Talking about “Kin” (<-->) with Pat Metheny: by CJ Shearn
Pat Metheny has been one of the greatest musicians in jazz or any other genre over the past 30 plus years. The guitarist has done what every great musician should do: create their own voice and add to the grammar of a music ever expanding. He has won an unprecedented 20 Grammy awards while being nominated 35 times, winning seven in a row with his regular band, the Pat Metheny Group. He was the youngest faculty member at the University of Miami at age 21 and today at the age of 59, is also the youngest member to enter Downbeat’s Hall of Fame (inducted in November, 2013). Metheny was also the first jazz musician ever signed by Geffen records in 1985*, who afforded him complete artistic control (something rare in mainstream jazz today, Chick Corea enjoys similar status) of all his recordings after a lengthy tenure with ECM from 1975-1984. The distribution of his recordings by Geffen marketed him alongside labelmates Nirvana and other rock, pop,R&B and hip hop acts. His fearlessness has allowed him to collaborate with everyone from rock icons like David Bowie, Carlos Santana, and contemporary composer, Steve Reich, to avant garde icons Ornette Coleman, John Zorn and Derek Bailey.
On his new recording, Kin (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2014) the guitarist expands on the straight ahead Jazz quartet concept of the well received Unity Band (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2012) album, augmenting the ensemble of saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez with longer compositional forms, the Orchestrion, and electronics. He also added to this group the incredible Italian born, Brooklyn based vocalist and multi instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi. All these elements seek to unify Pat’s interests under one banner, and the results are impressive- ranking with some of his best work of the decade. Among that list: The Way Up (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2005) Metheny/Mehldau (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2006) and Metheny/Mehldau Quartet (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2007) the trio albums Day Trip (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2008), Tokyo Day Trip (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2008) the 2 disc soundtrack of the 3D film The Orchestrion Project (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions, 2013) and his own entry into John Zorn’s Book of Angels series, the challenging Tap largely a solo recording, with assistance from Sanchez, on drums. (Tzadik/Nonesuch co release, 2013).
I recently sat down with Pat (virtually) to discuss the new record, band, and his views on jazz education, all things of interest to the students and faculty of this blog. Very special thanks goes to David Sholemson who coordinated this interview, (as the band just embarked on a major world tour) and of course Pat Metheny for being so gracious, and thoughtful in his responses to my questions. The Pat Metheny Unity Group will be playing New York City’s Town Hall on March 28th.
CJ: Pat, I would like to thank you once again for taking time from your busy schedule on this new tour to talk about “Kin” for the New York Jazz Workshop School of Music blog. We first spoke at length 12 years ago (via email as well) about Speaking of Now (Warner Brothers/Metheny Group Productions, 2002) when I was an undergraduate at Binghamton University.
At that time, you had brought fresh blood into your regular band, the PMG, and sort of used that record to get the new members acquainted with the very specific dialect you have created. On this new record, you have recruited, I think, one of the most “superhuman” musicians in Italian born, Brooklyn based. Giulio Carmassi. In your various bands over the years, you’ve featured Nana Vasconcelos, Pedro Aznar, David Blamires, the late Mark Ledford, Richard Bona, Cuong Vu, and many others handling the multi instrumentalist/vocal tasks. You mentioned recently in an interview for the BBC that your friend, the great bassist Will Lee recommended Giulio to you. He may be the most incredible player you’ve hired for that task yet, especially with his very well known video circulating covering “First Circle”. As a whole, this is really a dream band, on that first Unity Band record, one could just really hear the wheels of inspiration turning, with a great set of tunes. Talk about what each member brings to the table, that really makes it stand out from projects you’ve had over the years.
PM: I can’t really say enough about Chris Potter – he is one of the greatest musicians I have ever known and every second I have been on the bandstand with him has been an absolute pleasure. Besides the incredible level of musicianship that he possesses, he is one of the most professional players I have ever been around. There is no drama or insecurity – just music all the way. And he is one of the few musicians I have ever been around who has the same kind of work ethic that I do – he gets there early every night and works on music for hours in preparation for the gig. There are some musicians who are talented and see themselves as some kind of natural geniuses or something because of a certain amount of natural ability – but that is often rarely the case over the long term. I would always contend that talent is an element, but over the long run, ultimately a minor part of it all – it is mostly hard work and serious dedication. Chris is a perfect example of that.
