with Chris’ output as a composer, as well in performance with luminaries like Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, and Paul Motian, it’s hardly a stretch to assume that his versatility and incredible work ethic would be an asset to Metheny’s idea for the Unity Band. Having played a lot with Antonio Sanchez certainly pays dividends, as the drummer has remained a close associate of Metheny for the better part of ten years, appearing on two trio records, as well as the last two Pat Metheny Group records, Speaking of Now and The Way Up. There’s an inherent power to the way all three individuals approach their instruments, which absolutely set the tone for how the material would be developed. Then enter bassist Ben Williams, who first became acquainted with Metheny through an event Christian McBride was leading at Julliard, and who subsequently would be called in to sub on a handful of trio dates. A melodically gifted player with an intuition and genuine feel for space, Ben takes his role in a similar direction to Jaco Pastorius, giving the drummer plenty to draw upon in the way of ideas, while sustaining a boldness and durability from deep inside the pocket.

The nine songs that span the Unity Band album encompass a wide diversity of sounds in both acoustic and electronic settings, including a cameo appearance from Metheny’s Orchestrion, which is literally a robotic instrument of orchestral proportions designed around instructions that are delivered entirely from his guitar. In listening to the new album, the merits of the 80/81 band are further substantiated by a concept Metheny continues to further distill – utilizing the very best combination of timing, resources, and talent as a way to unify ideas and create music that satisfies the highest level of expression.

In anticipation of the band’s Seattle visit, Pat took some time to chat about what’s happening now, a series of excursions that range from the art of recording, the greatness of Bach, ECM memoirs, the upcoming Orchestrion DVD, and ghosts of PMG past and future.

SMI: We’re very much forward looking to your Seattle visit with the Unity Band. As you’ve said recently, and what is certainly exemplary on the Unity Band album, this is a group of musicians who can do just about anything. While there’s a wealth of musical terrain being traversed, the opening and closing tunes seem to directly identify the group itself, and at times invoke the essence of 80/81 from 30 years ago. While the period and personnel were completely different, did the experience of creating 80/81 find its way back to you during the process of putting together what would become the Unity Band Album?

Metheny: Well, you know that time when we did 80/81 was a very different cast of characters, and my chronological connection to the two different casts is different too, in the sense that when playing in the 80/81 band I was 15 years younger than all of those guys. Now I’m the older guy, you know, so it’s different in that respect. Every time I make a record I hope going into it that it will have some kind of distinctive character that will set it apart as being unique. What is a little curious – and I have to admit this to myself, is that in the course of the life I’ve had as a musician, and having done so many things with so many other musicians in different settings, on my own I’ve only really done two records that are conventional rhythm section plus horn-type records. And yet, I’m happy to say that both of them have that distinctive quality I think – where you say 80/81 and you almost get a picture in your mind of what that band was, how it worked together. It was Charlie and Jack playing together, which was at that time a new thing, and of course Dewey and Mike played great. With this band too my hope was that it would have character to it, seeing how there’s a lot of real generic jazz out there, with good players playing good - it sounds fine and everything’s okay to where it kind of almost doesn’t matter what they play – it sounds great. To me that would have been as much of a mistake as if it had not sounded good. You know, it took a little doing, and it took time to pick just the right guys. Of course a lot of this is built around Chris, who is a musician that I have admired for a really long time. Once I got him excited about doing this, which didn’t take much because he always wanted to do something too, then it was a matter of putting the whole thing together. Also, I wrote a lot of music for this. For the nine tunes that are on there I think I wrote 25 or 27 tunes total. We went and played a few gigs before we recorded, and I really wanted it to find its own thing through the material and through the band itself. And yet I do think there will always be some kind of a connection to 80/81 – because it’s me, and I write a certain kind of way and with a certain kind of sound. But I also think that there’s a distinction between the two as well.

SMI: I was really delighted to hear Chris Potter in this context, having appreciated and followed his work over the last decade or so. His depth as an instrumentalist and a composer has always been there, both as a leader and with artists like Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, and Paul Motian. With the Unity Band it was awesome to see this sort of limitless expression coming through. It felt like he was a fan of 80/81 too, just with the kind of affection he brought to the playing.

