On Jazz: Notes from Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny (Interviewed by Ben Ratliff – NYT)

This is, unsurprisingly given the source, really incisive commentary on music from a genius (and a great interview by the estimable Ben Ratliff).
Copyright 2005 The New York Times
IT was one of the coldest days of the winter and the guitarist Pat Metheny was only a few minutes late, but he had called ahead. When he arrived at our meeting place, a small recording studio within Right Track Studios in Midtown Manhattan, he arranged his stuff on the couch – including some musical scores – and sat down in a swivel chair before the 96-channel console. Mr. Metheny grew up in the rural Midwest but seems Californian: he has the inner glow. He had no socks on and looked comfortable.
“Basically, it’s impossible,” he said flatly, and smiled. “My taste, my general connection to music, I mean, you know, it just, I mean, even now, I think it just can’t be done.”
My proposal was that we listen together to a few pieces of music (not his) that affected him strongly. It could be any music: the point wasn’t desert-island endorsements or a strict autobiography of influence; it was to talk about how music works. I had defined “a few” as three, or even one long piece, like a whole record. But Mr. Metheny took the challenge seriously.
“For me to say I’m going to build a case that describes something, under the guise of, you know, three songs – it actually shuts me down a little bit,” he said, seeming pained. “The whole idea of style and genre is actually something I’ve willfully resisted from the very early stage. So if I pick this and then I pick that, it creates these two pillars. But I think I know what you’re looking for, which has nothing to do with what I’m talking about.”
He began to warm up. “I don’t think too much about stuff like this, and it’s been kind of a musical psychoanalysis. Most musicians are occasionally asked to put together their 10 favorite albums, but you’re looking for the undercurrents to it all.”
“You’ve got it perfectly,” I said.
He produced a disc, onto which he had burned six pieces of music. “Well, then, let’s start with Sonny Rollins and Paul Bley.”
Dealing with great jazz improvisers often means dealing with masters of certainty: people who for most of their lives have been trusting their impulses to make things up on the spot. Mr. Metheny, 51, extends that certainty to talking, exhaustively, about music – both in specifics and at a conceptual or historical remove.
He is ecumenical and opinionated, practical and quite idealistic, a cheery defender of his own causes. Although he is a jazz musician at the core and is generally thought of as such, he does not believe his purpose in life is to further the cause of the guitar in jazz, or even of jazz itself.
On the telephone before we met, I had asked him whether he would be talking about a lot of guitarists.
“The guitar for me is a translation device,” he answered. “It’s not a goal. And in some ways jazz isn’t a destination for me. For me, jazz is a vehicle that takes you to the true destination – a musical one that describes all kinds of stuff about the human condition and the way music works.”

Sonny and Hawkins
In 1963 Sonny Rollins made a fascinatingly tense record with his saxophone-playing role model, Coleman Hawkins. Called “Sonny Meets Hawk!,” the recording had an almost transparently psychological subtext: Mr. Rollins wasn’t trying to best or outsmart Hawkins so much as to be very, very himself, with all possible eccentricities, in the face of his idol’s magnificence.
“He was a young guy at the time,” Mr. Metheny marveled, listening to Mr. Rollins’s emphatic, darting lines in “All the Things You Are,” harmonically at odds with Hawkins’s, on the opening chorus. “That feeling is such a great feeling – like ‘I can play anything, and it’s all good.’ Not to analyze it, but Hawk was kind of like his father. And it’s like Sonny’s saying, “yeah, but . . . .”
What especially attracts Mr. Metheny to the track, though, is Paul Bley’s piano solo. It is made of elegant, flowing phrases that dance in and around the tonality and the melody of the song; it builds momentum and becomes carried away with itself. Mr. Metheny calls the solo “the shot heard ’round the world,” in terms of its aftereffects in subsequent jazz, especially through Keith Jarrett. He describes Mr. Bley’s solo as having an “inevitability.”
“His relationship to time,” Mr. Metheny said, “is the best sort of pushing and pulling; wrestling with it and at the same time, phrase by phrase, making these interesting connections between bass and drums, making it seem like it’s a little bit on top, and then now it’s a little bit behind.” (He held an index finger straight up, and moved it slightly to the right and left, like a bubble in a carpenter’s level, or an electronic tuning meter.)
