February 25, 2005


Pat Metheny: An Idealist Reconnects With His Mentors (BEN RATLIFF, 2/25/05, NY Times)

IT was one of the coldest days of the winter and the guitarist Pat Metheny was only a few minutes late, but he had called ahead. When he arrived at our meeting place, a small recording studio within Right Track Studios in Midtown Manhattan, he arranged his stuff on the couch - including some musical scores - and sat down in a swivel chair before the 96-channel console. Mr. Metheny grew up in the rural Midwest but seems Californian: he has the inner glow. He had no socks on and looked comfortable.

"Basically, it's impossible," he said flatly, and smiled. "My taste, my general connection to music, I mean, you know, it just, I mean, even now, I think it just can't be done."

My proposal was that we listen together to a few pieces of music (not his) that affected him strongly. It could be any music: the point wasn't desert-island endorsements or a strict autobiography of influence; it was to talk about how music works. I had defined "a few" as three, or even one long piece, like a whole record. But Mr. Metheny took the challenge seriously.

"For me to say I'm going to build a case that describes something, under the guise of, you know, three songs - it actually shuts me down a little bit," he said, seeming pained. "The whole idea of style and genre is actually something I've willfully resisted from the very early stage. So if I pick this and then I pick that, it creates these two pillars. But I think I know what you're looking for, which has nothing to do with what I'm talking about."

He began to warm up. "I don't think too much about stuff like this, and it's been kind of a musical psychoanalysis. Most musicians are occasionally asked to put together their 10 favorite albums, but you're looking for the undercurrents to it all."

"You've got it perfectly," I said.

He produced a disc, onto which he had burned six pieces of music. "Well, then, let's start with Sonny Rollins and Paul Bley." [...]

In 1963 Sonny Rollins made a fascinatingly tense record with his saxophone-playing role model, Coleman Hawkins. Called "Sonny Meets Hawk!," the recording had an almost transparently psychological subtext: Mr. Rollins wasn't trying to best or outsmart Hawkins so much as to be very, very himself, with all possible eccentricities, in the face of his idol's magnificence.

"He was a young guy at the time," Mr. Metheny marveled, listening to Mr. Rollins's emphatic, darting lines in "All the Things You Are," harmonically at odds with Hawkins's, on the opening chorus. "That feeling is such a great feeling - like 'I can play anything, and it's all good.' Not to analyze it, but Hawk was kind of like his father. And it's like Sonny's saying, "yeah, but . . . ."

What especially attracts Mr. Metheny to the track, though, is Paul Bley's piano solo. It is made of elegant, flowing phrases that dance in and around the tonality and the melody of the song; it builds momentum and becomes carried away with itself. Mr. Metheny calls the solo "the shot heard 'round the world," in terms of its aftereffects in subsequent jazz, especially through Keith Jarrett. He describes Mr. Bley's solo as having an "inevitability."

"His relationship to time," Mr. Metheny said, "is the best sort of pushing and pulling; wrestling with it and at the same time, phrase by phrase, making these interesting connections between bass and drums, making it seem like it's a little bit on top, and then now it's a little bit behind." (He held an index finger straight up, and moved it slightly to the right and left, like a bubble in a carpenter's level, or an electronic tuning meter.)

"But there's also this X factor," he continued. "It's the sense of each thing leading very naturally to the next thing. He's letting each idea go to its own natural conclusion. He's reconciling that with a form, of course, that we all know very well. And he's following the harmony, but he's not. It just feels like, 'Why didn't anybody else do that before?' "

There is a plainspokenness, a kind of folkish natural feeling, to Bley's lines and his harmony, I added. Is the idea of "inevitability" related to that?

"Well, for me," he answered, "let's keep jazz as folk music. Let's not make jazz classical music. Let's keep it as street music, as people's everyday-life music. Let's see jazz musicians continue to use the materials, the tools, the spirit of the actual time that they're living in, as what they build their lives as musicians around. It's a cliché, but it's such a valuable one: something that is the most personal becomes the most universal."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2005 11:11 AM
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