In the past quarter century, it is tough to find too many artists who have had as big of an impact on modern music as Pat Metheny. While most artists are often forced to choose between being respected by critics and their peers or being accessible to the masses, Metheny has been universally revered for not compromising his musical integrity while creating music that can be enjoyed by a wide range of listeners.
An entire generation of jazz artists and musicians from a number of genres has been drawn to Metheny for a variety of reasons. Former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio claims that hearing Metheny "completely reshuffled my deck." Countless other musicians have gravitated toward the Kansas City native for both his virtually unparalleled creativity and virtuosity on the six-string. In short, improvisational music would not be the same today if it weren't for Metheny's exploration of new territories that defy traditional categorizations.
This is also a bandleader who has garnered a Grammy for each of his past seven releases – an unprecedented feat in music. His latest release The Way Up is slated to hit shelves mid-January, to be followed by a worldwide tour in 2005. Through it all, Metheny is beyond humble – he quite simply is one of the nicest, friendliest guys you'll ever meet. We got a chance to catch up with Metheny and discuss not only his new work and upcoming tour, but the general state of music today and the importance of being the worst member of your own band... enjoy.
JamBase: So you were born in Kansas City, is that right?
Metheny: Born in Kansas City.
JamBase: Good deal, I'm actually from Lawrence myself.
Metheny: Are you really?
JamBase: That I am... So being born into a musical family and having the rich jazz tradition of Kansas City in your backyard; at a young age did you still feel a need to search out new music or was it kind of all in your lap at that point?
Metheny: Well, you kind of have to put yourself in the context -- not Kansas City, but Lee's Summit. You must know Lee's Summit, right? This is 1960 or so. And back then, Lee's Summit, even though we now think of it as a suburb of Kansas City, it was more like a farm town then. My dad grew up in that town. His dad grew up in that town and was one of the first people to move there in the late 1800s.
Pat Metheny by Steve Mirachi
So my connection to jazz or anything like that was non-existent until the day my older brother Mike, who was an extremely gifted young musician, brought home a Miles Davis record. I was about 11 at that time. That pretty much opened up this whole universe, and it happened within seconds. People often talk about jazz as this formidable form of music that you have to spend a lot of time listening to and warming up to -- and that might be true for some people -- but for me, literally within the first thirty seconds of hearing Miles Davis's Four and More record... it was like someone turned on the light switch in the room, and I've been trying to explore that room ever since. And in fact, as musical as my family was, jazz was not really on their radar... and that's where the Kansas City factor comes in because Kansas City is about 35 miles away. Starting at the time I was 14 until I got out of high school, I got to play with all the best musicians in town and that's really how I learned to play.
And you actually started out playing the trumpet, so did Miles Davis factor into that somehow as well?
Well when I started the trumpet I was eight. The only factor in that was that my older brother was a great trumpet player. My dad also played trumpet, and his father played trumpet -- he was a professional trumpet player, so the trumpet was almost the "family instrument." I can't really say at that point that it had much to do with anything other than that.
Starting with the trumpet and having that influence then, did you find that it ever seeped into your thinking or playing of the guitar -- that you started to think of it as maybe more of a musical instrument instead of a guitar per se?
(Laughing) I like the way you put that -- "A musical instrument as opposed to just a guitar." (Laughing) But I know what you mean. Yes, and I would agree. And the core of what you asked is, in fact, an issue. For many people I think the guitar is something between a real instrument and drums or something. And yes, my approach to the guitar's sound from very early on--because I could read music and did sort of have an understanding of music beyond the guitar--I think that always helped me. Even now, I don't exactly think of myself as a guitar player. I mean, it is the instrument I play, it is this thing that's kind of hanging around my neck, but basically I think of it as this tool to manifest ideas into sound. And there is this whole cult about the guitar, like "what kind of strings do you use?" and "look at that cool guitar" which always has been lost on me. It's like the guitar is just a thing. The ideas are what count.
In conveying ideas, you were also the youngest teacher ever at the University of Miami, so how did you enjoy that compared to actually playing, and did you wind up learning anything through teaching others that you carried with you?
Teaching is a huge responsibility, and it's something that I took very seriously. For that reason I don't teach much anymore, because I don't feel that I can really give it all of the attention and energy that it really requires. And yes, you're absolutely right -- through teaching, I was ultimately teaching myself. Because I would kind of stress the things that I needed to work on, and I would hear myself say stuff and I would have to then back it up with an example or some kind of real, physical representation of the idea I was talking about.
It was actually quite a powerful thing to assume that kind of responsibility at such a young age. And I would teach more if I could, but I guess I have to say that I'm lucky that I get to play so much that time really prohibits it.