It is hard to know where to begin when talking about jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. His music has always transcended boundaries and often created a genre of its own ever since his first album, Bright Size Life, was released in 1976. Best known for his long-running band, The Pat Metheny Group, he has continually explored new musical settings outside his regular band, solo and in collaboration with musical giants like Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Gary Burton, Ornette Coleman, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Hornsby and a host of others.
As he approaches his 60th birthday this summer, with 20 Grammy awards on his shelf and a new album on the way, he is on the road again, this time with the Pat Metheny Unity Group, stopping by the Sandler Center for a concert on February 11th. He won the Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy last year for Unity Band, and this time around he’s expanded that album’s lineup of drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Ben Williams and Chris Potter on saxophones and bass clarinet, to include Italian multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi, opening up the band’s orchestral palette even more.
Since the holidays were upon us and he was focused on family time before heading out on this 45-city tour, Pat asked if we could do an email interview rather than a telephone conversation. Here is the result:
JN: One of your musical influences and friends, Jim Hall, recently passed away. What did he mean to you personally as well as musically?
PM: Jim was important to me in many ways - first as a hero, then as a friend and mentor, and finally as an important collaborator. He was a model musician who truly transcended the instrument.
JN: The Beatles had a major impact on every musician of our generation. Their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance was on February 9 1964. With the 50th anniversary of that performance approaching, I wonder how important they were to you and your musical directions.
PM: Yes, for me too. And I remember that night as well. I am certainly of the generation that regarded the electric guitar not just as musical instrument but an iconic emblem of the changes that swept across the world right around then. And in terms of sheer creativity, it is hard to find any parallel to what those guys did in their 9 years together. It actually gets more amazing as time goes on, to think of what they accomplished in that brief time.
JN: What took you to jazz instead of rock and roll?
PM: With jazz, not only could I rebel against my parents, but against all of my friends as well. Seriously though, it was simple for me - it was the music. The first time I heard a Miles Davis record, that was it for me. I have always liked everything, but this general area of music seems to be the zone where all my favorite musicians tend to congregate.
JN: Your brother Mike is also a musician. Was the Metheny household filled with music? Were your parents musical?
PM: Mike is an excellent musician, as were my Dad and grandfather too. They were all trumpet players, and my mom was a really good singer. The household wasn’t a home of professional musicians at that time, it was more like that was the family hobby - to go to concerts and practice a lot every day. I never would have imagined early on that it would all take the form that it did for me, with guitar and improvisation as the main issues for me. It just unfolded naturally.
JN: Yours is a unique style—subtle and tasteful, never bombastic or over-the-top. Why do you think you went in that direction? How is your music reflective of your personality?
PM: Well, I will have to work on that bombastic, over-the-top thing then! I think of music as storytelling. I like music that has a narrative sense, even if it is abstract. To me, there is a way to invite people into any musical world that can be engaging for them if you simply stop to be considerate of them as listeners. I always try to be clear about what my musical goals are in each thing, in each moment or each improvisation. Mainly I play for the fan of music that lives inside - I try to play what I would like to hear.
JN: Tell me about the Unity Group.
PM: It is an incredible band - maybe the best band I have ever had. We had a great time in 2012 making the Unity Band record which went on to win the Grammy that year for Best Jazz Record. When the tour ended, we all agreed that something amazing had happened and we wanted to keep it going. I decided that if we were going to do another round, I wanted to push it further to the next level. I added one more musician and the record that we just made, KIN, is a very different kind of thing. If the first one was a black and white documentary, this is the 3D IMAX version of what that band can be. With this group, I can really cover everything from throughout my whole career all under one roof.
JN: What do you think lies ahead?
PM: I am always trying to improve and learn more about music. For me, being a musician is a real privilege. I try to make each note count and play every gig like it is the last one. I never really know exactly where it is all headed, I just try to enjoy it all and do my best for each situation.