‘It’s way more fun for me now, because I play way better now than I used to' | Pat Metheny interview

Stuart Nicholson
Monday, January 31, 2022

Now a true living jazz giant, whose recording and gigging schedule has barely let up, even during the pandemic, legendary guitarist Pat Metheny still finds the time to nurture new young talent – as Stuart Nicholson discovers

Pat Metheny (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Pat Metheny (photo: Jimmy Katz)

He was last man in, and first man out. When the world began moving into lockdown in March 2020, Pat Metheny was midway through an extensive tour with his From This Place band with Gwilym Simcock, Linda May Han Oh and Antonio Sanchez. They had flown down from Singapore for dates in Australia and New Zealand and had just landed in Argentina.

There they were due to be received by President Alberto Fernández, a Metheny fan, and move on to Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Cuba. Suddenly things changed. President Fernández cancelled and the following day imposed a lockdown.

“We had flown to Argentina”, says Metheny. “We were welcomed as heroes after coming back to Argentina after a long time, and we were watching CNN – we’re in early March 2020 at this point – and the drumbeat of panic was increasing. To cut a long story, basically we went home from Argentina, that was it [the tour was cancelled] – we were lucky to get back into the States”.

Pat Metheny (photo: Jim Brock)

From that point on he was in lockdown in upstate New York with his wife and three children. Then, from mid-September 2021, he was the first man out, with an extensive US tour featuring his new Side-Eye band to support the October release of his latest album, Side-Eye NY (V1. 1V). With James Francies on keyboards and Joe Dyson on drums, the tour opened in Seattle on 16 September and will close, all things being equal, in Dallas, Texas on 26 February 2022. Then, eight weeks later they begin a world tour that opens in the Czech Republic. On a rare day off, Metheny took time out to speak with Jazzwise from Mesa, Arizona, where he had played the night before. Relentless tour schedules are nothing new to him, but this time things felt very different.

“This particular moment in time is unique, not just us but the audience too”, says Metheny. “We’re all putting our lives on the line, every gig could be the last gig, we’ve seen bands all the time that had to stop because of Covid, so I see that [tour] schedule, and my fingers are crossed, I’m knocking on wood, and I hope to do all the gigs, but it’s a weird time – this isn’t over”.

Through his band Side-Eye, Metheny is stepping into the role bandleaders such as Art Blakey, Betty Carter and Gary Burton played, in providing a platform for up-and-comimg jazz talent. It was something he benefited from himself as a member of Gary Burton’s group in the 1970s, an experience that helped shape his musical outlook and subsequent career.

Metheny's Sive-Eye (photo: Jim Brock)

“I always have to give Gary Burton a lot of credit – I could never give him enough credit – for being a really effective, serious critic. At the time I was given the chance to make my first record with ECM [in 1975], which was just incredible to be part of that world, Gary put the brakes on it, he was like, ‘Wait, a minute, wait a minute, let me hear your tunes’…so he really cracked the whip on me, in a very good way, with the thought, ‘You may only make one record in your life, make sure that record is the record’”.

Metheny freely admits that Side-Eye is likely to have a turnover of young musicians – indeed, the album liner of Side-Eye NYC (V1.1V) shows we are already on the the fifth iteration of the group – the project was originally conceived in 2016 with Metheny and keyboard player James Francies being joined in turn by drummers Eric Harland, Anwar Marshall (who toured Japan in 2019), Marcus Gilmore, who recorded Side Eye NYC and toured with the band in September 2019, and Joe Dyson for the 2021 USA tour: “There are so many good drummers right now, it’s unbelievable”.

Metheny’s objective is to create a musical environment where the players are pushed, as he puts it, to someplace beyond where they are comfortable, so finding the right musicians is vital: “I became a musician as a fan, and I am still a fan”, he explains. “I follow the scene very closely, I‘m really aware who the good new bass players are, and who are the good new saxophone players – I’m really curious. Also I need to find new musicians, I’m really on it, so when I hear somebody – I invite them up to my house and we play, and we play ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Stella’, all that stuff, and over the years this is the way it works chronologically. Those guys, part of their musical diet growing-up also included ‘Bright Sized Life’, tunes like that, and of course if they’re coming up to my house and we play ‘Omaha Celebration’, or some tune, and it’s interesting to me to hear their take on it, and I have a pretty good list of musicians who have generally moved to New York to test their mettle – and to me that’s always an indicator of a musician’s seriousness if they’re willing make that leap – come up to the house and let’s see if we can come up with something and from that group is where I’m drawing musicians”.

Keyboard player James Francies, who incidentally has two Blue Note albums out under his own name, was someone Metheny had been watching for a while. Francies clearly impressed him to the extent he’s ceded bass playing responsibilities to the keyboards (with a little help from his guitar).

“He’s kind of come up with a way of being that’s absolutely effective functionally – there’s a strong connection to Oscar Peterson for a bunch of his stuff, and he’s kind of kept the organ thing a little bit hidden…[but] he’s amazing at that. The connection is with the organ trio setting and my idea was, ‘Okay, what can a 21st century organ trio be?’ And it includes the reference to the 1960s, 70s Jimmy Smith thing, but I can play the bass very effectively on the lower strings of my guitar – there’s some new stuff that allows me to do that with no latency – and it really works great, but then I’m always, ‘Yeah, but, what else could it be?’ and that includes including the Orchestrion, using computers in this way and that way.”

