Artist Q&A: Catching Up with Pat Metheny

Artist Q&A: Catching Up with Pat Metheny

The thing people notice first is the hair. Pat Metheny has a distinctive mane, but it’s his guitar playing that defines the world-renowned jazz guitarist.

On June 12, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named him to its class of 2018 Jazz Masters.

Metheny, 62, began playing gigs in 1969 in clubs in Kansas City, Missouri. Since then he’s won 20 GRAMMYs® (more than all but 13 artists). He released his first album, “Bright Size Life,” in 1976 and his career took off. He has toured the word numerous times and is a living legend in jazz – the one jazz guitarist all others are measured by.

“More than any other jazz guitarist of the post-bop era, Pat Metheny has given the instrument as natural and prominent a place in jazz as a trumpet or a saxophone,” The Guardian reported.

In a recent interview during DC Jazz Fest, Metheny described how much he loves playing and performing.

“I can’t begin to say what an incredible, enriching experience it has been for me to live a life inside of music,” he said. “It’s an honor to be a musician.”

SoundExchange caught up with Metheny after he was named one of the NEA 2018 Jazz Masters.

SoundExchange: Where were you when you found out that you were named one of the NEA 2018 Jazz Masters, and what was your reaction?

Metheny: I was on tour and got word that there was something “urgent” I needed to hear about – I was afraid someone had died or something. So, when I heard the news it was first a relief and then a different kind of a shock. I have gotten some really nice awards and honors over the years, but [the NEA award] is in a very different category.

When there is some kind of special recognition along the way, I really try to appreciate it, and I do. There are certain honors like this one that are unbelievable to me, that I never would have anticipated or expected in a million years.

At the same time, because I do live my life playing so much, I could say it like this – on a Tuesday, I played a gig and I played some stuff the best I’ve ever played it. I finally got to the point on that solo on that fourth tune that I’d been hoping I’d get to all tour long. I finally did it. Then the next night is Wednesday, and it doesn’t matter what I played on Tuesday. The people that are coming for the Wednesday gig don’t care what I played on Tuesday because they weren’t there and tonight it is Wednesday and I’ve got to play that fourth tune again and I hope I don’t mess it up.

My whole life is geared to enjoying stuff while it’s happening and then moving on. If you come to my house, you’re not going to see one award or anything on the wall. I really appreciate it. I feel honored and humbled by it all, but my thing is, “Okay, tomorrow is the next thing,” and really, that’s the only thing for me – what’s happening next.

But this award is one that is still taking some time to sink in.

SoundExchange: Jazz has taken a bit of a back seat to other genres in America. Do you see that changing? Is there anything you can do to boost the genre’s profile?

Metheny: I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of “genre” or styles of music kind of to start with, so I kind of don’t really feel any alignment with the ways it gets described. To me, music is one big universal thing. The musicians who I have admired the most are the ones who have a deep reservoir of knowledge and insight, not just about music, but about life in general, and are able to illuminate the things that they love in sound. When it is a musician who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that is usually my favorite kind of player.

I feel like I am a musician in this broad sense first. And all the subsets of the way music often gets talked about in terms of the words people use to describe music is basically just a cultural/political discussion that I have found that I am really not that interested in in the same way I am interested in the spirit and sound of music itself.

And as far as that culture goes, I don’t really worry too much about it. The only currency for me that has any truth attached to it is music itself, and I feel lucky that I have been able to spend most of my waking hours trying to respond to the amazingly high standards that music demands. How the culture at large responds or doesn’t respond is superfluous to that pursuit. Anyone who spends much time worrying about that is missing the point of what music truly offers us.

Also, I have been around long enough that I have seen the awareness and appreciation of what this music, and even my own place within it, go up and down and up and down maybe four or five times. In the end, that perception of what it is is not much more than a superfluous by-product of the actual thing itself. I feel lucky to be invested in the “it” of it, rather than the ripples in the wake of it.

SoundExchange: Your upcoming tour is dominated by European shows. I guess that underscores that European audiences are more receptive to jazz. In terms of the audience, do your European shows have a different vibe than your U.S. shows?

Metheny: I am really lucky to be able to play all over the world. In just this recent few years of touring, we have played in 32 different countries. When talking about the audiences and their differences, there are some obvious things that you might be able to predict. For instance, Mediterranean audiences are certainly more demonstrative than Asian audiences in terms of decibels. Northern audiences are maybe more analytical and so on. However, these overt observations are less interesting to me than the subtle ones. For instance, you could play three days in Rome and each of those audiences would be very different than each other, depending on the weather, the vibe, the sound in the auditorium and many other factors. The one thing I have learned over all these years is that you really never know what to expect. I always hope for the best from each audience.

American audiences are the hardest to generalize about. You really never quite know who is going to show up and what it is that has drawn them there. Promoters have always commented to me about the diversity of my audiences here. It really isn’t a set core group of people. It seems like a lot people are coming at my thing for a lot of very, very different reasons. It is almost hard to believe sometimes that they are all at the same concert.

SoundExchange: I read that you were on the road for 200 days in 2014. Less so in 2015. Do you plan to continue your aggressive touring schedule, and when do you think you’ll get back in the studio?

Metheny: Recordings have a very different place in spectrum of activities now, that’s for sure. It used to be the center of everything. Since the record companies started giving everyone’s music away in bulk in exchange for catalog rights, they have devalued music to the point where people expect it to be free. Somehow book publishers have been able not to do this, and it is a shame that music executives were not. On the other hand, touring has always been the primary destination for me anyway. The records were more like an ad to get people to come to the gig. So, I am already pretty well acclimated to the way things are set up now.

That said, I have about 8 or 10 “records” that I will try to get out there. They are kind of backing up at this point.

SoundExchange: Incredibly, it’s been 41 years since you released “Bright Size Life.” What do you hear when you listen to it now? How has your technique changed?

Metheny: The main thing is that I play a lot better now than I did then!

When I made that record I had only been playing for 7 or 8 years. Now it has been almost 50, with tons of experience added to the equation as well. That record was the first chapter in what has been for me one long story. Each step along the way has been connected, but that was the record that laid out the basic arguments of the case. They remain valid to me now much in the same way they did then.

SoundExchange: You’ve won 20 GRAMMYs® (in 10 different categories). Only 13 artists have won more throughout their careers. That’s pretty good for a kid from Kansas City. Does that ever get old – getting the industry’s highest honor?

Metheny: I think the best honors are the ones that come from your peers, from other musicians. As much as I have been on the scene over the years, I have never really found too much value in input from sources other than other musicians. Of course, I respect the audience and the other folks that surround everything that goes into the hard work of what becoming a musician involves, but I can’t imagine seriously consulting anyone other than another musician that I respect about something important having to do with music.

SoundExchange: You’ve collaborated with scores of artists. Tell us about working with David Bowie on “This Is Not America,” which was part of the soundtrack for The Falcon and the Snowman.

Metheny: It was a great experience. It was fantastic to collaborate with David. As everyone who ever worked with him seems to agree, not only was he an incredible force in music, he was a great person as well.

SoundExchange: Okay, let’s have a little fun. Can you tell us about the strangest thing that ever happened during one of your performances?

Metheny: At this point, I guess I have played thousands of gigs all over the world. There is a thing that happens just about every night; we can go out onstage as improvisers and somehow understand the language well enough that we can’t know exactly what is going to happen and still manage to tell a story. As the years go by, the real nature of what that entails continues to surprise and encourage me. “Strange” may not be the right word, but it is something that I never quite get used to.