Full-Contact Musicology: Adventures in Playing, Writing, and Listening with Pat Metheny

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IF YOU WON A GRAMMY AWARD for your guitar playing, where would you put it? Would you invest in track lighting and a snazzy glass case so you could display it brightly in your living room? Ship it to your beaming mom and dad? Hawk it on eBay?

Pat Metheny has won a staggering 17 of these trophies, yet, in a reflection of his never-look-back approach to music, he couldn't give a broken string where they all are. "I haven't even taken most of them out of the boxes they came in," says the ever-evolving guitarist. "I don't like to have things around that remind of anything I have done. You won't find any awards or gold records in my house. I just want to keep the research going and move on to the next thing."


Research--there's a rather academic word for one of the most visceral and adventurous life missions in jazz. But the descriptive works, because behind the wailing solos, the huge tapestries of sound, the epic concerts, the wild mane of hair, and all those impassioned and twisted "guitar faces" is indeed a research scientist; a perennial student of music--or, more accurately, a student of the human experience as seen through the prism of notes and rhythm. Boldly traipsing the globe with every variation of ensemble imaginable, and tinkering with every possible guitar tone, Metheny is not your average musicologist, the same way that Indiana Jones is not your average archaeologist.

"I like being around musicians who have strong identities and personalities," says Metheny. His immense discography--which features daring collaborations with everyone from Jaco Pastorius, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins to Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Steve Reich--backs up this claim. So does his new trio CD, Day Trip [Nonesuch], which features the bulletproof bass/drums rhythm section of Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez. (Bonus! Metheny shares the complete lead sheet to the album's moody minor/major tone poem "Snova" on page 92.)

"I think of music as one big thing," says Metheny. "I don't really care what style someone does their thing in if that thing works for me. I have worked with a wide range of people, from classical guys to flamenco guys--even pop guys who couldn't tell you one thing about bebop or jazz. That being said, the most consistently rewarding experiences I've had have been with jazz musicians. Jazz is somehow the inclusive form. If you're a good jazz player, chances are you are familiar with the major aspects of how Western harmony has evolved over the past several hundred years, and you are also probably pretty fluent rhythmically and can improvise well over almost any harmonic environment. The real thing for me is about listening. Jazz guys tend to be the best and most effective listeners. Good listening inspires great playing."

You've done a lot of trio records. What were you going for with Day Trip?

What's interesting is that while I had played a lot with both Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez independently, they hadn't played together and didn't even know each other until I called them for this trio. I've had great luck in this role as musical matchmaker over the years. For instance, the trio that was on Bright Size Life [1975] was like that--I had played a lot with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses separately, but they didn't know each other previously. On 80/81 [1980] I had it in my mind that Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette would be a great combination, and I was shocked that they hadn't recorded together until that album. And it's hard to believe that Dave Holland and Roy Haynes had hardly played together before the Question and Answer [1989] session. That was an idea that seemed worth trying, and within a few hours of our first meeting we had recorded that whole album! Of course, on the other side of things, I have worked in trios with established bass/drums duos such as Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, and Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart. …