Metheny: Chris is a really special musician. I’ve been around a lot of great, great musicians over the years, and I’m really lucky for that. He’s in the very, very small group, and at the very top for me on just every kind of level. The other thing about Chris that I admire so much, and I mean there’s a lot I admire about him… He’s a hard worker. He spends a lot of time researching and coming up with things, developing and asking questions. It’s really nice to see that. I mean he’s obviously supremely talented, but talent will only get you so far. What goes hand in hand with the work is asking the harder questions, and that’s what he’s doing. I can’t talk enough about how much I admire him.

SMI: It was a treat to hear Ben Williams in this band too, a younger player who’s had so much going on since winning the Thelonious Monk competition three years ago. It feels like he came to the table with a uniquely open disposition to all of the songs, and also possesses this prominent and unusually rich tone that really sets him apart as an individual.

Metheny: I knew right away after hearing Ben play that he had something special to say. He’s a wonderful musician, and a wonderful guy, and that open mindedness in his approach made him a perfect choice for this band.

SMI: The Orchestrion track Signals was a surprising and incredibly fun listen. Like so many others, I followed you on that journey, seeing how you developed this instrument from the ground up. As with your signature Roland GR-300 guitar synth and 42-string Pikasso guitar, all of these innovations have become a part of your story. I love that you continue to bring them along for the ride, carrying your experience forward into each new chapter, as it truly mirrors that richness in life.

Metheny: Thank you for all the embedded compliments, man. I really appreciate that. I do think there are a lot of musicians who go through different periods in their lives, almost like a snake that sheds its skin. It’s like, “Okay, for this year I’m using this gear, and I’m playing this way in this band. And now that it’s over I’ll never do that again, and so now onto the next thing.” For me it’s never been that way. I feel like I’m… well, what’s the term? Oh yeah! Like, since this is a Seattle thing, I’m backwards compatible to version ‘1’ of me (laughs). I can still play all the tunes on Bright Size Life, and that would be fine. It still feels like a viable platform to me. The basic premise that was set up there is still worth looking at, and that’s kind of remained true all along the way. I don’t even know if I can think of anything where I would say, “Oh man, that’s really a bad idea. I’ll never do that again.” It’s more like, “Okay, so I’m building this house that has all these extra rooms now.” It’s not like I’m going to tear down the house and build a new one. I keep adding new little additions to it, and if it’s something that can advance the plot of an idea in a certain kind of way that’s appropriate for what that musical question seems to be asking, then it’s still a place to go for me.

SMI: It certainly comes across that way, because it appears you really take the time to carefully weigh your decisions with every project that surfaces. I think the last Pat Metheny Group record, The Way Up, is a really fine example of having arrived at a pinnacle, historically. Maybe it was a kind of closure – not for the band itself, but in that the music seemed to be waiting for you on the other side of this long arc of development as a collective, inclusive of concepts that could have stretched over decades. Having had the satisfaction of realizing a work on that scale, and then the subsequent break, would you say it facilitated a change in perspective?

Metheny: Oh yeah, I mean, one thing about the whole group thing that kept it going over this amount of time has been our decision for taking breaks. Mostly, it’s me going to do all of these other things that I can, then bring back to that experience as well. And yes, I think one thing that’s great about the group idea is that it can be just about anything. It’s really open-ended in terms of what it might be, or where it could go, and I‘ve always carried around with me a long list of things that I hope to achieve within the context of a group like that – specifically that group. Like for instance, The Way Up was one of those things. We should do one tune that should last for the entire record. You know, that whole idea has been really exciting, the reality of having a band that can be anything. It can be very electric, it could be very acoustic, it could be very loud, it could be very soft – and sometimes all within the same tune. And to me that’s a viable way to think about playing.

SMI: And speaking of being backward compatible, I remember you acknowledging in the liner notes for The Way Up such influential artists as Eberhard Weber and Steve Reich, which of course begs an inquiry into your chapter with ECM Records. Having found yourself around these artists during such a prolific period, what was it like to come from your Kansas City roots, suddenly join Gary Burton’s band, and then in a very short time be in such far-away places as Germany and Norway to meet and collaborate with such an array of talent?

