Like most solo acoustic guitar recordings, Pat Metheny's What It’s All About [Nonesuch] is pared-down and introspective. But it would be inaccurate to say that it embodies an aesthetic of simplicity.
Throughout this recital of ten songs that were aesthetic guideposts of his childhood (it’s the first he’s ever done that contains no original pieces), the 57-year-old guitarist—an international star since his early 20s, and one of the most distinguished improviser-composers of his generation—deploys rarefied levels of harmonic wisdom and technical derring-do while creating dense, ingenious orchestrations.
Still, no matter how thick the sonic palette, Metheny’s interpretations of such Top 40 ‘60s chestnuts as “The Sound of Silence,” “Cherish,” “Alfie,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “And I Love Her,” and “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” follow a lyric melodic arc, fulfilling his ongoing imperative, as he put it to me in 1999, of “wanting to play things that even if you don't know anything about the chords you could still kind of sing it.”
In a sense, What It’s All About is a follow-up to the Grammy-winning 2001 solo acoustic record One Quiet Night, both recorded in the wee hours in Metheny’s New York home, on the same specially-tuned baritone guitar—custom made by Canadian luthier Linda Manzer—that he plays on two-thirds of the current recital. Over the ensuing decade, Metheny states in the publicity materials, “I have performed with the baritone in that tuning all over the world in what must be hundreds of concerts by now, often beginning each show solo with just that instrument.”
He adds: “It has become a fairly significant new voice for me. While on tour, once sound check is over, I often sit onstage and continue to play that instrument for hours before the show starts, on occasion picking out songs that I used to love as a kid but had never played in public. The range and timbre of the baritone with its deep bass and the unique clustery types of voicings that become possible with it lend it to a certain way of rethinking conventional harmonies.”
September 17 found Metheny in Yakima, Washington, for the first concert of the month-long American leg of a three-month tour supporting What It’s All About. We caught up with him via email a few days before his departure.
You said ten years ago: “I would like to do a record someday of a whole bunch of the songs in general that I love - tunes that just speak to me. I don’t think that they would all come from just one composer.” Does What It’s All About qualify as that?
I guess ten years is about the average gestation time for an idea like that!
You perform seven of the tunes on acoustic baritone guitar, and one apiece on the 42-string “Pikasso,” six-string guitar, and nylon string guitar. Is the process of matching instrument with music an intuitive one? Does it emerge through trial-and-error? I’m also interested in how long it takes you to develop a point of view on a particular song; some of the treatments are highly orchestrated and dense, more in what you’ve described as your “filling up the canvas” mode than preoccupied with “space and silence.”
It wasn’t clear to me that I was making a record until about three tracks in...and then I got more serious about it. I made sure the mics were all aimed in the right general direction and paid attention to recording levels and such - something that I had neglected to do on the previous solo baritone record.
It also emerged pretty quickly that this was in fact that record you referenced before - all songs from a particular era and to be the first record where the focus was on other people’s compositions rather than my own. This all happened in the context of the end of a five-year period where I wrote a LOT of notes for a few very dense records and did a few things in terms of context and form that were pretty ambitious.
This felt both like an extension and break from all of that, but it does remain kind of inextricably linked to the Orchestrion project for me - two very different sides of the same coin of presenting music solo and having to come up with results that hopefully kept the plot moving.
You remarked to Guitar Player in 2001 that during the early ‘70s, when you briefly attended the University of Miami and spent two years on the faculty of Berklee School of Music, you were “very dogmatic in wanting to push the guitar to new places in how it was used in jazz, because guitar players were so far behind other instrumentalists.” Two questions: a) Do you continue to think along these lines—taking risks, expanding the potentials of your instruments? (Your recent leader projects would seem to indicate that the answer is yes.); b) What’s your opinion of the present state of “jazz” guitar, and who are some of the younger guitarists that you favor?
Question a: Yes, you answered that correctly.
Question b: There are a bunch of great players out there. Pasquale Grasso is an extremely musical and exciting force. I like Armand Hirsch and Gilad Hekselmen. But there are many others. (I assume you are really talking about the young guys as opposed to the “older” 30s guys.)
Your upcoming tour takes you cross-country for a month with Larry Grenadier, ending with six nights at Manhattan’s Blue Note. A week off, and then you add Bill Stewart and bring the trio to Europe and the Mideast, from October 22 (Sofia) to December 4 (Athens). Your itinerary for the first month comprises one-nighters with only a few off days. This is road warrior stuff (four gigs in five nights in Poland in November, for example). Why do you continue to tour at this pace?
I love playing. Every chance I get to play is a privilege for me. I feel very lucky to get so many opportunities to be around great musicians and audiences and to bring ideas out into the world and continue the research.
