Greetings! My name is Andre Vasconcelos and I am the writer for the brazilian Portuguese section of the Berklee Blogs website. I have been writing for the blogs for 2 years now and its been a time filled with great and unique opportunities. Through this job I got to meet a lot of great artists and to, sometimes, interview them.
Writing blogs about meeting these accomplished artists is always great, I get to learn quite a lot from their experiences and lifestyles. This post is particularly special to me because I got to do an email interview with one of my favorite musicians of all time, the legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Metheny recently released his last album, Unity Band, with Chris Potter, Ben Williams, and Antonio Sanchez.
Chris Potter, Antonio Sanchez, Pat Metheny and Ben Williams. Photo by Jimmy Katz
When I found out that Pat Metheny would be performing the Unity Band at the Berklee Performance Center on October the 14th, not only I decided to secure the date to catch yet another one of his stunning performances but I also thought about trying to interview him for the blogs. Working closely with my bosses at the Admissions Office and with his publicist Sue Auclair I was able to email the guitarist some questions. Read below Pat’s answers to my inquiries! Enjoy!
I would like to ask you about your latest work, the album “Unity Band”. About this record, can you please talk a little bit about the band members that you selected to record with. Knowing that you have obviously worked with drummer Antonio Sanchez before but hadn’t released an album with a tenor saxophonist in a long time, what made you decide the orchestration for this particular project? Why these specific members?
I had not done a record for almost 30 years in a more traditional horn+rhythm section kind of setting. Really the only other one I have made under my own name playing my own music was the record 80/81 which feature Mike Brecker and Dewey Redman.
I have admired Chris Potter for a long time and had heard him a few times over the past few years where he completely knocked me over with his amazing growth as a musician. He is one of the most powerful musicians on the planet right now. So, I thought it would be fun to build a project around the two of us. Antonio Sanchez and I have had a great rapport for about 13 year now and he is one of my favorite drummers ever and Ben Williams is an exciting new bass player on the scene. We have been touring for almost 6 months now, and it is even better than I ever could have imagined.
As a Brazilian musician myself I can easily identify the importance of my country’s music in your writing and performing. Knowing that you are a big fan of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, Toninho Horta, have your attention been caught by any of the newer artists in Brazil? Would you mind telling us a little bit about your experience living in Brazil?
There are 3 really big ones for me, Jobim, Milton and Ivan. Jobim especially, because I was learning those classic 10 or 15 songs right around the same time I was learning bebop and standards, so it is all kind of blended in together in my personal chronology. To me it is always important to also note in those 3 musicians how much what was happening in jazz in the States at the time they were coming up in affected them, particularly in the area of more advanced harmony. To me, there has been a longstanding dialog between Brazil and the U.S. as there have been between all of the countries in the new world. You mentioned Toninho; he was someone who I was not familiar with when I went down there for the first time in 1980. By the time I got there he had already been to a bunch of my concerts in the states and dedicated a record to me saying I was his “idol” and then asked me to play on a recording he was doing around that time which I really enjoyed doing, so that is a really different category. As far as new people, I hear things occasionally that sound great, but in general once the backbeat infected MPB I kind of lost interest in following it that closely.
Living in Brazil off and on in between tours for a few years was great. I totally enjoyed it.
From my perspective one of my favorite aspects of your music is how it is always capable of taking me into a journey that transcends just a listening experience. It is common for me to imagine places and pictures while listening to your work. Do you think a song can successfully carry a visual image to the listener or maybe even the exact image the composer had in mind when he wrote the piece? Do you think or strive to create that effect when you conceptualize the revolutionary sounds that are such a big trademark of yours like the Synthesizer Guitar, the Soprano Acoustic Guitar or the 42 string Pikasso Guitar?
It is always hard to make direct A to B connections between what you are inspired by and the notes that come to represent those inspirations. It is quite a bit more abstract than that, and there is the issue of time and space too – what seemed to clearly be representative of this or that at one time in life turns out to be about something else when you hear it 10 year later – you changed, “it” didn’t.
I really just try to be honest. That is really all you have. I try to represent in sound the things that seem true to me, that I love.
I came along at a time when the guitar in jazz had not been looked at much as a kind of textural tool. You kind of had your sound, whatever that was, and you applied it to the format at hand.
To me, “orchestration” is a constant issue, not only while composing but while playing. I have a range of options in terms of sound that is fairly wide, not only within the realm of the guitar itself, but in the realm of the different instruments that I might use, which goes across the dynamic spectrum from the most acoustic to the most electric – and now even including things like the guitar synth and even the newer issue of orchestrionics. There are always decisions to be made on this front, and I always defer to the tune at hand, the moment, the other players and especially what the music seems to be asking for in the context of that particular setting. It is usually a pretty clear decision that this tune “wants” to be played this way or that, on this axe or that, etc.
But it all goes back to the initial thing of inspiration or conception and trying to match with sound the things in life that have meaning to me.
I have seen and read many times people asking you advice for the young jazz musicians out there. I have read your answer about playing with musicians that are better then you and I try to do that as much as I can. I would like to ask you for your advice as a composer. If you were to name 3 essential practices that every young composer has to acquire what would those be?
I think it is much harder to come up with a quick general bit of advice on this front. The whole idea of what it is to be a composer is so utterly wide open that it could mean just about anything from throwing together a few samples on a laptop to writing a 6 hour symphony for 10 orchestras. Whenever I meet a talented musician who is looking for something, my first question is always “What do you want to do?”. It is amazing to me how few people can really answer that. Specifically in answer to what you asked, I would say that being able to “do what you want to do” with confidence and mastery across a wide swath of applications of it (whatever “it” is) would be a good start.