Metheny: If you can imagine the greatness! I’ve always been so lucky and so fortunate to have those kinds of opportunities, not the least of which was just the thing of getting to play in Gary’s band, which literally for me was like joining the Beatles! That was my favorite band, and if I never did anything except play a couple of gigs with Gary Burton, I would have been very happy in my life. So, you know, to not only have that happen, where I got to play in Gary’s band for three years, but also get involved with ECM right at the very beginning of its story, and then, like you say, collaborate a lot with Eberhard, and then doing Steve’s thing later – I mean, it’s a long, long list of things like that, where I just kind of feel unbelievably lucky to have been able to participate… and that continues to now. The fact that I get gigs and get to go play is something that I never take for granted at all. It’s a real privilege.

SMI: Your work from a standpoint of the art of the studio is in a way equally accomplished, in that you’ve had the opportunity to work with many wonderful engineers like Jan Erik Kongshaug, Rob Eaton, and of course David Oakes, who helped you to realize your sound on stage. The role he grew became almost cinematic in nature. Was there something about your experience with ECM and establishing the PMG that enabled you to get to this point, resulting in making records that can virtually stand on their own as audio films?

Metheny: Well, I think that’s always been an intriguing element for me. I’ve always tried to put together what can be a singular experience from beginning to end, whether it’s the group, or the current record. I mean the whole thing of like the way a record is sequenced – the choices that you make in terms of who engineers, and how it’s mastered. I do spend what appears to be quite a bit more time on that stuff than a lot of people typically would. And the particulars of doing music that has a sort of storytelling aspect to it, like what you described as the cinematic thing – these qualities come out in tunes like First Circle, or maybe As Falls Wichita…, or something like that. There’s that, or just playing four choruses on the blues (laughs). The whole idea for me is to tell a story and to hopefully come up with a result that will transcend the form of what it is, and goes to that other place where music really kind of begins, where it’s this very unique descriptive mechanism to talk about the things that make life “life,” you know. Those things show up in lots of different forms for me. In contrast, I almost envy people where it’s like, “I’m pretty happy just kind of playing trio. I’m just going to do that.” It doesn’t work that way for me. I’m very restless and curious about lots and lots of different things, obviously. It takes quite a bit more time for me to kind of get through my musical day in that respect, because I’m really kind of looking at a lot of different things all at the same time.

SMI: Musical influences seem to stream into your life from everywhere, regardless of the period or genre. There are many masters who have come and gone, but through recordings can continue to live on in their music, whether it’s Miles, Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Michael Brecker, and then of course any of the great classical composers. As we make headway into the 21st century, has there been a moment when you felt the presence of someone you once knew, either through the act of playing, or even in the dreamy sense when hearing something in your head that felt like a sign or spark of inspiration?

Metheny: I look around the scene and I see incredible musicians all over the place doing all kinds of amazing things, and yet at the same time there’s a standard that to me is really there in music. You’ve described it very well through the names – It’s guys like Coltrane, Miles, Charlie Parker, and Bach. I mean, that’s really the one that I’ve lived by. I’m constantly thinking like, “Wow. How could someone have come up with these particular decisions one after another that add up to something so great?” Especially when I think about Bach, for instance – ideas that are just so bulletproof from bar to bar. That may be the greatest human achievement of all time, you know, just the level of diligence that’s represented there. So if I look around and I think, “Okay, I’m going to compare everything to Bach,” just about everybody falls a little short of that, you know? The good thing about that is there’s something to really aspire to. On the planet right now there are a couple of guys that for me are kind of in an exalted territory. To me Keith Jarrett sort of comes to mind. There aren’t too many musicians I can think of in history who have that amount of music available to them at any moment. You know, it’s exciting to see that. Every chance I get to see Keith I always go. And yet at the same time there are many, many individuals who have something so unique and special that I get inspiration from them too, you know – people who have a real strong point of view that allows their sound to be absolutely distinct from anybody else. That in itself is an incredible accomplishment, and there are a lot of people who are in that category. I’m always looking to learn and to hear new things all the time. I’m a big fan of music, so I’ve always got my ears to the ground.