Metheny’s take on a 21st century organ trio is revealed on the 14 minute opener of Side-Eye NYC, ‘It Starts When We Disappear’, where he deploys a full range of guitar sounds, including bass figures, Orchestrion effects and synthesiser sounds, which, together with James Francies’ keyboards and Marcus Gilmore’s drums conjure up the spirit of the Pat Metheny Group in full flight. Recorded live, it seems incredible that a trio can generate the feel of a much larger ensemble. The dazzling array of sound and texture shimmers through a series of interlinking musical events that are developed in a way that creates a compelling musical journey, what Metheny calls “the trip factor”, in what is an album highlight.

The album concludes with the track ‘Zenith Blue’, the second of three Metheny originals written especially for this group, that creates a similar “orchestral” feel live. On tracks such as ‘Lodger’ (the third original written for Side-Eye) and ‘Timeline’ the trio touch base with the 1950s and 1960s organ trio tradition and shades of Jimmy Smith: “Many of the gigs I was lucky enough to participate in as a kid in Kansas City growing up were organ trio gigs. In fact, I felt by the time I left Kansas City I had reached my lifetime quota of playing with organ players – and also I figured that a lot of the reasons I was hired back then was as a teenager I could help those guys load the organ up and down the stairs to the gig” [For the avoidance of doubt, the Hammond B-3 is heavy].

Other than Ornette Coleman’s ‘Turnaround’, which Metheny featured on his album 80/81, he also revisits some of his older compositions, including ‘Better days Ahead’ from Letter from Home, ‘Timeline’, written for a Mike Brecker session the guitarist played on called Time is of the Essence, and two originals from Bright Size Life, ‘Sirabhorn’ and the album’s title track.

For Metheny, the composition ‘Bright Size Life’ has special significance, since it was the first composition he completed for the album, guided by Gary Burton’s mentorship (Burton produced the album, but was not credited).

“When I wrote ‘Bright Sized Life’ – and when I wrote tunes – I would go over to Gary’s house and we would do demos, he would play piano and me playing guitar, and when I brought that tune in, he said, ‘Okay. Now you’ve got the first tune on the record, what else are you going to do?’ He was pretty tough back then too, he was pretty hard core just not mincing words, but I knew what he meant”.

In later years Metheny said that ‘Bright Sized Life’ laid out the basic argument, the fundamental thing that became the foundation of everything he had ever done. Since the tune reveals little of the sophisticated ad hoc compositional forms of his later works, the word “everything” in this context seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting, especially in the light of Metheny’s large discography.

As the tune is one of the key tracks on Side-Eye NYC it seemed appropriate to ask Metheny to expand on his reasoning: “I always had this thing, like, ‘Why can’t we play triads?’ The guitar and triads go together really well, but so much of the language, in the post-Bird, post-Trane and when Herbie [Hancock] came along, it was like ‘Why can’t we get all twelve notes to work all the time’ and that was an absolute area of fascination for me too, but I also like the sound of… triads with different bass notes moving around – which now is pretty common, but was less common at that time. And certainly asking people to play straight-up on triads was not something that came up much. And ‘Bright Sized Life’ is really about that. It’s sort of like this idea of triads, sometimes in inversions that you would not normally think of, but with all twelve tones available as the bridge describes, and that’s kind of it. And in terms of form and structure, having tunes like ‘Missouri Uncompromised’ [on Bright Sized Life] where there are bits that are not part of the form, or ‘Midwestern Night's Dream’ – which I still call ‘B and G’ – where the improvising is not on the actual thing, same with ‘Omaha Celebration’, it’s like a lot of formal things that then became part of my bands were already there too, and conceptually if I were to overdub Nana [Vasconcelos] and Pedro [Aznar] singing, and put some synth pads on ‘Bright Sized Life’ it would sound like what the [Pat Metheny] Group became later on too. The fundamental thing was all there, that’s kinda what I said and you quoted me on, the basic arguments were all there, and they’re still there. It’s interesting to me that a lot of these guys that came along, including Gwyllim [Simcock], he would be a generation above the guys I’m using now, it seems like ‘Bright Sized Life’ is a tune those guys want to play on — we play ‘Stella’, sometimes we play ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’, and it’s like, ‘Hey, can we play ‘Bright Sized Life’? It’s kind of in there”.

As Pat Metheny’s Side-Eye continued to tour through the USA, every night a different city, news broke that the South American leg of his cancelled 2020 tour had been rescheduled for his From This Place band. It meant the dates would be slotted into his Side-Eye touring schedule, something Metheny, released from lockdown, took in his stride.

At 67 years of age he is definitely not slowing up; the sheer joy of playing still burns brightly, “It’s way more fun for me now, way, way more fun because I play way better now than I used to. When I started my band, when I made Bright Sized Life, I had only been playing five or six years; I just know so much more now about all kinds of stuff and I can count on every night to get to the thing, that did not used to be the case. Also the level of musicians these guys are – it’s just a higher level of musicianship than in my earlier days in a way that I am am grateful for, because I love being around guys who are really great players and that’s something I’m able to experience all the time now”.

Pat Metheny Side-Eye Trio play Eventim Apollo, London on 12 June 2022: eventimapollo.com

This interview originally appeared in the December 2021 / January 2022 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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