“But there’s also this X factor,” he continued. “It’s the sense of each thing leading very naturally to the next thing. He’s letting each idea go to its own natural conclusion. He’s reconciling that with a form, of course, that we all know very well. And he’s following the harmony, but he’s not. It just feels like, ‘Why didn’t anybody else do that before?’ ”
There is a plainspokenness, a kind of folkish natural feeling, to Bley’s lines and his harmony, I added. Is the idea of “inevitability” related to that?
“Well, for me,” he answered, “let’s keep jazz as folk music. Let’s not make jazz classical music. Let’s keep it as street music, as people’s everyday-life music. Let’s see jazz musicians continue to use the materials, the tools, the spirit of the actual time that they’re living in, as what they build their lives as musicians around. It’s a clich�, but it’s such a valuable one: something that is the most personal becomes the most universal.”
A Lasting Impression
Next we hear “Seven Steps to Heaven” by Miles Davis, performed live by the Davis Quintet – including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams – in 1964. It is fast and confident, even in its improvised coda; Williams’s drum solo crackles like gunfire, and Davis’s solo is coolly imperious.
“This is the first record I ever got,” Mr. Metheny said, as a prologue. “I got this when I was 11. My older brother Mike, who’s a great trumpet player, had a couple of friends who were starting to get interested in jazz. He brought this record home. I always hear ‘jazz is something you really have to learn about, and you develop a taste for it, and da da da,’ that whole rap. But for me, as an 11-year-old, within 30 seconds of hearing this record” – he snapped his fingers – “I was down for life.”
We listened to it silently. “They were really rushing,” Mr. Metheny said when it finished – meaning the tempo was too fast.
“I know Herbie really well, and I knew Tony very well, too, and I’ve talked with them about what was actually going down that night. They thought it was one of the worst gigs they’d ever done. But I was listening to Tony here. The same way the Bley thing opened up this universe – well, Tony, too. It’s such an incredibly fresh way of thinking of time. It sums up so much of what that period was. The world was about to shift.”
Mr. Metheny redirected his thoughts. “What I was going to talk about is Miles’s solo. It’s this completely invented language that happens to line up perfectly with all the things we now have quantified in jazz, in terms of its language and grammar. It wasn’t quantified then, as it is now, that if you see this kind of chord, you’re going to play this set of notes. This is not an easy tune. It’s not like playing on a blues. It moves around a couple of keys, then a bridge, does a weird move that you’ve got to deal with. He deals with it in such an abstract, hip way. It’s melody, and it has this whole thing of glue – the way ideas are connected with other ideas on a phrase-by-phrase basis.”
Davis had to slow down his imagination to a much calmer tempo than the song’s, I suggested, to imply so much swing in each note and phrase.
Mr. Metheny took a deep breath. “Yeah. You know, that word swing is almost a political buzzword. To me, in the language I’m using here, that’s the glue I’m talking about. The connection of ideas.
“But there’s another way that music connects: with who the person is, the time he’s living in, how he’s able to manifest a sound that represents all that. To me, that’s swing, and it doesn’t have anything to do with jazz.” (His accent renders the word “jee-azz.”)
“Swing is kind of this quality? It exists in human interaction. In the way somebody talks and moves. I find its resonance in architecture, and literature.”
Acting?
“Yeah, acting. And refrigerator repair.”
A Pioneer of Bossa Nova
Mr. Metheny’s popularity jumped to a much higher level in 1979 with his record “American Garage.” For about 15 years afterward, he toured almost constantly, with no roots other than an apartment in Boston that kept the rain off of his answering machine. Now he lives in an Upper West Side high rise, with his French-Moroccan wife, Latifa, and their two young sons, Jeff Kaiis and Nicolas Djakeem.
For a few years during that touring period, he spent a lot of time in Brazil and got to know Antonio Carlos Jobim before the great composer died in 1994. (The influence of Brazilian music on Mr. Metheny, rather than the reverse, is an often-disputed point.) Mr. Metheny wanted to hear “Passarim,” a three-and-a-half minute condensed masterpiece from Jobim’s last album whose words protest environmental pollution; it appears on the CD of the same name in English and Portuguese, and we listened to the Portuguese version.
Mr. Metheny smiled as the music started. “It’s so much more than a tune. This is really like composition. Especially that little bit.” He backed up the disc to where the chorus of female voices, made up of Jobim’s friends and family members, repeated lines over descending and shifting harmony.
