Pat Metheny: ‘I believe profoundly in the power of good notes’

This interview with Pat Metheny is a bit unusual in that it is not conducted by a journalist, but by a musician – and a big fan of the guitar legend and his music.

Pat Metheny, of course, needs no introduction, other than to say that he is coming to Australia, and that he also has a new album out.

So with no further ado, here’s the transcript of the telephone conversation between a Melbourne-based jazz pianist from Indonesia and one of the true jazz superstars of our times.

ade ishs: Hi Pat.

Pat Metheny: Hey, how are you doing?

ai: Hope you’re well.

PM: I’m great. Glad to talk to you.

ai: I’m so excited about your new album, From This Place. I’ve waited for it for more than four years since I saw Antonio [Sanchez] post a picture of himself with you on Facebook where he said that you both were recording with Linda [May Han Oh] and Gwilym [Simcock]. So, why the long wait?

PM: Yeah, you know, it was so interesting the way this recording came to be, because it’s [an] unusual trajectory. You know, before the four of us played together a lot, we got together. My idea was to put together a really interesting great group of musicians, so we could go out and play my old tunes as a kind of thing, which is something I just had never done. It was very much write music, [make the] record, and then go out and play that music, and maybe mix in other stuff, but mostly it’s about the new music each time.

And I’ve got 400 tunes that would be worth doing, so I put together those guys, very happy to get all of them, and we were gonna do like 40 or 50 gigs. We ended up doing about 300 all over the world, and it just kept getting better and better and better, and then finally, you know, I thought we should record.

And I’ve been playing with Ron Carter a lot, too, who gave me this [story] about why Miles [Davis] and those guys never playedESP, Nefertiti, and all that stuff live, because Miles would keep playing the old book. And really, that’s kinda what we were doing, you know. So, I wrote all this music, we went into the studio, and what makes this record really unusual, is that as soon as we started recording, I understood that it was more than just a quartet. It was something else, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

I was clearly hearing that this music was part of something rather than the whole thing. And so I kinda started changing the arrangement on the fly and I’d put together everything up, not exactly knowing where I was going, which was a little risky in a way, to get out there. We were walking out with an incomplete something.

But I was pretty confident that I was hearing [an] orchestration of some kind – I wasn’t sure what. And because I had not really allowed for that, I was working almost constantly, I never really had time. I mean, I think it was a year after we recorded the stuff before I even listened to it. Because we were all just working all the time.

So, everything took forever. Once I heard it, and then, I kinda started editing it, putting it together. That’s when I understood that “Oh, this is where I need [an] orchestral kind of thing.” And then I thought, “I’ll just write the raw arrangement, and I get to start writing [the] orchestral thing, and this’ll be great.” And the tracks I wrote were fine, you know, and even good. There were sort of right up and down in the middle of the tunes, as I wrote the tunes, so yeah, it was gonna be sort of like that. And then, I realised that that was some kind of missed opportunity.

I have two really favourite arrangers, Gil Goldstein and Alan Broadbent, and I thought “man, those guys, first, they do this all the time, and I can imagine what they would do.” And so, I showed my charts to these guys. And they were like, “that’s nice, Pat. That’s really good.”

And then they both wrote this fantastic expansion on the music, but then, they took a year, basically. And then that was processed, and then, where are we gonna record this? How are we gonna record that? Budget stuff, you know. If you’re a musician, you know about all that.

So, it just took forever, and also, I also wasn’t in any big hurry, either. I was like we were in such a different zone now. I wasn’t in a big hurry, and we were doing lots of gigs, and it didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t a brand new record. I just kinda let it take its time, and now here we are, that’s why its coming now.

ai: It’s so exciting. Congratulations for that. Now, I have listened to the album. The first thing I felt was that the orchestration used throughout the album instantly reminded me of Secret Story, and a little bit of A Map of the World. You mentioned that you waited for one year before doing this orchestration thing. It just feels now that the orchestration is built around the core quartet. Did it occur to you to perhaps do it diffently, like, for example, what you did with the Unity Group where you had [multi-instrumentalist] Giulio [Carmassi] plus the orchestration to enrich the core quartet, so to say?

PM: You mean, in terms of how to present it live?

ai: Yeah, it’s most like adding to the core quartet.