Having read the story behind the name of the album “Unity Band”, it is my understanding that this album feels like a moment when you looked back in your life and decided to do things you had already done in the past but with a different and innovative flavor. The name of the project being taken from the Unity Village church band back in Missouri hints at that. Is this contemplative characteristic a correct assessment of the project? Does the word Unity also refer metaphorically to a melting pot of influences presented both individually and in the whole band?
(you seem to be referring to this…this sums up exactly what you are asking…)
Unity is good word for me. The principles of what the word “unity” implies on a conceptual level have always been strong for me. Part of what makes America and the music that has come from here unique is the fundamental reality of our society as a melting pot of the best of so many cultures and peoples from all over the world. But also on an aesthetic level, as much as people have invented arbitrary marketing terms like “jazz” or “fusion” or whatever the next one may be, the undercurrent of my musical life has always been one of reconciliation and unification of all the sounds and ideas that I love as one big singular thing.
This band is a real manifestation of that spirit. We really are using all the unique qualities available to us as individuals and as an ensemble and hopefully creating a greater whole out of all of that to make something true to itself. From the stylistic range of the music presented which is sort of all over the map, to the instruments used, from acoustic to electronic to even robotic on the Orchestrion track, to the spectrum of peoples we represent as individuals, there are a huge variety of elements to set in motion. But I feel like at the same time there is a continuum at work there that connects to the other things I have tried to do as a leader and composer and where the other guys are coming from too. “Unity Band” seemed to be a really good name for this project.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the guitar as a lead instrument from all the way back in the 80’s where it was most prominent to nowadays. What do you feel is the difference between this evolution in the jazz world and in other genres of music?
For me, the guitar is just a translation device. It is a way to get ideas out into the world. If I sit down at the piano, even though I don’t play it as well as the guitar, I play the same ideas, just not as well or as clearly. The idea comes first, the instrument is just that – a tool to get those notes and tones out into the world. As far as the way the culture moves, I don’t worry about it too much and I really never have. I just try to do my best and play as well as I can.
I would like to ask you about your time at Berklee College of Music. As a student right now it is always great to know stories of the days when my idols walked the halls I walk right now. I understand you were an educator at Berklee at the incredibly young age of 19. Would you tell us about how was the day to day activities of Professor Metheny at Berklee?
It was a really fun period for me. There was a very active local jazz scene in Boston at that time. I brought my friend Jaco Pastorius up all the time from Florida where we met and we started playing trio with Bob Moses who I was playing with in Gary Burton’s band. Teaching was always interesting and challenging for me and the level of the students that I had was quite high. I have always had a great feeling about Berklee as a kind of research center for young musicians both in and out of the classroom and it was great to be deep in that community for a a few years.
Pat Metheny. Photo by Jimmy Katz
Can you talk a little about your time in Boston and about your writing and performing experience back then?
A lot of the music that became “Bright Size Life” was written during that period, not just for the trio but also for various ensembles and lesson plans. I started playing with Gary very soon after I arrived and we traveled often, but also Mick Goodrick and I used to do a lot of duet gigs and sometimes trio gigs with Steve Swallow too (who was also teaching at Berklee then). I also played quite a bit with some other great musicians who were living around town at that time like Dave Samuels and Gary Chaffee. I also did things in New York with people like Paul Bley and did the odd week at the Jazz Workshop when I could as a sideman with people like Hubert Laws. All of that plus teaching a full load kept me pretty busy.
As one of the world’s most brilliant improvisers AND composers which one of the following feels more satisfying to you? Writing music or improvising?
To me, they are related tasks that happen at wildly different temperatures. I would say that there is a particular visceral thrill to being in the moment as an improviser trumps almost anything. But I really love writing too. I would say that composing is painful in a way that improvising rarely is. Having more time to think about things isn’t always the best way, but sometimes it is.
When I was told I was able to get this interview with you I quickly decided to share and discuss the questions with friends and peers of mine. A question that came up from a friend, Daniel Weiss, was about an artist releasing his first album. The strive for perfection can sometimes make an upcoming artist doubt himself or his work and possibly even get in the way of its development. What advice do you have for musicians out there about to record or release their first record?
In a lot of ways, the anxiety of releasing your first record is well founded. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and that is a first impression that you will largely be able to form based on your own sense of what it is you hope to communicate. I was encouraged by Gary Burton to wait as long as I could before recording my first record and he was right. The year and a half (which seemed like an eternity at age 18) that passed between the time that ECM offered me the chance to record and when I finally did it was huge for me in the sense that I was really able to fine tune the music and the band to get right to what I hoped it would be.
Would you mind naming 5 albums that are an absolute must in every music lover’s collection?
These are big ones for me.
Miles Davis – Four and More
Wes Montgomery – Smokin’ at the Half Note
Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations
The album The Way Up, which is to this day, my favorite album of all time. Would you mind telling me about the compositional process for that record. I can hear a lot of classical musical influence on it from composers that I know to be an influence on you such as Stravinsky and Debussy. There is also a really big sense of Motivic Development to the entire piece and a beautiful contour, alternating powerful through-composed sections with stunning improvised solos. Can you tell us a little bit about putting this masterpiece together?
I keep a list of things and projects that I hope to do at some point along the way and for years there has been one looming on there which was to have a record that was “one long piece” with no breaks. It seemed to be the right time and the right band to go for that. Yes, there are strong connections to the kind of development that one finds in the composers you listed and others, and also the whole thing was devised to feature a particular group of people with particular strengths too – a huge part of what it is to be a bandleader is identifying and showcasing the things you admire about the musicians you have gathered together around you. I am not sure that any band other than that band at that particular time could play it, which puts it in a very different category than what you find in totally through composed music which has as a goal to be performed again and again with different ensembles. My favorite version of the piece was on the video near the end of the tour – by that time we had all kind of figured out how to play it and how to live inside that world. That was a really challenging and fun tour.