Pat Metheny has been sharing his artistry with us for almost 50 years.
A 20-time Grammy winner in 10 different categories and an NEA Jazz Master, the iconic guitarist is constantly looking for ways to explore and push his music to new and exciting places.
To that end, Metheny is bringing his Side-Eye group — featuring keyboardist Chris Fishman and drummer Joe Dyson — to Meridian Hall on Sept. 13. He joined us to talk about his latest work, his Canadian tour dates and much more.
I recently heard you talk about the importance of players’ feel. Jazz can sometimes present as complicated and mysterious, but to hear you talk about something as basic as having great feel makes this music seem more universal and approachable. There’s something great about hearing you condense it down to something understandable that we sometimes lose in the music.
That’s the part that is non-negotiable. There’s all kinds of guys that can play all kinds of fancy, hip stuff, but if it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t translate — even to the people who know how hip it is. The challenge for me is always to find people who not only can play with good feel, but who can play simple. It’s weird, I can find 100 people who can play 15/8 or triple-time and all that. There are dozens and dozens. But it’s really hard for me to find somebody who can play the melody of Farmer’s Trust. That’s like one in 1,000, finding someone who can do that and play some complicated stuff. If it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t matter if it’s in this general realm of music or if it’s a string quartet or if it’s the Ramones. The feel of it is what’s going to translate to everyone. It can be your little sister, it can be your grandma, it can be the hippest Humber College grad student. Everybody’s going to know if it feels good or not. That part of it is sometimes overlooked by people who are thinking about how they’ve got to be able to play Giant Steps backwards in all 12 keys. If it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t matter. You can get someone who isn’t as fluent in all those details, but if it feels great, that’s the guy you’re going to hire.
Do you think that’s generational, or even 50 years ago were there musicians playing over their head and ignoring those basic components?
The difference is that it was so rare that the kind of fluency that’s pervasive now existed at all 50 years ago. Even my generation: John Scofield and I came up around the same time, and the fact that he and I could hang at a jam session playing Moment’s Notice or something like that was kind of rare for guitar players then. Right now, I’m sure within five blocks of your studio there are 50 guys who could do that. The degree of fluency that exists now is infinitely more. However, it turns out that fluency doesn’t necessarily mean that the story you have to tell is that compelling. Even for me, I’ve conflated fluency with value. What’s really important is what’s always been important: that it feels good, but also that you have something to say. You need to have some information to communicate that’s unique and valuable and that’s of your own design. When I think about all my favourite players throughout history, those things — the feel, the fluency, and of primary importance, having something to say — are there. If you’re talking about Cecil Taylor, Stan Getz, Lester Young or Brad Mehldau, those three components are always there.
You’ve had some of the best bass players in your bands — Mark Egan, Steve Rodby, Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden, Linda May Han Oh — but currently, you do not have a bass player in the Side-Eye band. Tell me about how the concept came together. Was this how you wanted to approach it, or was it more accidental?
Well, my earliest experiences on the bandstand were formed by organ trios. It was a big thing in Kansas City where I grew up, fundamentally inspired by, based around and following the footsteps of the organ-guitar-drums sound that was very, very popular in the ’60s. It’s a great setting. The organ player is also the bass player. My idea for this band was to take that and bring it into the 21st century. At the core, it is an organ trio. At the same time, I’ve got some robots up there and I’m playing bass now sometimes using the guitar — which is now not only possible, but really cool.
In recent years, have you wanted to pare it down to make it more concise and direct?
No. My thing is always about expanding — not even expanding, but how deep can I go? It’s not so much about the horizontal for me as much as it’s about the vertical. One of my models for what I’m talking about is Charlie Haden: It was kind of pared down, but in it he found infinity. For me, I’m always trying to hang in that XY zone in an effective way that goes both vertical and horizontal. Yeah, there’s a lot of different guitars, but I’m constantly looking to find new ways of being as a musician. I do feel like one important aspect of the so-called “tradition” that sometimes gets lost is that it’s important for us to keep coming up with context, too. As much as I love having a band that’s trumpet, tenor, piano, bass and drums, in terms of the context, that’s kind of like… we got it. I try to live in the “yeah, but” zone as much as possible, meaning yes, I acknowledge this long sense of things that need to be there in terms of fluency and dialect, but also, what hasn’t really been addressed yet? When I’m about to fall asleep, what do I find myself thinking about? That’s often a clue for me to look for things that I have not gotten to yet. I feel like I’m just now starting to crack a bunch of things.
In this new Side-Eye configuration, did it open the door to playing material that you hadn’t played before, or you reconsidered some stuff from your catalogue because of the new palette you had in front of you?
It’s been an interesting period for me, not just with this band but also with the [From This Place band]. We played a lot of the older tunes but through the prism of how those guys heard it. I’m 68 now. I’ve been around for 50 years playing all over the place and making lots of records. [Early on], it was difficult for me to find people who even knew what I was talking about in terms of some of the grooves and ways of playing that I was interested in with Bright Size Life and stuff like that. It’s hard to remember that at the time, that was a little bit off the grid. Now, there’s not one but two generations of younger musicians who, as part of their musical diet, have heard all of those records, so they can all do that. That’s fantastic for me, because I love hearing what those guys do with some of the older tunes. The Side-Eye band, in particular, that’s really the next generation. Antonio Sánchez, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and all those guys were the first generation of younger guys that I felt a closeness to. Now there are these next guys that are a generation below those guys. I love hearing them play Bright Size Life stuff, because they have a way of getting to it that’s really cool and different.
This interview has been edited and condensed.