PM: You know, I got a feeling that it’s gonna be one of those records where we will never probably do it live.

First of all, it’s really hard. And, you know, I’ve been doing some orchestra concerts lately for the first time, and it’s fine, and it’s embelished and that sort of thing. We were lucky to get one the best possible groups of orchestral musicians to play the music, but some of the tunes, like Pathmaker, that was about the hardest thing those guys could play. Rhythmically, its very challenging.

So, I dont know [if] I would attempt to play some of the stuff live, and I’m actually fine with that. I kinda like having some records along the way where the records exist like that, the destination. Because so many of the records I’ve made, I always thought that they were almost like a commercial. People come to the gig, it’s really about that band, or that group of tunes we were gonna play. You know, 600 gigs doing that music.

For me, this is a different category. So, if I do have to figure out how to play it live, which was quite a challenge, and I did with Secret Story, you mentioned that record. I did figure out the way to play the music live, it was quite challenging. I had to have two or three or four extra people to be able to pull that off. So, it could be done, but I’m pretty happy that this is just the way it is.

ai: So, is that probably a hint that were going to hear more of your old stuff, your song book stuff for the upcoming tour?

PM: Yeah, that’s kinda the focus of what that band has been doing live. And I thought it would be particularly fun to do that. You know, we’re playing live music, even I hadn’t played a lot of this for a long time.

And you know, Linda has a very strong connection to my very early stuff, including Bright Size Life, in particular Question and Answer, that was a big record for her.

And then, Gwilym, too. It’s funny because both he and Brad Mehldau were introduced to this general area of music through the same record, Travels, when they were little kids. So, you know, Gwilym grew up with this stuff.

And then Antonio has been kinda my main collaborator for the last 20 years.

So, we can literally play anything from the very beginning on, and we do. We started out with the book of 20 to 25 tunes, and by the time we finished our last concert, we were up to 60 tunes. I can just start playing and those guys would know all the tunes. And that’s kinda what we do. We just keep playing, and I try to put together a presentation that’s got, you know, one from column A from diverse tunes, and next one from this one, and so on. It’s really an interesting presentation, too.

I mean, those guys are great players. They all have something to say about the tunes, things that I never would have thought. It’s really fun.

ai: Is that also what you do to keep yourself from – I don’t know if it’s the right word – feeling bored playing the same music over and over again?

PM: I don’t think that I’ve ever been bored even for one second since I was born. I’m just like one of those people where everything is interesting to me, haha.

And the thing [about] going out and playing music you’ve played before, night after night after night, honestly, it’s one of the challenges of existence that for me is thrilling, because it’s not really that big of a deal to go out and play 10 to 12 gigs, and I’ve been around young musicians who play different stuff every night. You can do that, for some people, maybe its four gigs, and for somebody else eight gigs, and for somebody else eleven – nobody can go out and play different stuff every night for 150 gigs. I mean, not John Coltrane, not Art Tatum.

There’s a point where you are you, and you have a language, and you have a degree of fluency and vocabulary. And that’s the moment where it’s like, “Okay, now I’ve started to understand what music is” – and to me, that understanding is one that continues to this day. It’s not so much about the why. It’s the how – the challenge of being able to face it, let alone play it 100 times in a row, and to be able to tell a story every night.

It shows up in a lot of weird places. I mean, Oscar Peterson, he played very much change stuff, but it was new every time also.

At a certain point, you do enough gigs, you are there and then, that’s when it gets interesting. That’s what you’re talking about, that there’s never a chance of it ever getting boring, that’s for sure.

ai: From what I’ve read, you have written more tunes than you’ve recorded, and that also includes what you’ve done with this recording session forFrom This Place. So, what do you do with those unrecorded ones? Do you just throw them away or keep them in a stash for future use?

PM: Haha, that’s a good question now.

I don’t know if you know much about American baseball, but of course, it’s our national sport here. If you’re a good baseball player, one of the best baseball players there is, you gotta have 300 batting average, which means you’re gonna get on base three times and you gotta strike out sometimes.That’s pretty much my average for tune writing. If I want to get three tunes, I have to write ten. And what happens with the other seven is that I have a place to keep them all in. And, they’re usually quite similar to other things. For me, that’s where I am at this point in time. I get there are other musicians that go through their lives and they will bat on their early seven and then go: “Oh My God, what was I thinking?” I’d never want to do that. It’s the exact opposite for me. To me, it’s all one long thing. Stuff thats on Bright Size Life still feels exactly as current to me as whatever I’m gonna do next.

