Guitarist and composer Pat Metheny can be a complicated or simple figure in the music of the last 40-plus years, depending on your perspective. The simple part is that so many people love his art—I have met people from across just about every spectrum who are passionate about his recordings and bands, folks from South America, from blue and red America, from serious “jazz” forums to groups that only dig “smooth jazz”. His immediately identifiable guitar sound and his impeccably melodic compositions speak to people across the spectrum.
But he is complicated too. It’s not just that he has written more “difficult” or less popularly appealing music that moves from traditional post-bop jazz to classical new music to various realms in between/beyond, though he sure has done that. Metheny vexes critics a bit by operating in all these realms at the same time and by having done this for decades. The linear narrative we may want to invent to “explain” him is elusive.
His latest project, as he emerges from a year-and-a-half of not performing for audiences, is a recording and tour with some musicians from a younger generation, working on both new and older compositions that span his career. Side-Eye NYC VI.IV was recorded after drummer Eric Harland suggested that Metheny explore his music in partnership with keyboardist James Francies. For the new recording, the drummer is James Gilmore, though Joe Dyson is handling time-keeping on the current tour that will last through spring of 2022.
The new recording is, arguably, a microcosm of Metheny’s grand project. There are new pop-ish compositions that include detailed compositional parts for keyboards. In that sense, they sound like the material that worked wonders for the Pat Metheny Group, the morphing ensemble that sold the bulk of Metheny units over the years. There is no upside in comparing Francies to the late Lyle Mays, but Francies’s mastery on “It Starts When We Disappear” is comparable—it sets up a beautiful and detailed, shaded landscape in conjunction with percussion. Metheny glides over it like a sleek jet, and all the cool scenery is simultaneously picturesque and interesting.
When Francies solos on acoustic piano, he uses all 88 keys in dramatic fashion, and his seamless incorporation organ and synth sounds are, unquestionably, more fluid than what earlier-generation keyboardists could muster. “Zenith Blue” is similarly epic, though Francies uses his Rhodes sound here, and both tracks are carried along by a clipping Latin rhythmic groove and intricate, written counterlines.
Some of the new music doesn’t require Francies to be an orchestrator. “Timeline” is arranged as a slice of swinging guitar/organ/drums music. The band delivers with some simplicity, resolving the tune to being a clear-headed 12-bar blues that inspires great playing. “Lodger” also calls for iconic B3 playing, but it is something wholly different: a rock tune with a sharp backbeat over which Metheny does that rare thing: he turns up and wails like he’s reaching for the back of the arena.
The other half of the tunes on the recording are familiar from Metheny’s repertoire, but they come off as fresh, as songs that plainly deserve recorded revisiting. “Better Days Ahead” hums with melodic wonder, but it does sound different with Francies improvising on a multiphonic synth. “Bright Size Life” and “Sirabhorn” are both from the guitarist’s very first album on ECM, where there were no keys and Jaco Pastorius handled the electric to our collective astonishment. Francies’s key-bass lines have their own originality and depth, and it’s cool to hear him negotiate them from a different place. Best, perhaps, is hearing Metheny tackle Ornette Coleman’s blues “Turnaround” with a piano that brightens the approach and creates a harder-swinging, barrelhouse section as Francies solos with relish.
PopMatters was able to ask Metheny about his relationship to this new generation of players, giving him a chance additionally to reflect on his place in the legacy of the music. The questions were submitted in writing, and Metheny responded with generous and ruminative essays that find him pointing repeatedly to the heroes in the generation before his, the value of considering music beyond genre, and the importance of mastering, not just the complexities of music but also the ways that music—often through simplicity—connects to the human experience.
Metheny’s responses are unedited other than adding a few paragraph breaks and minor clarifications for readability.
Creative musicians in the jazz tradition have always been versatile and omnivorous—Jelly Roll and Dizzy and Jerry Gonzalez all crossed up Afro-Cuban grooves with jazz in sophisticated ways, and musicians from Louis Jordan to Miles to Frank Zappa shuffled jazz with soul or rock music. You’re part of that tradition too, of course. The generation under 40 in “jazz” is unusually adept at various ‘fusions’—not just with “rock” or “funk” but now with the shifting grooves of hip-hop and also with the compositional complexities of classical “new music” or global traditions from South Asia, for instance. The musicians you’re playing with on this new project exude that kind of versatility. Tell us about the challenges and rewards of collaborating with a generation for whom stylistic boundaries aren’t just crossed but, really, never even existed.
