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Pat Metheny Talks Composition with John Pizzarelli

Two masters of their instrument share thoughts on guitar and pen

Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny (photo: Jimmy Katz)

Because I’ve been a Pat Metheny fan for decades (who hasn’t?), it came as a wonderful surprise to be asked to interview him for his new project, Road to the Sun. We had been circling each other for about six years, beginning with my father Bucky’s stroke in October of 2015. Pat was gracious enough to write a get-well-soon email that I read to my father, who replied, “Didn’t we meet him in Perugia?” In fact we had, at the Umbria Jazz festival in 1999. Before that, I had taken my father to see Pat at the Beacon Theater in 1988. During that concert, my dad was taken by the different guitars Pat played and started to name them: “He’s got the classical … that’s the Gibson …” The synth guitar for “Are You Going with Me?” was “the screamer.”

Pat and I exchanged emails about guitars and music every once in a while, vowing to get together when time would permit. Unfortunately, a pandemic got in the way. My father passed away on April 1, 2020 and there was Pat again, writing me a condolence email this time. To quell my grief, I sat down with Pat’s tunes for a number of months. That work resulted in a record called Better Days Ahead: my own solo guitar arrangements of several Metheny favorites.

Cut to a few months ago and my receipt of Road to the Sun—two brilliant new Metheny works, one for solo guitar (the four-movement “Four Paths of Light,” played by classical virtuoso Jason Vieaux) and one for four guitars (the six-movement “Road to the Sun,” played by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet). The editors at JazzTimes wondered if I’d want to talk to Pat about the project, and before the question was finished I had said yes.

I’ve always felt that as a composer, Pat is like a modern-day Aaron Copland, and that’s on top of his amazing guitar playing. I’m thrilled to have had the chance to talk to him about the process of writing this unique work.

PAT METHENY: John, I cannot believe what you did, man. You didn’t tell me that you were doing a record! And it’s actually going to come out? Unbelievable.

JOHN PIZZARELLI: Well, I had made a couple of videos [of solo Metheny arrangements], and my buddy said, “Stop making videos and make the record!”

Wow, I mean, God, what an honor. Really. I’m blown away by that.

Well, they’re great songs! You’re a great composer. That’s basically what this whole thing is about. It’s amazing what you did on these two pieces. The guitar players must be ecstatic—the quartet and Jason—just to have music written by a guitarist of your caliber with those composition skills.

I sent you the scores last night, did you get them?

I did, it’s like reading the lyrics, you know? It’s wonderful how you figured out where everybody’s voices are, what lanes they’re in. And it gets back to you being a guitar player and knowing where all that stuff lays on a guitar. It’s a guitar player composing for guitar players. It’s so seldom that I think that happens.

The main headline for me in this is that it’s the first time that I’ve presented a project where there’s no improvising at all. The story is entirely contained within the notes on the page. In a lot of ways, the instrument that those guys play is a completely different instrument than the instrument that I play. However, as you pointed out, John, at least I understand the geography of the left hand. And from those guys’ standpoint, that was probably the part that was most welcome to them, because they both play a lot of commissioned pieces, and there’s a lot of weird stuff about the guitar—at least I could get in the ballpark of understanding that. And this was, in both pieces, unusual for me in the sense that I was holding a guitar and referencing a guitar. Mostly I write everything on piano because it’s infinitely easier than guitar.

Really?

Oh, yeah. If you’ve got a good piano that’s just been tuned and you play a good voicing, people think you’re a genius. But guitar, it might take 10 years to just make a chord sound good. Very early on, Steve Swallow pulled my coattails on that and said, “You know, you should write on the piano because if you write on the guitar you’re going to get pulled to those [guitar-ish] things.” It was really good advice. This was back in the early ’70s. So lots of the time I write music and it’s like, “Wow, there’s no guitar part on this. I’m supposed to be this famous guitar player, I better figure out something to play.” If it is going to be a guitar thing, I’ll check it on the guitar, but mostly I’m thinking in terms of ideas.

Didn’t Jerry Goldsmith say something once like, “When you write for the guitar, you only end up writing what you can play”?

Well, he took it even further than that. His thing was not just guitar. [It was] “You jazz guys, when you write music, you only write things you can play.” And you know what? He got me. It was like, “Yeah, you’re right about that.” As much as I’m not writing on the guitar to avoid the gravitational pull of certain things, my severe limitations in the keyboard realm are also a factor. The third part of my thing, again going back to the late ’70s, has been a computer. I’ve been living on the bleeding edge of all that stuff, constantly throwing things between those three realms. Right now it’s just an incredible time to be a musician, thanks to Sibelius [composition software] and all of the unbelievable tools that we have at our disposal.

“If you’ve got a good piano that’s just been tuned and you play a good voicing, people think you’re a genius. But guitar, it might take 10 years to just make a chord sound good.”

So how did you approach the quartet piece? You were somewhere just with your guitar and you started to create those four parts and mapped out how that was going to go? Walk me through the process.