Does some different quality get expressed with the Grenadier-Stewart trio—or the Christian McBride-Antonio Sanchez Trio that you worked with mid-decade—than the Pat Metheny Group?
Each set of individuals takes on a collective identity and I love being able to usher in new music that hopefully challenges myself and the guys in the band while also maximizing the attributes that make me want to hire someone or put some combination of guys together in the first place, which is often based on a particular musical quest or story that wants to get told.
I have had a lot of fun mixing and matching different bass players and drummers who had never worked together before like Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes and Dave Holland, Jaco [Pastorius] and [Bob] Moses and most recently Antonio and Christian. But there have been a few that were teams that loved each other and had played together a lot before too like Charlie and Billy [Higgins] and Larry and Bill. Each one of those bands has had a very distinctive identity and that has been really nice to have happen over all these years.
The PMG is a totally different thing that honestly I can’t compare to anything else, which is part of why it remains so attractive to me. It can be, and has been, literally anything. The range of things that we have done over the years is very wide and it has all held up well. I look forward to the next round one of these years. Part of what has allowed it to go on for so long (35 years now) has been significant breaks along the way. When that band goes out on the road, it is usually a year straight. I have three young kids at home now, which makes something like that more difficult.
I may get into trouble with you for this question because of your resistance to the notion of stylistic category—but here goes. Each tune on What It’s All About resonated deeply with you during formative years. Yet, they do emanate from what, to me, are different food groups — rock, folk, film, adult pop, soul, etc. Apart from your personal regard for these tunes, do they, in your opinion, share any qualities that reflect the “zeitgeist” of these years?
There is no question that these tunes have a place at the table in the culture that speaks in ways that transcend the nuts and bolts of what makes them have the musical result that they wind up having. But honestly, as a musician, I kind of have a connection to a “food group” analogy that remains somewhat oblivious to the more superficial “where did it come from” issue and more about the “what is it made of” thing. By that, “Alfie” would be an amazing composition whether it was in a film and became a hit record or not; even if no one ever heard it, it would speak with a certain earned authority within the syntax of music itself.
That quality is all I really care about. What is maybe at work here is that all of these pieces (with the exception of maybe "Pipeline") carry a wealth of currency in that domain - they are just great tunes. The intersection of that greatness with their popularity and influence would be something to consider and certainly people will and have. But for me, they were tunes that I literally grew up with, some of which made an impact on me before I even knew what a chord was. That seemed like something worth re-visiting from this other perch across a span of time. For me, when I hear the result, it is kind of revealing in ways that surprised me. That is always good when you get some of that after a record is done.
Speaking of zeitgeist, the publicity materials state that the Grammy-winning solo album, One Quiet Night, gestated—as did What It’s All About—in a late night recording made at home not long after September 11, 2001, and that you’ve played the baritone guitar in the tuning you explored on that evening in subsequent performances over the decade. The tenth anniversary is upon us. With benefit of a certain distance, can you reflect on the impact of these events—if any—upon your musical production over this time span?
As time has gone on, as someone who lives in NYC where this was all a very local event, yes, it is clear in retrospect that that record was very much affected by what happened.
And honestly, since I am writing this almost ten years to the day after that, I think it isn’t a coincidence that the new one follows it right at this moment, even if I didn’t quite realize it at the time.
On September 9, you played a benefit concert for New York’s Jazz Gallery, a prominent venue for the gestation of experimental music over the past 15 years. It makes me think of a remark from the 2001 Jazziz interview that you present on your website: “I keep waiting for some kids to come along and really make me rethink everything I know - and that hasn’t happened for me since I first heard Jaco. But I bet it will soon.” This is somewhat related to an earlier question, but...ten years later, has anyone come along? What jazz/creative musicians impress you these days, and why? Do you have positive feelings about the state of jazz circa 2011? What does it mean to you, at 57, to be a jazz musician?
I remain an enthusiastic fan and supporter of the music and I do my best to stay up on who is playing what and what is going on. There is certainly more fluency than ever and out of that fluency will undoubtedly emerge some amazing results as has already happened with some great bands playing at the Gallery and Smalls and all over town, Brooklyn too.
The standard for me is high. It is Gary Burton, someone who not only plays consistently great every night, but who also really authored a way of playing and hearing that is as original as it is robust. Herbie is like that for me too, as was Jaco. Freddie Hubbard was that. Wes Montgomery was that. Keith Jarrett is that. Wayne Shorter is that. Where by just saying their name, you can get a whole sound, a whole conception of music comes to mind that is clear and yet kind of infinite in its potential. And yet, in all of those cases there is a deep individuality that makes them a kind of one-and-only. You don’t have to have someone explain it to you as a voiceover, it just kind of is - there is just one of them and there will only ever be just one like that.
That is what I am looking for.