It is too bad we don’t have a name for the thing you are talking about. The “J” word feels pretty meaningless at this point and it seems like it has never been a favorite word among musicians along the way anyway. Somewhere in the ’80s or so the “F” word came along [ed: “fusion”]—that is even worse and even became an almost pejorative descriptor, often with good reason.
Your examples are interesting, but I think they might be more descriptive of the musical results than the aspirations of the musicians themselves.
To me, there are a few musicians in the generation just above mine that set a new standard of musicianship; Herbie [Hancock], Chick [Corea], Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, and Wayne [Shorter] are great examples. Those guys represented a continuation of a standard set by Bird, Trane, Clifford Brown, Art Tatum, and a few others in the generation above theirs in that they expanded the fundamental reach of their respective instruments by any measure.
But with Herbie, Chick, and the rest, there was a relationship to traditional notated music (I guess “classical” is the most used term… also a weird one) that meant they could hang in a serious way within that realm as well. Within this general community of musicians that I feel so lucky to be around for all these years, that handful of folks illuminated a way of looking at music in the broadest possible way, transcendent of any particular time or place or genre through a kind of mastery that stands apart from just being good musicians.
I believe this new way of thinking and being able to function well within that small community mandates a musical philosophy that requires you to always be looking at music in the broadest possible way, and then be able to represent through your musicianship everything you love about that music through what you are able to manifest into a sound that can communicate and illuminate. The best players among us could play with the NY Phil one night and Beyonce the next and be able to contribute to both and at the same time invest ourselves in the ongoing pursuit of inventing new pathways in music. Could be really loud, really soft, really dense, really simple, really inside the harmony, really outside the harmony, really free or really structured—having a view of music where anything is really possible.
But most importantly, the requirements of being able to hang in that community carry the burden of being a musician who can understand what the music is doing. To me, that question of understanding music in a deep and knowledgeable way is a distinct thing that is absolutely essential to the kinds of things that I think everyone named above has in common.
The goal for me and I think for many of the musicians I really love has always been to have that kind of understanding of music in its broadest sense, how it works, and then, somehow, to be able to reconcile that in an honest and authentic way to the life that you are living and who you actually are.
One great thing about being a musician and being able to stick around on the planet over what is now a significant number of decades is a growing awareness of how the currency of music at its best can stand as a measure of things that are fundamentally true.
In our physical realm, you can say the same about mathematics, in that the values that make it true are universal, beyond time and culture. But with music, there are the added elements of humanity and soul, and all the things that give our lives meaning blended in concert with the truth of the physical fundamentals of good notes.
The issues of culture and context are things that have transience, and maybe from the beginning, my goal has been to try to find a way to get to the source of the things that have proven to be the most personal and meaningful to me in any way that I can, always inspired by the music and musicians who have illuminated a pretty clear path to follow.
But in lots of ways, for me, it comes down to this; I really just try to honestly represent in sound the things I love about music.
Obviously, I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of “genre” or styles of music to start with. To me, music is one big universal thing. The musicians who I have admired the most are the ones who have a deep reservoir of knowledge and insight not just about music, but about life in general and are able to illuminate the things that they love in sound. When it is a musician who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that is usually my favorite kind of player. Those are qualities I always look for when thinking about maybe hiring someone too. So, that brings us back to the name-less place where this response began.
I feel like I am always working towards trying to be a musician in this broad sense first. And all the subsets of the way music often gets talked about in terms of the words people use to describe music is basically just a cultural/political discussion I am less interested in than the spirit and sound of music itself.
Specifically, regarding newer guys on the scene, it is the same for them as it always has been. It is an incredibly difficult road to be a musician at the level we are talking about here. I would say that there is a lot more fluency floating around than at any point along the way, but fluency does not always mean that the underlying message is a compelling one, and it is the soul, spirit, and storytelling aspects that have to be in place for the music to be able to hang with the standards set along the way. When those factors are in front and stand in equal measure to the musical knowledge, insight, and fluency required by the materials we all have to learn to get to participate, that is when things get interesting.