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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 with Linda May Han Oh and Antonio Sánchez at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Alan Nahigian)

One other thing I wanted to ask you about: [neuroscientist] Dr. Charles Lim. I was reading about your lecture at the [2018] Society for Neuroscience symposium, when you talk about what’s actually happening in the brain of a musical improviser. I remember talking with Pat Martino once, it was at a Thelonious Monk Competition, we were all the judges. I was getting there as George Benson was walking out and George looked a little puzzled and we said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I just talked to Pat Martino.” [PM laughs] And Pat Martino was talking about how when he looks at the ceiling, triangles were diminished chords and squares were augmented chords, and that’s how he saw everything, in shapes.

Well, first of all, Pat is just the greatest. One of the great thinkers too. He has really developed this whole star system of how the intervals are connected. I’m not quite sure how it all connects, but he’s awesome. And the thought of George walking out and being puzzled just tickles me. That totally fits.

From my standpoint, the interesting part of that discussion is the level of envy I have for people who have the capacity to step outside of music to be musicians. I almost can’t comprehend that. The further analogy would be somebody who sees a beautiful sunset and then writes a sunset song, or breaks up with a girl and writes a breakup song. I mean, for me, every single thing that happens has an impact on who I am and what I think and how I’m getting through the day, but at the point that I engage with music, everything is there. It’s a world that doesn’t need other things. It’s complete. It’s always been that way for me, even when I was a little kid. Of course, if we’re talking about you or I playing “The Song Is You,” and somebody’s going to say, “But we’re going to play it in E instead of C,” you and I are both going to go, “Okay, hmm,” a little bit, and to the degree that there’s a language component and we’re going to deal with that—and we both have dealt with it for many, many years—I’m sure neither one of us would have a problem with that.

But then you’re starting to get into the level of language where we’re going to go beyond teaching the eighth-grade algebra class. We both, to hang with the musicians that we’re very privileged to hang with, have to be ready to play any tune in any key at any tempo. So at that point, there is something going on, on a subconscious level—this is where Charles Lim would come into it—that to me is not too unlike how we’re talking right now. I’m not going to go, “Okay, I need a verb. What’s a verb?” I’m just going to say, “I want to talk,” because I want to talk. And when you start talking in a group of musicians, it’s sort of like, okay, you’re going to give a speech to a bunch of people who understand nuclear physics the same way you do, and you’re going to be able to use a lot of slang and jargon and arcane terminology that these guys are not going to bat an eye at, they’re going to know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s where it really gets fun. But everything I’m saying right now is all contained for me within the realm of music itself. I feel like I never have the luxury of stepping outside of that, except when I listen to it as a fan later. I mean, I’ve had the experience—and I’m sure you have too—of people coming up and talking about recordings that you’ve made and they say, “Oh, I love that part where it gets all purple.”

Yeah.

And it’s like, “Hmm. I wonder what that is.” You work and work on a record or a tune and, for me, it’s like I can never really hear it in a way till I put it in a car and go driving around while listening to it. That allows the musician thing that I’m talking about to disengage a little bit and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I can see how the guy thought that was purple.”

One thing that the last five minutes demonstrates is the fine line between musical accomplishment and mental illness. [JP laughs] You know what I mean?

“To me, the best musicians are like, ‘Look what I discovered here. I’ve been working on this for a really long time and I cannot wait to share this with you.’”

But when you talk about being in a room with a bunch of guys who all know what you’re talking about, I feel that you’ve always been able to make that accessible to the people who don’t know the jargon and the slang. And I think that’s a key component to these two pieces.

Well, that is a real compliment, John. Especially coming from you, being a master communicator yourself in your own music, something I’ve really admired over the years.

It’s like when I took Bucky to see you in 1988 at the Beacon. He didn’t know what he was in for, but he sat there and went, “This is—what’s going on?” He was so excited. I’ll never forget it.

Oh, man. That means so much. I think the only time I met your dad was in Perugia, in that weird restaurant where everybody hangs out, and I just got to say hi. But of course I grew up watching The Tonight Show [in which the elder Pizzarelli was a regular band member—Ed.], and Doc Severinsen was a family icon. And Clark Terry, that scene that he was such a part of. The whole seven-string thing and just everything about him has been so on my radar. You might not even know this, but [singer] Marilyn Maye—

Yes!

Okay, so I started playing with Marilyn when I was about 14. She’s the biggest thing out of Kansas City, ever. [JP laughs] And she’s a bad motherfucker, man. She’s incredible. And she always talked about Bucky, even then!

Back to one thing you started on, which is a key thing: that anybody could hear it and would get something out of it. To me, it’s something I recognize about the music that I respond to, just as a fan. Honestly, a lot of music from our community, I don’t understand it. Even from people who I realize are great musicians—I don’t quite get exactly what I’m supposed to get out of it, and I find it really hard to follow. Now, having said that, I’ve never had any problem following Cecil Taylor. To me, Cecil Taylor is absolutely fun to listen to. So it’s not a matter of sonority or material or genre or even conception. To me music requires, first of all, that it has an urgency to communicate—like, “You guys, you should really check this out.” And it’s not even that the musician feels like, “This is my thing.” To me, the best musicians are like, “Look what I discovered here. I’ve been working on this for a really long time and I cannot wait to share this with you.” That could be anything. It could be the Carpenters or Evan Parker or Harry Allen. To me, the issue of style or genre is almost always a political issue or a cultural issue or a dress-code issue. It usually doesn’t have anything to do with the thing. And I’m really just interested in the thing. The thing can show up in infinite ways. It makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be able to live a life inside something that’s actually real. You wake up every morning and B-flat is still B-flat.

That’s right.

It’s true. It’s a currency that’s based in truth. So I just feel so lucky to be a musician. Even though it is—and this is underreported—really hard to be a good musician, and I know you’ll agree with me there. But man, it’s so great to have that genuine, true thing sitting right in the middle of it all.

You’ve done it on so many different levels—that’s the key too. You’ve had the Group, the records with just Lyle [Mays], the trio records. There’s Song X [with Ornette Coleman], which is the one I put on once a year and go, “Let me see if I can figure this out.” I keep wanting to find the things that I can find in it. There’s a challenge to all this stuff. You constantly raise the bar for yourself and some of us are still trying to reach the bar.

I appreciate it all, John. And man, what a pleasure—getting to do this with you is incredible.

Thanks so much, Pat. It’s going to be a hell of a year for you.

I’m saying this to all of the musicians I know: This all [the pandemic, etc.] is going to be in the rearview mirror and we’re going to be meeting at the Holiday Inn at Chattanooga Highway 72 as you leave one gig and I come into the next.

I look forward to it! [Both laugh]

More on Pat Metheny’s Road to the Sun: The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and Jason Vieaux discuss the recording process