But, that’s a problem to me, because I still can write those kinds of tunes. And I’ve already done those tunes. So, I kinda have to write through them. I really don’t ask too many questions. I just start writing, and I try to dish everything, at least the idea. I try to let things follow through, and then I play everything, a whole bunch of times, because the truth is, I have to go out and play them, so I have to make sure I really like them. And that usually eliminates about half of them right there, so I don’t have as much stuff to play 150 times. And the process of elimination is usually quite severe, and I’m extremely critical, because now I’ve written a lot of tunes, I know why the tunes that are really good tunes, that have stuck around, are the good ones, because you can just be on them, night after night, and they are able to withstand that kind of act.

So, to answer your question, they’re sitting around. If you need ballads, I have probably 200 ballads, haha. There are more or less 22 ballads that have already been recorded, but probably not quite as good. I’ve got lots of blues, I’ve got this kind of tunes that’s kinda eighth note with lots of changes…

I just kinda hang on to them, and every now and then, I go to the room and I try just to dig through to get to the new stuff. Sometimes that process can take weeks. I just let the tunes come and finally I get to something that I never got to.

ai: This has brought me to this iconic record you did almost two decades ago, The Way Up. Please correct me if I’m wrong, you and Lyle [Mays] wrote it as a reaction to how things were getting shorter, shallower, less detailed, etc. Fast forward to now, we now live in this new age of social media, quick consumption, and short attention spans. There are all these Instagram stars that don’t perform for longer than one minute because the platform doesn’t even allow that. But, to me, you don’t seem to give in to this sad situation, and I respect you immensely for that. However, do you feel like were fighting a losing battle here or do you see that somehow this will change for the better?

PM: Well, I definitely do not feel like were fighting a losing battle, because I believe profoundly in the power of good notes. Good notes stick around way past any of the ups and downs, ins and outs of the culture which is sort of like the way sand’s in the ocean. It’s gonna be this way, it’s gonna be that way, it’s gonna be two feet tall here, it will be completely flat and emptier, but it’s the water that’s interesting, right?

For me, yeah, we’re in this unusual moment of times. It is what it is. But you know, War and Peace is still War and Peace, and The Well-Tempered Clavier, man, nobody even begun to top that. And you know, I [lived] chronologically in an age where the form of [the] CD or [the] LP was kinda a novel form, a long-form idea. And that feels comfortable to me. And this record that just came out is entirely in that zone, right? The 70-something-minute long, man, it really is a thing, right?

However, I can also see that there could be an incredibly cool challenge of writing a 32-second long symphony, you know? I don’t feel like that it’s out of the realm of possibility, and I do think that different musicians, different artists respond to the culture they find themselves in in absolutely unique ways.

I mean, I‘m sure you’re hip to Jacob Collier the same way I’m hip to Jacob Collier. To me, he’s the first really significant 21st century musician, hit the instrument of YouTube. And it’s like yeah, it’s his instrument, and man, the level of that guy functioning musically is you know, at the level we all aspire towards.

So, you know, I don’t see anything as being mutually exclusive to anything else, and the other thing is, that because I experience this myself, most of the people who are going to check my thing out and your thing are not born yet. They’re not here now. It’s gonna be people 100 years from now. Because they’re not gonna be able to do what we do just following our back. And it seems like nothing to us.

But think about all the people who’ve tried to sound like Charlie Parker, or who put together a band that sounds like the Miles’ Quintet in the ’60s. There are millions. Nobody can do that, because it’s over. And the way people played then was the way people talked then, the way people walked then, the way people were smoking, that’s over. It’s something else now. So, our job is to report on this, and do it to the best of our ability to illuminate the stuff that we believe in strongly. And I think, as long as you do that, there is some sort of intrinsic value that trades in the currency of what is actually true, like the water. The water is the water, you cannot take that away from the ocean.

This is not a formula for any kind of success or recognition at all. But I’ve always thought like those are also sort of transient aspects of what it is to be a musician, because the thing paying off for me being a musician is being a musician, and that’s always been the case for me.

Pat Metheny on tour in Australia & New Zealand