IN Conversation with Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny. Photo by Jimmy Katz

International fame found the Lee’s Summit native early. Improvisational guitarist and composer Pat Metheny got his first guitar at age 12, and by 15, he was gigging with Kansas City’s premier jazz musicians. 

At 17, the summer after his junior year at Lee’s Summit High School, Metheny performed his own compositions with the Kansas City Philharmonic (precursor to the Kansas City Symphony).

At 18, he went to University of Miami to study music and, instead, became their youngest ever music teacher. At 19, he became the youngest teacher ever at Berklee College of Music in Boston and played on jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius’ album Jaco.

At 21, Metheny released his debut album, Bright Size Life. He has said the first eight notes of that record—instantly recognizable to anyone in Kansas City who was listening to music in the ’70s—set up everything that has followed over the next four-plus decades of his career. Those eight notes, most critics agree, also changed the trajectory of jazz music, though it took a while for audiences to catch up. Bright Size Life sold fewer than 1,000 copies upon release in 1975, but today sales number around 700,000, and the title track is included in the Smithsonian’s anthology of landmark jazz recordings.

At 23, Metheny formed a band with pianist Lyle Mays, bassist Mark Egan, and drummer Danny Gottlieb and released Pat Metheny Group, containing the exuberant, melodic Phase Dance, another instantly recognizable tune that Metheny often opened shows with.

At 25, Metheny got his first Grammy nomination, at 27, his first win—out of 20 Grammys to date in 12 different categories. In another feat, the Pat Metheny Group won seven times for seven consecutive records. Three of Metheny’s albums have sold more than a million copies: Secret Story, Still Life Talking, and Letter From Home. 

This year, he received a Grammy nomination for From This Place, and released his 47th album, Road to the Sun. 

In a lengthy phone call with IN Kansas City from the New York City home he shares with his wife, Latifa, and kids Nicolas, 22, Jeff, 20, and Maya, 12, the 66-year-old master of improvisation converses the way he plays, listening intently, often hooking his response to a subordinate word rather than the direct line of inquiry, moving an idea in a different direction without breaking the connection.

Metheny uses phrases such as “you know,” “I mean,” and “kind of” profusely to augment and diminish meaning. To edit them out would feel like removing sharps and flats from musical notes—better to sink into his thoughtful musings on how Missouri continues to influence his music; the unique power of improvisational music to manifest its time, and why he rarely plays in Kansas City.

When was the last time you performed in Kansas City?
That’s a good question. It’s been a while. I don’t know. Maybe ten years ago. 

Why is that?
[Laughs] You know, that’s a really good question, and I don’t know. You know, Kansas City’s a really great sports town. [Laughs] St. Louis has always been fantastic, and Denver’s always been great, I mean, over the 40-some years of playing gigs all over the place. But, you know, Kansas City, it’s a tough place. Not just for me, for people who hang in kind of the general zone that I hang in. 

Even though we have a reputation as a jazz city.
I think the reputation that Kansas City has as a jazz place was more connected to the Pendergast era. That’s what historically led to the reputation, and, you know, that’s a long time ago. I think that to the degree that it has been useful to highlight that, that happens. But in terms of actual support for the music, it’s always been challenging, at least since the early ’70s. 

I have to say, I was very lucky to get a bit of the last part of what was a kind of golden era in the post-Pendergast era, when there was this kind of now-legendary Kansas City Jazz Festival that happened every April where you could count on seeing four or five of the best players that were out there. There was a very rich local scene at that time with some unbelievable players. Those were the musicians that, you know, when I was 15, 16, 17 years old, I got to play with, and I learned how to play from being on the bandstands in Kansas City. And that kind of changed throughout the ’70s and sort of diminished, and I would say by the ’80s it had gotten down to just a handful of places. 

The thing that happened with the Blue Room and the [American Jazz] Museum there, it still to me has enormous potential. And people like Bobby Watson, Logan Richardson—you know, great musicians who have had national and international careers that have moved back to Kansas City—have done fantastic work at keeping the level of musicianship high, but the support—or maybe support isn’t the right word—the kind of, let’s say, intense listening [by the audience] that is found all over Europe, New York, LA, those kinds of places, for this kind of music has always been elusive for Kansas City musicians. 

The irony is that, to this day, some of the best musicians I have ever known are Kansas City musicians, and there’s a bunch of them that are still there. So, it’s great you guys have this magazine. So that’s cool. It’s going to help a little.

