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Pat Metheny: The Spirit & Sound of Music

The guitarist/composer/bandleader on collaboration, creative exploration and more

Pat Metheny, Belgrade Jazz Festival, Oct. 2011

The folks at Entertainment Cruise Productions asked JT to interview Pat Metheny about his upcoming appearance on the Contemporary Jazz Cruise during February 4-11, 2017. Currently on tour in Europe with his Unity group, Metheny took a few moments to respond to questions via email. The Q&A below features material from that email interview in which he talked about the cruise, as well as about his approach to his own music and to collaborating creatively with other musicians.

I’d have to think that one of the real advantages for you to perform at a festival or on a cruise is the hang with the other musicians, right?

It’s true that very often the only time I get to see so many of my musician friends is backstage or at the hotel when we are sharing the bill on the same festivals around the world. Anytime I can see the people I admire the most on or off the bandstand is really a pleasure for me.

You travel so much for your music. Is it still fun for you to visit places?

It is one of the real privileges of my life that I have been to go all over the world and see so many amazing places and to meet so many incredible people. But it is always about the music for me first and foremost.

I always try to play each concert like it is the last time I will ever play no matter where it is or what the setting. I consider each opportunity to play as something unique and very special. I always get there really early and warm up and make sure we do a good sound check and do everything we can to make the night a good one for everyone. I try to put together programs that have a certain amount of variety as well as plenty of chances for which ever musicians I have brought with me during that period to shine and be inspired to do their best.

How do you manage all your different bands and projects?

I really just try to honestly represent in sound the things I love about music.

I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of genre or dividing things up into various styles of music as a way of thinking. To me, music is one big universal thing and I always try to represent that. The musicians who I have admired the most are the ones who have a deep reservoir of knowledge and insight not just about music, but about life in general and are able to illuminate the things that they love in sound. When it is a musician who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that is usually my favorite kind of player.

I feel like I am a musician in this broad sense first. And all the subsets of the way music often gets talked about in terms of the words people use to describe music is basically just a cultural/political discussion that I have found that I am really not that interested in in the same way I am interested in the spirit and sound of music itself.

As far as sound goes, I always try to let the music at hand decide what direction I go in in terms of orchestration. I am pretty happy to play in a really dense way, or a really sparse way, or really loud or really soft or all over the dynamic range, really inside the chords or outside the chords…it kind of doesn’t matter too much for me-it is whatever seems to sound best for what is happening at that particular moment.

One of the unique things about the cruise specifically and about jazz in general is the multigenerational aspect. You were the “young guy” before with legendary elders like Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins, but now you’re more senior. What’s that like to now be more of the “elder” in the band?

From the beginning, I have always been kind of non-aligned within the community in general. It seems I have always worked across a lot of borders, although I haven’t really viewed it like that in musical terms. I keep my ears open for the kinds of things that interest me. As a result, I hang out and do projects with everyone across the board at different times, from the elder giants like Roy Haynes or Ron Carter to the generation immediately older than me, like Gary, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette, to some of the guys that are a generation or so behind me like Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau and even the really new guys like Logan Richardson. To me, the essential ingredient is always the same-a deep commitment and relationship to music. That is maybe the one constant thing that all the players I am attracted to seem to have. I always try to offer them the same. That has been always been the main thing for me.

How do you relate to your audience and fans? Do they inspire you?

While I always feel my first and most important task is to answer to the music at hand as best I can, I have always tried to bring a basic level of consideration to the people who come to the concerts in terms of presentation. I always try to play in a way that I hope will clarify and illuminate the spirit and intentions of the music that I am interested in during that period in the best way I can. I do think people are much more willing to accept a much wider spectrum of possibilities than they are sometimes given credit for and I work under that assumption. You can’t get into the Museum of Modern Art on a weekend, it is packed. In a film score, you can write the most complex 12 tone thing imaginable and people have no problem with it if it fits with what is going on and has an intentional clarity to it. It only takes a few touches to invite people into a world, a few gestures of welcome and people will almost always be willing to go on trip and discover new things. I always assume the audience is at least as hip as the band. I might be right or I might be wrong, but I have found that that is a good place to start.

You’ve written so many great songs that have become like standards. How do you balance performing the songs that people love and want to hear with new material?

What is nice is that by this point along the way, people seem to know that I have never just done the same thing over and over and even kind of expect me to keep coming up with something new each time. I have many different ways of thinking about music myself, even as a fan of music, and I have always felt like it was an essential part of my thing to be very honest about all of it and really follow through with each idea to the best of my ability. So it is kind of a built in thing with me.

However, regarding older tunes, to me, they are all still fun to play. I don’t think there is anything from any period where I go, “Wow, what was I thinking there?” So yes, I quite freely draw from earlier periods if it seems resonant to a particular evening or performance or features the strengths of a particular musician that might be featured in whatever the current thing is. I always try to put together a program each day that will be challenging and fun to play and hopefully will be fun for the folks who come to check it out as it will be for me to be standing on the bandstand playing it.

Originally Published