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Pat Metheny. Photo/Getty Images

The confounding career of Pat Metheny

Master guitarist Pat Metheny, who has worked with jazz greats such as Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins as well as Joni Mitchell and David Bowie, brings his hard-to-define music to Auckland. 

For more than 45 years, over as many albums and 20 Grammy awards, 65-year-old Pat Metheny established himself as the pre-eminent guitarist of his generation. That he’s not a household name isn’t just down to his chosen idiom – he’s nominally a jazz musician – but because he hasn’t made it easy for audiences.

In his catalogue are sublime and commercially successful albums – notably as the Pat Metheny Group with keyboard player/co-composer Lyle Mays – but also the mid-80s Song X with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, described by UK critic Richard Williams as “practically unlistenable”.

There’s the demanding Zero Tolerance for Silence solo outing of guitar noise of 1994, acclaimed by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth as “the most radical recording of this decade … searing, soothing twisted shards of action guitar/thought process”.

It followed Metheny’s Grammy-winning, orchestrated Secret Story.

There was the hit single This is Not America with David Bowie, from the soundtrack to The Falcon and the Snowman, touring with Joni Mitchell, straight-ahead jazz albums and the ambitious As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, which Rolling Stone considered “bridges the gap between contemporary jazz and the new music of composers such as Steve Reich”. So Metheny – at the Auckland Arts Festival this month with his current group – isn’t easily defined, although he doesn’t see it that way. “People tend to sectionalise. The more challenging thing is to recognise that it’s all the one thing. For me, the connection between Secret Story and Zero Tolerance for Silence is the idea of filling the entire canvas. From my perspective, they coexist.”

Although he says melody is a term resistant to definition, from the start of his career he spoke of it frequently, but even here things get slippery. “It’s possible to do something that is overtly melodious, but when I hear a bunch of trash cans knocked down stairs, that’s melody, too. It’s in the ear of the be-hearer. When I think about my favourite musicians – and they range from Shostakovich and Herbie Hancock to [avant-garde guitarist] Derek Bailey – there’s some glue connecting ideas together. That’s what melody is to me.”

If Missouri-born Metheny concedes anything, it’s that his music is frequently influenced by and often evokes the vastness of the US Midwest. His friend and collaborator, bassist Charlie Haden, spoke approvingly of Metheny’s music as “contemporary impressionistic Americana”, which the guitarist happily accepts.

“It can’t help but be that,” he says, laughing. “I grew up in a small town and have a map of it, as it existed in 1964, imprinted in my consciousness, which I draw from constantly.”

Those formative years in a family of trumpet players also shaped the way he, also a trumpeter, thought about the sound of the guitar, until he saw the Beatles on television. Trumpet playing is about breathing and phrasing, so he thinks and plays in long phrases, which shaped the sonic landscapes of Pat Metheny Group albums in the 70s and 80s such as American Garage, Offramp and Travels.

Metheny worked in Kansas City clubs while still in high school, then taught at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and played with the acclaimed Gary Burton Quartet. His first recording was on 1974 album Jaco by bassist Jaco Pastorius, also someone redefining the language of his instrument. Then he signed with the innovative ECM label, where his group was a standard bearer until the mid-80s. But he felt constrained by ECM’s expectations of how they should sound, so moved on.

At 23, he had said he didn’t want to be only thought of as “a hot young guitar player”, and he set about proving it, establishing a reputation for doing exactly what he wanted, whether that was solo recordings, recording with his group or with legendary jazz players such as Sonny Rollins and Coleman, creating pure noise or beautiful orchestrations. He also embraced the technology of synthesisers.

“I often joke that my first musical act was to plug in. Knobs and wires to me are like mouthpieces and reeds are for others.” He connects that to his grandfather having a player piano and, before he picked up an instrument himself, being obsessed with how it worked.

When he started his first band, he wanted to create a sense of orchestration, and technology such as the Synclavier allowed that. His recent Orchestrion solo projects further extend his palette. “When I think about what’s possible now, it’s mind-blowing.”

Metheny has been an enthusiastic collaborator, although he admits that when he was working on the soundtrack to The Falcon and the Snowman, he had little idea who David Bowie was when director John Schlesinger suggested him. Schlesinger thought their instrumental, Chris, could do with a vocalist. Metheny got some Bowie records, recognised a few hits and realised Bowie would be the perfect singer.

“He came to a screening and was writing like crazy on a yellow legal pad. When the film was done, he had a list of about 200 titles, each one better than the next. John thought ‘this is not America’ was on it, a line someone in the movie says.”

Bowie took the track to Switzerland, worked on it, then called the band over. “Man,” Metheny says with audible awe, “it was like being around Sonny Rollins or someone. He was a master. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had, to see somebody at that level. It’s also a song that has more meaning now than at any time in its history.”

Metheny continues to see limitless possibilities. “I could never have predicted the trajectory of stuff I’ve done, so I just try to stay open to what’s happening. There’s infinity out there, and I always try to hang with the infinity.”

An Evening with Pat Metheny, Auckland Arts Festival, Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall, March 10.

This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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