Do you get back to Kansas City often?
Yeah, my brother, Mike, still lives out there. My parents both checked out a couple years back now, so that has changed things. It used to be I would be going out there all the time as they were getting older. 

You often talk about being from Missouri. You seem proud of it, even though you’ve been gone a long time.
It’s such a big part of me, you know. I carry around this 17 years of peace and quiet, you know, that has served me really well in what has turned out to be quite an intense life of traveling everywhere and living in New York. I’ve always got that Missouri thing sort of at the core that I can always go to. And I think it’s been really informative for me in terms of the geography of the landscape out there, that thing about there being a lot of space around things. That’s kind of an abstract connection to music, but it’s different than if you grow up in New York City, like my kids have. They have a different sense of space and of activity. 

For me, I do like both, I have to say. By the time I had spent, you know, those first 17 years there, I was definitely looking for more activity and a denser kind of landscape. It’s been really useful for me to be able to kind of shift back and forth between the real open kind of thing and then this more intense, dense kind of thing that has defined a big part of my life since.  

You’ve got a new record out that’s been called a move towards classical music. What was the inspiration for it?
Well, you know, when people start talking about styles of music…

Do you hate that?
No, it’s not that I hate it—it just doesn’t line up for me with the way that I have always thought about what music actually is. The question of what genre this or that project is has been an ongoing one for me, and you can see from the list of people that I have played with, it’s kind of all over the place, but at the same time, most people can usually tell it’s me, regardless of the setting, which, to me, was always kind of a goal. 

So that’s my first response. The second response, regarding the new project: There is a rift between written, notated music versus non-written music, meaning improvised music or rock ‘n’ roll type music where you’re just playing, as opposed to, like, you’re going to write every note down, and you’re going to expect a musician to play exactly what you wrote. A big chunk of my life has been really right in the middle of that. I’ve written lots of notes for lots of really great musicians, but it’s almost always been to set up an environment for those musicians and myself to eventually get to a place where we’re going to then improvise on that. This project is the first one I’ve done where there is no improvising. Every bit of it is written on the page. 

That seems like a big deal. Was that a goal you had?
Well, it’s not really that different from anything else I’ve ever done, in the sense that I’ve always written lots of music. I know I’m known as a guitar player, but my main job really over all these years has really sort of been bandleader, and a bandleader who writes most of the music. 

In this case, the specialty of the LA Guitar Quartet and soloist Jason Vieaux is to play written notes with no improvising. For me, the goal has always been to try to write music and set up playing situations for whoever I’ve invited along with me on that part of the journey that take advantage of what they do best—in parentheses I would put “and avoid what they don’t do as well”—and, to me, that’s always been what I’ve done right from the beginning. 

How was the process of writing scores for non-improvisational musicians different?
In this case, the LA Guitar Quartet had been wanting me to write a piece for them for years, and I was on a vacation with my wife and kids, and we had a nice spot where I could kind of go off by myself for a few hours really early in the morning, and this idea showed up, and I thought, “Well, this would be good for those LA Guitar Quartet guys.” And each morning I would [work] for three or four hours, and by the end of the week, I had a pretty elaborate sketch for a 30-minute piece. And over the next year or so, in-between tours and projects, I did the heavy lifting part of it, which is to write the score. 

And even though, yes, I am kind of a guitar player, those guys are playing an instrument that is about as different from what I play as a clarinet—I mean, it’s a very different language. But I do know the geography of the instrument so, you know, at a certain point, I finished the score, got it to those guys, they worked on it—it’s kind of a hard piece—they premiered it a couple of times, and then we recorded it. 

Also, I had been a fan for many years of Jason Vieaux, and I really just wanted to write something for Jason. He is, quote-unquote, a classical guitar player, but he can discuss music in the broad sense in a kind of very similar way that I think too, and he also is really, to me, one of the great Bach interpreters, on any instrument, around today, and Bach is my favorite composer for written material for sure. So, you know, I wanted to write a piece for Jason. It took me a little while to get it together, I sent it to him, and he had to practice it a lot because it—especially the third movement—is very difficult to play. 

Why is Bach your favorite?
You know, for me, there is a quality of music that is quantifiable: good notes. For me, there is a higher concentration of good notes in just about any four bars of any Bach anything, than you can find almost anywhere else. It’s stunning, the level of quantifiably detailed, diligent, correct, good note work that is at play in his music.  