Jobim’s catarrhal voice re-entered. “See, you could call this part the bridge,” Mr. Metheny observed, “except that it keeps spinning off into this other stuff, kind of like in ‘Desafinado.’ It should end there, after he’s finished, but it doesn’t, and it goes into this whole other thing. Then it keeps modulating into these different keys.”
The music suddenly shifted from bossa to waltz time. “This is so advanced,” he said. “The beauty of the harmony – major triads moving down throughout this whole thing, with different kinds of voices. Plus, all that glue, melodic glue: it never stops, from the first note to the end. Where are we now? We’re almost two minutes into the track, and nothing has repeated yet. I mean, that’s advanced the way Paul Bley is advanced. There’s a connection there.”
It works because Jobim’s ideas are complete within themselves, I suggest, and he wills them to fit together, regardless of traditional ideas of structure.
“Yeah,” Mr. Metheny agrees. “It’s like when you first wake up in the morning and you don’t really think about what you’re doing, and maybe you write your best stuff. You’re not in the way. When talking about writing, I often use the analogy of archaeology. There are these great tunes all around. Your skill as a musician allows you to pick them out without breaking them.”
Bringing the Music to Life
After Bley, his hallowed supernova – and then issues of rhythm, melody, harmony and extended composition – Mr. Metheny wanted to talk about touch. He put on Bach’s Fugue No. 22 in B-Flat minor, from the pianist Glenn Gould’s 1965 recording of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book I, and read along from the score.
“B-flat minor, the saddest of all keys,” Mr. Metheny said, at the end. “The main reason I picked this was the way he was able to invoke this almost lyrical, vocal, singing quality from an instrument that doesn’t involve breath. We all have the same mandate, in a way: we try to communicate the kinds of phrases that would be believable if somebody were singing them.”
Part of the reason that some people resist jazz guitar-playing, Mr. Metheny said, is because guitar players don’t convey that sense of breath. “Saxophonists have a very wide dynamic range. They’re dealing with a ratio of about that” – he spread his hands to indicate a foot. “With guitar we have a ratio of about this” – he spread his thumb and index finger to indicate about four inches – “in terms of what we can do with our touch.”
Mr. Metheny talked about how Gould made phrases of music come almost physically alive. “No two notes are ever the same volume. With the guitar, you really have to model in your mind this wider thing; you’re trying to create the illusion of a bigger dynamic range. The guy who defined that, on guitar, was Jim Hall, who opened up five or six degrees of dynamics on both sides by picking softer. He could then make certain things jump out a little bit more.”
Making Every Moment Count
Two hours into the marathon session, Mr. Metheny seemed as fresh as when he came in. Preferring to continue without a break, he produced a snack and kept talking. Near the end, we got around to his favorite guitar solo of all time: Wes Montgomery’s chorus and a half on “If You Could See Me Now,” from “Smokin’ at the Half Note,” recorded in 1965 by the Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery.
As a young musician, Mr. Metheny did everything he could to sound like Montgomery, including playing without a pick and improvising parallel lines an octave apart. “But when I was 14 or 15,” he said, “I realized that what I was doing was really disrespectful because that wasn’t me, that was him. I grew up in Lee’s Summit, Mo. I didn’t grow up in New York City. I’m white; I’m not black. I’m from a little town where you couldn’t help but hear country music, and I loved it. I always wanted to address those things with certain notes, qualities of chords, kinds of voice-leading.”
He cued the solo. We listened once, then listened again while he talked.
“This is such an incredibly strong melodic opening,” he said, during the first four bars of the solo, before Montgomery moves into triplet patterns in bars five through eight. “And also, that first phrase is pretty full, like a full speaking voice, but then he’s really soft here. It’s almost like Glenn Gould; every note’s a different volume.”
In the second chorus, the band starts to swing harder, and Montgomery plays powerful, earthy phrases in the second A section. “Then there’s the blues factor in all of this, too, which he just tucks in there,” Mr. Metheny said.
Toward the end of each section, Montgomery forecast the beginning of the next part, building some tension; each time, Mr. Metheny was ecstatic. “He’s starting a new thing, setting it up. And now, look at this” – during the second chorus – “just quarter notes. He gets two or three levels above the time, and then gets right back in the pocket.”
“It’s really hard to play a short solo,” Mr. Metheny said when the track ended. “Like an eight-bar solo. Every single thing about it has to count. And that’s like Bach, almost.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/25/arts/music/25meth.html?scp=1&sq=metheney%20sonny%20hawkins&st=cse

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