Montana Public Radio

Pat Metheny: Swinging For The Fences, Playing The Good Notes

Dec 17, 2019

Jazz guitar master Pat Metheny has won twenty Grammy awards in ten different categories, playing and improvising a style that is modern in conception but grounded deeply in the jazz tradition of melody, swing, and the blues. in 2013, John Floridis welcomed Metheny to Musician’s Spotlight, taking a close look at the art behind Metheny's “bright, accessible modern jazz.”

Following are excerpts from the conversation. 

Why Kansas City was fertile ground for a teenaged jazz guitarist:

“Kansas City in the late 60s and early 70s was still a place where there was quite an active music scene, particularly in the area of music that I was interested in: a lot of organ trios, and a certain kind of social platform that that kind of music fit in with perfectly. It also happened that there were not many guitar players in Kansas City at that time, and I got a lot of great gigs as a thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-year-old kid, by default, that I probably should not have gotten. But I really ended up learning how to play by being around great musicians on the job.”

Metheny philosophy: 

“I don’t worry too much about how things are perceived at the time, including the audience reaction while we’re playing. There’s a way you can play where you can get people going “Woowoo” all night long. I’m not really that interested in it; I’ve never really been about that. I try to play good notes. A lot of times, people don’t even really notice it that much, like, “Wow, that was a really good solo.” Sometimes, it seems like those ones, I almost get no response. But I have to say, it works the other way, too: you can have a guy in the front row of a gig who never claps for any tunes and doesn’t seem to be enjoying it - he’s looking at his watch and is not really a participant. And then that’ll be the guy after the show who comes back and says, “Changed my life, man.”

My thing is: you don’t know. You do your best. You swing for the fences, try to play the good notes, do what you believe in, that you feel strongly about."  

On melody:

“Melody’s the one of the three (harmony, melody and rhythm) that’s absolutely the most mysterious and difficult to describe or quantify ... Melody: where do you even begin to talk about it? For me, melody is much more abstract than, there’s almost a cliched thing of the melody being this singsongy thing. I think it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. For instance, Max Roach, a great drummer, is an unbelievably effective melodic soloist, with there not being any changes in pitch in the overt way. On the other hand, for me to find a younger player who’s a really good melodic player is almost impossible. It seems to be something that carries very little interest to most players. I hear lots of young guys who can play all kinds of really fancy technical stuff, but for me the really telling thing about the way someone plays is how they play a ballad.

Also, melody for me is very closely related to development. The whole thing of taking an idea and then letting it unfold over a long period of time is something that is a real priority for me. It seems to have a little bit to do with our culture right now. I tend to hear musicians who are dealing in very short sound bytes, rather than long paragraphs and expansive, connected ideas. That’s a big topic for me, that thing of connectedness.”

(Broadcast: Musician's Spotlight,  12/17/19. Listen on the radio Tuesdays, 7 p.m., or via podcast.)