By the same token, I can’t say enough about Antonio. As I often say, he is the drummer I thought would never be born. He has certainly been my most important collaborator over these past 15 years or so. I feel like he can contribute to almost any project I launch. And again, his personal maturity and intense work ethic is a huge thing for me – he shows up to play every night.
Ben Williams came onto my radar thanks to Christian McBride. Ben is the perfect complement to this band – he brings a youthful spirit and dimension to the band. And he continues to get better and better. He is fantastic person too, which makes it all the better.
Regarding Giulio, to do what I wanted to do I knew I wanted to expand the palette by adding another musician. However I didn’t want to alter the incredible dynamic of the quartet. What I really needed was a good musician who could play a lot of parts. I needed someone to kind of fill out the sound of the band as kind of a utility musician, I didn’t really need another soloist or creative force, especially with Chris Potter standing right there, but I did need someone who understands the language that we are dealing in and can contribute in a textural way and give me another voice to write for. He is doing fine in that role for this band.
I would say that it is important to add, probably at least as significant or more so to the difference in the conception of this project to the one before was my decision to do so much electronics and Orchestrionic stuff. I usually have not done that in these types of settings. That may be the most significant difference between the first Unity Band record and this one.
CJ: The opener, “On Day One” has some really cool metric stuff going on I think I heard 12/8 during your solo, a drummer friend of mine thinks he heard 10/8 behind Chris. In the climax featuring the stunning multi tracked Carmassi vocal counterpoint; along side Potter’s and Williams’ unison use of the same device there is some clever 9/8 underneath. In an osmotic way, the flexibility of the time in this tune puts me in mind of the classic Hancock-Carter- Tony Williams rhythm section with Miles Davis in the sense that the meters are so organic. You also mentioned recently in the interview cited earlier, that as you made this record, everyone felt they could change things, adjusting their approach to the material in the studio. When you wrote “Have You Heard” years ago, the melody ended up in being in 7 without ever intending to be so. As you wrote “On Day One”, were you conscious of these meter changes in the composition process or did they just occur naturally as everyone listened behind each others’ solo?
PM: You are right, there are many meters at work, sometimes several at the same time. That aspect has been around for a while, even from before I wrote pieces like “First Circle” or “Have You Heard”. I have always had a tendency to write in a way that somehow mixed in odd time signatures without them sounded too “odd”. Even on Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976) there are odd meters thrown around in a way that always seemed organic to me. Sometimes I have to double check to make sure that I am counting right when I start writing things down. A lot of odd meter stuff that I hear sounds awkward to me – I think the goal should be that you don’t really notice it – it just sounds right. On the other hand, I have written some things that sound like they are in odd meters but are actually just in 4 – “So May It Secretly Begin” would be an example of that.
But no, it isn’t the kind of thing where we listen to each other and then decide on the spot in an improvisational off the cuff kind of way. The meter things, the feels, and the basic unfolding of events are written into the charts in a pretty specific way and built into the conception of the piece from the beginning.
CJ: As I’m listening to the album, straight through for the 7th time in 3 days, I’m really struck by how much you’ve truly integrated the two approaches of long form writing, and improvisational aspects that have been your signature, in a way that you’ve never quite done before. I also love the subtle, but prominent role the Orchestrion has played as a sixth “member”. Quite a few die hard fans, have been along for the ride and made it a point to really carefully consider everything in the “one long record” (as you often say) without dismissing anything. From the electronica laced title track, the nod to Ornette in the humorous “Genealogy” or the closer “KQU”, there’s something for all tastes. In other words there’s real consistency whether it’s solo, duo, trio, inside or outside in the narrative you share with us. The title “Kin”, and the concept of Unity have been important for you in the genesis of this project. Tell me more about that.
PM: I think you just said it really well for me!
Kin is a word that implies connection or family or lineage. To me, like the word Unity, it really fits with what I am shooting for – and not just with this band, in music in general. I like the idea of making connections, finding inclusion and forming a way of thinking about not just the way the people making the music may be connected to each other, but also the way the music that I hope to present has connections with all of the other music I love. Beyond that, this may be the first band I have ever had that really can address everything from my trio stuff, to stuff from Song X (Nonesuch/Metheny Group Productions 1985), all of my regular band stuff, the more straight ahead kinds of things; all of it can coexist under one roof. And the “unpronounceable” symbol that follows the word, (←→), was something that just sort of popped out that I thought did a good job of indicating that our “kin” is not always behind us chronologically in an ancestral sense – we are also going to be the ancestors for many generations to come. And also musically. So this is a message to those future listeners as well.