SMI: Having heard you talk about your influences, which really cover all music – The Beatles, Miles, and even recalling Pantera in reference to an interview back around the time of the Imaginary Day record, these qualities certainly remain evident in all you’ve done. Is there anyone in history that you never had the chance to meet, and you wished you could have crossed paths or played with

Metheny: The Charlie Parker thing for me is just unbelievable, that anybody could play like that. I would have loved to have heard him live. Him and Trane, I mean, those are the two guys that really impacted me. I did get to hear Wes Montgomery just before he died. I was 13. I even got his autograph, and that was in April of ’68, and then he died in June of ’68. At least I got to experience that. Of course I heard Miles a lot over the years. But mostly it’s amazing to me that we live in a period where the recordings exist. You can still listen to those guys. It’s incredible.

SMI: It’s amazing for me too, just because I didn’t come into the world until the mid 70’s. So to be able to get really deep into those guys, just through recordings, I just think is magic.

Metheny: Yes.

SMI: When the Orchestrion album was happening and you were touring for it, I remember seeing a mention on your website that there was going to be a DVD. I saw the directors you were working with, Pierre and Francois Lamoureux, and then all of a sudden it disappeared from the website. Was there something that needed to happen ahead of its release, besides the obligatory post-production and mastering, and everything else?

Metheny: Exactly. It’s very complicated. A lot of the things that have happened in the music industry have also happened to the DVD world too. So just getting funding to finish things took time. I’m happy to say it’s all finished, and it’s coming out on Blu-ray DVD in 3D/HD/IMAX, and whatever else (laughs). It’s like this super high quality thing, and coming out on October 7th. Also there will be a soundtrack album out in January. It’s actually the same music, but put together in a different way – mastered in a different way, and mixed in a different way. It was fun to do the video aspect of it, and we got something good, but it served another purpose for me. While I was making the Orchestrion I really had no idea what I was doing (laughs), and in a good way, because nobody had ever done it before. It was this leap into completely uncharted territory. By the time that whole thing was over and I did 140 concerts around the world, it kind of became my axe. I really owned it in a way. It’s seems valuable to me to go ahead and put out an album as well, just as a sonic experience. Somehow it sort of finished the whole thing for me, so those two releases will be coming out in fairly close proximity to each other.

SMI: Did you choose Pierre and Francois right out of the gate, or did you stumble upon their work with the impression that these guys could really handle this type of an undertaking?

Metheny: They heard about us, and about the project, then kind of came to us. They seemed to be a good fit based on their previous experiences. They definitely seemed to understand the challenges of it too, because it was kind of unique. It was very different than just going and filming a concert somewhere.

SMI: That’s fantastic. I absolutely can’t wait to see it, and can’t wait to see the Unity band in Seattle. It always feels so generous that you stop through and often times play multiple dates here. And now for a moment, when looking into the future, are there several things in the hopper that you already have plans to move forward with, or are you just leaving it open right now and subject to surprise?

Metheny: Yes, I would say subject to surprise, you know. I think everybody knows what’s due right about now, including me. I’m looking forward to a new PMG thing, and that’s what I’m kind of writing towards now. We expect to make a record next year, and tour the year after that. A bunch of other things under consideration too, but that’s the main thing on the horizon.

SMI: Wonderful. Being a keyboard player myself, and having met Lyle before, it’s just so awesome and inspiring to see how the two of you come together and create new things that eventually become group records. With As Falls Witchita remaining sort of emblematic as a duo concept, it’s great that you’ve continued the relationship in so many different contexts, maintaining contact and reconvening through all of these peaks and valleys.

Metheny: Oh yeah, it’s fun! It’s always a blast to do the group thing. It’s unlike anything else, and that in itself makes it extra special. Not to mention all the history that it has now, for just the longevity factor. There are a few cool things in play there.

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Jonathan Sindelman