First, just a word about the L.A. Guitar Quartet. It’s a bit like the Kronos Quartet in the sense that there’s always been string quartets, but Kronos came along and started commissioning composers to write music just for them. They looked a little different than your normal string quartet, they created a new vibe around it. The L.A. quartet is very similar. Starting literally 20 years ago, I would meet those guys individually and they would go to concerts or I would see them in the airport, you know, as we always do, and they would say, “Oh, could you write something for us?” And I’m so busy, it wasn’t something I had time for. But the seed was planted, and I was on a vacation with the family in Guadeloupe—I guess it was about three years ago—and we happened to have this great room that had a sort of balcony area above where everybody was sleeping. I would get up early, four or five every morning, go up there and work on music, to get three or four hours of uninterrupted grazing time. And this thing, which ends up being the first movement of “Road to the Sun,” spilled out over the course of about five minutes. Then over the rest of the vacation, I would go up there every morning and just follow it through. By the end of 10 days, I had a 30-minute sketch. Just the basic stuff, one line, maybe sometimes two lines. And I thought, “This is going to be great for those guys.”

Then the hard part comes. Which is, you have to tell them everything. We’re used to giving the drummer four chord changes and we’re going to get a 45-minute symphony out of that. No. These guys, you’ve got to tell them everything. That’s the world they live in. And also, as familiar as I was with them as a band, I really wanted to understand what each of them sounded like, what each of their strengths were, just like I would with any band I would have. You want to aim things toward the stuff that people do well. So, in between breaks, I would work on the heavy lifting, developing the score that you now have with each guy’s part written specifically for them. There’s stuff in there that I would do without even thinking about it, but to notate that—that was quite an enriching experience, to get deep inside what is actually going on when I’m playing a lot of stuff that I just kind of play all the time.

Mixed in with all of that was Jason, which was strictly a fan thing for me. I heard Jason for the first time about 20 years ago doing Bach. And he is maybe the best Bach guitar guy, certainly since Julian Bream. Sometimes he almost reminds me of Glenn Gould.

Wow.

But one of the things that’s unique about Jason is, he can also talk for two hours about Metallica and Pantera. A really interesting, broad-range musician. I wanted to write something for him just because I love the way he plays. And yes, you do want to take advantage of people’s strengths, but I also feel like if you hire some heavy cat for your band, you have an obligation to challenge them. When I write for Christian McBride, I’m like, “Okay, I want to try to come up with something that he won’t be able to sight-read.” You know? [JP laughs]

Antonio [Sánchez] is a great example. I’ve been lucky enough to have him in my various bands for twenty-some years now. Every time I’m writing, I’m thinking, having him in the band is like having Albert Einstein in your math department. You don’t want to ask him to teach eighth-grade algebra—he could probably be the greatest eighth-grade algebra teacher ever, but you don’t want to say, “Hey, Albert, what about this?” So, for these pieces, I was also very aware that I wanted to give those guys some stuff that would push them.

But it’s not just like, “Here’s a difficult piece for the guitar.” It’s also got such an arc to it.

I started writing music early on, and there was definitely something I wanted to get to, even at age 15 or 16, that was like fitting a square object into a round hole, or the other way around sometimes, with this way I wanted to play. And I wrote this tune, it’s called “April Joy,” which I then did record. You recorded part of it on your album! That was actually the first thing I ever wrote, and I had the amazing experience of handing out the music to the rhythm-section guys … and they actually played what I wrote. And then I could play this way I wanted to play. I got this thing like, “Wow, if you write something down, people will play it.” There’s a certain authority that notes on a page have that’s different than if you say, “Hey, could you play bum-ba-bum?” And what makes this project uniquely satisfying is that as much as I’ve got these pieces where there are like 30 pages of written music, it does involve at some point somebody having to improvise. These pieces, 100 years from now, somebody’s going to be able to pick up the score and they’re going to be able to get that complete arc—it’s built into this. The history of this music is in a lot of ways a reaction against that, so it’s kind of funny that 66 years in, now I’m there, to a bunch of notes on a page.

There are places, though—like in the fifth movement of “Road to the Sun”—where I feel like you’ve written little solos. They’re composed, obviously, but you can hear, “Oh, there’s Pat Metheny in there.” And in the second movement of “Four Paths of Light,” I keep waiting for Toninho Horta to start singing. I hear so many things that have affected you over the years.

Yeah, I know the part you’re talking about in that fifth movement. That would’ve been about the seventh day of the vacation. The relationship between improvising and composing is interesting. This is an analogy I’ve used a few times along the way, but it’s a good one: They’re totally related activities that happen at completely different temperatures. I can sit in a room writing something and spend two weeks thinking, “Should that be a B-flat or an A?” Tomorrow, “Yeah, that should be a B.” “No, that should be an A.” But when you’re on the bandstand and there’s Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave Holland, you’ve got to decide—okay, it’s B-flat! Everything that leads to that decision is the same. In “Road to the Sun,” pretty much what happens in the first 40 seconds or so, the next half-hour or so is exploring that. That’s the same to me if you’re going to play a blues, that thing of keeping ideas going through time. Maybe the biggest role model for me in this department is Monk. Every idea goes right to the next one—one tune after another, there’s these incredible little models of development.

I think about your early stuff that I recorded and there’s a lot in a “jazz” kind of form, AABA, so it’s amazing how you talk about six movements of developing one little melody. The idea of continuing a four-bar phrase over such a long period of time is fascinating to me.

Well, we share a general appreciation, I think, of great songs—the so-called American Songbook—and to be able to write a good AABA kind of thing is at least as hard, maybe harder, than writing The Way Up or something like that. For me, it’s actually hard to write more lively things. Not hard, but my natural thing is just to play ballads all the time. I wake up every day and write a couple of those.