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February 17, 2014IM -
Pat Metheny of Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO) is one of the most versatile guitarists and composers ever. He’s had Grammy nominations in numerous categories, and although he’s most well known as a jazz guitarist, much of his music resists categorization, and that’s exactly how he wants it to be.
Metheny was raised in the Kansas City suburb of Lee’s Summit. Like many youngsters of the ’60s, he began playing the guitar after seeing The Beatles. But unlike other teenagers, he soon switched from rock and roll to jazz, and began playing regularly with some of Kansas City’s legendary jazz artists.
“The whole experience of growing up around Kansas City was huge for me. A great piano player named Paul Smith [member of Local 34-627] heard me at a jam session and started recommending me for gigs,” says Metheny, explaining how it all began. “There were a few guys that really made an impact on me, particularly a drummer named Tommy Ruskin [of Local 34-627]. He was, and is, the embodiment of what it means to play with a good feel, to really connect ideas, and to communicate the spirit of the music in a clear way to an audience.”
Metheny recalls his parents’ initial concern at his total devotion to music, and lack of interest in typical teenage pursuits. “I remember doing a gig with Clark Terry [of Local 802 (New York City)] around then and my mom talking to him in a kind of worrying way. I recall him saying to her, ‘Time to cut the apron strings, Mama!’” recounts Metheny.
“As a parent myself now, I understand a lot more what their concerns were,” he says, adding that after they came to a few gigs and saw the way he worked with the older guys, they came around.
At age 14, Metheny made another important inroad into his future career: joining the Federation. “I remember being so proud of that union card when I got it. I have been reading this publication close to every issue ever since those days, so this is a real honor for me to be included in the magazine,” he adds, explaining that the union had its biggest day-to-day impact on him during those early days around Kansas City. “I did so many different kinds of gigs back then and it was nice to have a sense of scale. As the years have gone by, I have always been proud to be in the union.”
Metheny says that from the first time he heard Miles Davis, he was drawn to jazz: “I instantly recognized that there was a way of expressing what it was to be a human being, through music, that was immediate and vital, and unique to improvisation. It seemed like the best players—Herbie Hancock [of Local 802], John Coltrane, Gary Burton, or Keith Jarrett [of Local 802]—were also virtuoso players at a level that rivaled the best classical players, but they were also capable of grooving harder than most rock musicians, at least to me. I still feel that way. Although I am interested and follow all forms of music, what happens in this community stays endlessly intriguing to me.”
And, although he was first drawn to the guitar because of The Beatles, his heroes quickly became jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall [of Local 802], and Kenny Burrell [of Local 47 (Los Angeles)]. “The instrument seemed to almost function as an iconic touchstone for the whole youth movement that was encircling the world at that time,” recalls Metheny. “Wes was by far the biggest guitar influence for me, to the point of me playing with my thumb and doing a credible Wes imitation as a kid. At a certain point, I realized that imitating Wes, or anyone else, was in direct opposition to what I loved most about all of my favorite players, which was their individuality and singularity.”
Eventually, Gary Burton became more than just another influence. “By the time I was starting to play a lot around Kansas City, I had become a big fan of Gary Burton’s Quartet. His band represented so many things that were important to me about that time in music. They were the first band to take a deep look at what was possible in the area of using a modern sound and texture, and were still dealing with the details and structures of what a kind of post-bebop vocabulary offered,” says Metheny.
“When I met Gary a few years later, and at age 18, had the chance to play with him and join his band, it was like a dream come true. Gary became a real mentor for me, and during the three years that I played in his band, and toured around the world, he taught me about what was involved in the day-to-day thing of being a bandleader. And everyone else in his band at that time—Steve Swallow [of Local 802], Mick Goodrick [of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA)] and Bob Moses—all had huge impacts on me in various ways.”
From there Metheny launched a solo career that has taken him in many different directions, resulting in Grammy nominations in 12 different categories. Some of his recent projects exemplify his diversity. Orchestrion (2009) saw him creating an ensemble of instruments mechanically controlled by his guitar. What It’s All About, released last summer, is a solo acoustic guitar album exploring hits from the ’60s, from The Beatles to Paul Simon.
“I have always been quite stubborn about doing exactly what I want to do without compromise,” says Metheny. “I think the moment you start trying to please anyone other than the fan who lives inside of you, you are just guessing. The only thing I know for sure is what I love about music. I follow my instinct closely, and each thing that has emerged has been a genuine reflection of what I was interested in at a particular time.”
Throughout his career, Metheny’s carried on following those instincts and thinking about “the timeless nature of what good notes offer.” And, what about all those Grammy nominations? “The only real success I ever feel is if I feel like I did the best I could do,” he says. “I kind of wish I was able to get more gratification out of the things that surround the music itself, but it really always just boils down to the notes for me.”
Following those same instincts, What’s It All About, recalls tunes from Metheny’s childhood and teenage years. His versions are distinct, often on baritone guitar using a special tuning he learned many years ago. “I felt like making a record that addressed some of the specific music that was on my radar before I ever wrote a note of my own,” he explains. “Every one of these songs has something going on that is just hip on a musical level, no matter how you cut it. These are all pieces that have stuck with me over the years.”
A sort of inventor, Metheny is known for coming up with new sounds from guitars and even inventing his own instruments to meet his desires. “I am always looking for new ways to musically illuminate what I hear in my head in the most effective way,” he explains. “It can also happen that a new tool can open up new sets of potentials too. I am often looking, not only to expand my palette of ideas, but my toolbox to explore them as well.”
One way he’s added new tools—including his famous 42-string Pikasso guitar and the baritone used on What’s It All About—is through Canadian luthier Linda Manzer. “Each of her instruments has a real personality, and sound of its own,” says Metheny, explaining their collaborations. “Sometimes I have specific things in mind that I mention to her, but what she winds up delivering has always been so much more than I ever could have imagined.”
Metheny looks forward to the years ahead, as technology allows him to do more and more with his music. “For me good notes are good notes, and coming up with stuff that is really happening is hard, and it has always been hard,” he says, but adds, “We have lived, and are living, in one of the greatest possible times to be a musician—just for Sibelius alone! To me the tools that we have at our disposal make complaining about anything obsolete.”
This summer Metheny will be putting together a new group called the Pat Metheny Unity Band. “I always have four or five things going on at once,” he says. “I kind of see it all as one long record, or one long tour. I don’t really separate one project from another; they are all chapters in the same book, hopefully distinct, but also relating to a larger whole.”