CJ: Using the previous question as a thematic element if you will, this album seems to be another one dividing the fan base. As we’ve talked about rather candidly in the past, you’ve said the internet is an anomaly in contemporary culture. One of the topics discussed currently cropping up online, is the unofficial “end” of the Pat Metheny Group as fans have known it, with the “Unity Group” monicker. At the core, this is still a “blowing” record, one of the main goals of the Unity Band which is so great. I enjoy nods to the past on this record from your entire musical oeuvre which make me smile and laugh in recognition (especially sonically). Yet there is a lot of fresh stuff underneath the hood, too. Everything is still viable for you as a player, Lyle (Mays) and Steve (Rodby) will be integrated slowly into this concept in the future I would guess. What have their reactions been to this incredible new music? Jazz is always about change and that’s what makes the genre thrilling, and truly, history informs the present moment to allow us to look into the future. Yet again, another theme of this record.
PM: To me, it is all one continuous thing. I don’t make a distinction between this period or that period, this band or that band. And I don’t see the end of anything, only beginnings and expansions. Each of the playing environments I have set up over the years are all different versions of my sense of what music can be, what a band can be. But it is a very personal thing. When I have a band and I have hired certain musicians to be in it, it is because I feel like they are the best guys to help me realize a certain sound that I have an almost primal need to get out there. And for the most part I feel like each of those areas of interest are still worthwhile. I don’t feel like anything I have ever started has ever ended, everything is ongoing. I could happily play all the music from Bright Size Life right now. It still seems viable – the arguments there still seem valid and worth thinking about. And I could say that about just about everything else going forward. I know there are musicians who go through life kind of like a snake shedding its skin, moving on the next thing and then the next. It isn’t like that for me – it is more a process of addition onto a preexisting structure, like adding rooms and wings and additions onto a house. Everything is connected to me.
That said, I do tend to want to go where the fire is, where there is the most intensity and urgency. I have always had very strong instincts about that that I have followed faithfully. And without sounding snotty about it, I don’t really care that much about what anyone else ever thinks about anything. I just try to do my own thing and do my best at whatever I am working on during a given period.
One last thing – regarding the “fan base”. I don’t think it is possible to seriously generalize about such a thing in my case. There are as many “fan bases” as there are individuals. What I notice is that there is no consensus – literally every record I have made seems to be someone’s favorite and might be someone else’s least favorite. And this is equally distributed among virtually all the recordings and projects I have ever done. The main thing I notice is that people tend to be most attached to whatever record or period that was happening on their radar when they first got interested. When I see varying factions or critics fighting over the virtues of one setting or lineup over another, my take on it is that they are missing the point entirely. Plus, if you want the old stuff, or just the trio stuff, or just the group stuff, or just the quiet stuff, or just the Ornette stuff… great! The records are there, you can listen to them! But my thing is that they are all one really long single record. That requires a kind of understanding that I am always happy to find when I run across it. But it is pretty rare.
CJ: I just want to segue from talk about the new record and band, so that the students and faculty, and readers of this blog can get a sense of your investment in jazz education. Talk briefly about your teaching philosophy when you’ve conducted workshops, you finished a residency in Montana late last year, if I recall.
PM: Teaching is something I have done at various points along the way since I was really young. And always, I get more out of it than anyone. I love the process of helping people in any way that I can. I do take it very seriously though, and for that reason I can’t do it to much these days. It is really just a question of time. I have 3 young kids at home, so between the work that I do coming up with ideas, writing music, making records and doing tours, I want to spend as much time with them as possible. But someday, I think probably will get to teach more than the occasional things that I do now. I hope so.
CJ: What do you think are things that could be implemented in jazz education, that can at once, keep it moving forward as the living, breathing art form it is, but also in the classroom?
PM:There seems to be a movement towards hiring active players as teachers – and I really applaud that. Almost all the major schools now have major players on their faculty, sometimes even running the entire programs. I think that is great.
*The masters from the Geffen years reverted back to Metheny’s ownership, where all but one title, Zero Tolerance For Silence have been reissued, remastered, (occasionally) remixed and expanded for reissue on Nonesuch.