You describe yourself as a professional improviser. But are there any songs you’ve ever recorded where when you listen back to them, you feel like, “OK, is that particular version is the best expression of what I was trying to convey?” Or, is every version you’ve ever done kind of like all your children and it’s impossible to have a favorite?
[Pause] Well, you know, it’s funny how musicians are mostly regarded by the recordings that they’ve made and left behind. I mean, even I do that. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that era was about that band and that record,” and you almost even think of the album cover. 

The truth is, most of my life and the main destination for what I’ve done is gone, because it’s a one-time thing: In Joliet, you know [laughs], on February the 17th in 1986, or whatever. For me, the destination was always to play. And even if you record it, you don’t really, you can’t really capture it. 

So, if you have a favorite musician that is an improvisor, you may have their record, but that’s not it. You have to go see them live, that’s where it’s at. That’s the product, let’s say, the performance. It’s kind of like, here we are in springtime—all these flowers are blooming and they’re going to look great for a week or so, and that’s it. 

I have a whole bunch of favorite musicians, Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery. and Freddie Hubbard—they’re not on the planet anymore—and we can have Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson festivals, and we can play their tunes and all that but, no, it’s gone. That was it. 

And bringing it back to this current project, one thing I would have to say that is interesting: 100 years from now, four guitar players will be able to play The Road to the Sun, and it’s gonna be very, very close to what my intention was, and that’s the beauty of Western music notation, is there’s a kind of permanence to it. 

But on the other hand, I’ve also written hundreds of tunes, many of which have lots and lots of notes, almost as many as these pieces, but they will require a certain level of skill and fluency for the improvisors of the future that will never be quite the same as what my thing is. Just like, as much as people would love to try to play like Charlie Parker and can go to school for four years and can transcribe every solo [of his], they will never, ever be able to do that, because it has to do with the way people walked and the way they talked and that Tom Pendergast was the [boss] of Kansas City, and a lot of stuff was going on illegally, and all of that made that sound what it was. 

It’s the same way right now, here we are in this weird time of the world that is affecting us improvising musicians in ways that we can’t even imagine and that will be impossible to recreate even five or ten years from now. What improvisers are able to offer is a kind of millisecond-by-millisecond reporting on a time that is very particular, and as time moves on, the sound of that time changes. It’s a sad but beautiful transient thing that’s unique to improvised music, that ability to manifest a particular time.  

Is the improvisation that happens when you are in a room with just musicians jamming different than the improvisation that happens when you are onstage in a club in front of an audience?
That’s a really interesting question. It’s got a lot of mystery around it. It’s something I’ve thought about, studied, I even take a lot of notes about why this night was really great and that night maybe not so great, and it may be even that you’re playing in the same room four nights in a row, and the second set of the third night was really amazing. Why was that? Was it the audience? Was it what you ate that day? Was it because you did this or did that? You know, honestly, it’s very difficult for me, even after doing thousands of gigs, to know. 

The kind of attention that an audience brings does influence the way you play, and, you know, it’s funny, going back to the Kansas City thing, when I was playing gigs coming up in Kansas City, it was the exact opposite of what my life is like now, in terms of crowds. I mean, you know, the crowds now, when I play a concert, you can hear a pin drop. Every person is on the edge of their seat listening to every note. When I was playing at, like, the Landmark Club at Union Station in Kansas City, I mean, you could barely hear what we were playing. It was like, you know, loud. Everybody was talking and yelling, but in the midst of all that, if you played some hip stuff, everybody would go, “Yeah!” It was like the music and the kind of social event were way more connected. And, so, you know, I can’t say that when people are really quiet and they’re all listening that that’s necessarily a better kind of listening. It’s a different kind of listening.

One thing I will say, having done it for a really long time now, I am aware of the audience. I really appreciate that that guy took a shower, and he had to go pick up his girlfriend, and then they had to wait in line to buy the tickets, and then they had to come down the aisle and find their seats, and I really appreciate all that. And, as for me, I’m gonna make sure I got a really great band and that we rehearsed and we know the tunes and set up and do sound check and all that. But to me, once the music starts, once we’re in that zone, my attention and responsibility go completely to the music. And, yes, I hope that guy in the third row likes it, but if he doesn’t, well, I don’t really care. And I don’t mean that in a snotty way. I just feel like my responsibility has been fulfilled by doing the basics. Once we’re playing, it’s all about the music.  

Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.

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