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Music and the Creative Spirit: Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation, and the Avant Garde


Interview by Lloyd Peterson from the Scarecrow Press Book "Music and the Creative Spirit: Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation, and the Avant Garde" - 2006 interview with Pat Metheny


There may not be another contemporary composer whose music better reflects the time in which we live, yet remains so misunderstood. Imitators may have watered, and smoothed down his rich, complex and innovative art form, but the creative genius of Pat Metheny lies deep beneath the surface, a place of heartfelt passion and beauty, of melodic depth and spirit.

But that's not all that is important about Metheny. He is a humanitarian and a significant supporter of the arts and once refused to do a feature story for a jazz magazine until they had published a cover story on an African-American musician. His understanding of the creative process is extraordinary, and though he is one of the few musicians that can be identified with a specific sound, his explorations as an artist are without boundaries. As is the case with most forward-thinking work, it may be years before the essence of his art form is fully understood.

LP: Our culture today appreciates art, but seems to have difficulty with creativity that is not easily explained, understood, or identifiable. Have we become a society without the patience to be challenged, open only to things that are easily accessible?

PM: As much I am concerned with the general downward spiral of culture that we all seem to aware of and experiencing at the moment, I also think it is important to remember that there probably never has been a true "golden era" where everyone everywhere was hip to the best stuff that was available to them. I think throughout history, the very best in art was most likely appreciated by a minority of the general population, either because of limitations forced by economic access, or because of general lack of interest resulting from limited educational opportunities. My feeling is that we are still at a fairly early stage in our evolution. It may be hundreds of years before we reach a point where everyone has the kind of listening skills to really appreciate the level of music and art represented by a musician at the level of Johann Sabastian Bach or John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. But the value of their music exists regardless of the cultural context that it is perceived in - that is really important to remember.

LP: With all the information available today, cultural music influences are becoming more visible in jazz composition. Are we having a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American," now has international and diverse aspects within it?

PM: To me, I have always had some misgivings about the whole of idea of emphasizing the American-ness of jazz to the point of exclusivity. While as Americans, we should be proud of its heritage as a key component of American culture, the nationalistic celebration of it being something MUST represent it's American roots can also limit the incredible implications of what the form offers, and therefore in fact somewhat diminishes its glory. To me, the form demands a kind of deep representation of each individual's personal reality. One of the many things that makes jazz unique is how well suited it is to absorb material and styles and infinite shades of human achievement so well.

LP: There also appears to be a younger crowd, open to being challenged and checking out new music today. Could it be that we are at a cultural low point and people are starting to look for things that have more depth or creative and artistic value?

PM: Young people seem to be especially well suited to explore. I really believe that there is a period in most musicians' lives where they grow at a much faster rate and I think that that is true of listeners too. It doesn't have to be when you are young, but it often is. I think throughout history, you would find a large youth movement interested and surrounding the development of the best stuff in jazz.

LP: If societal events can influence the creative process, is it possible that a new type of creativity might come out of the strife and turmoil happening in the world today and does it affect you and your work?

PM: Everything that happens around you affects you as a musician. However, it may not happen in overt way. For myself, I often think of the whole thing of being an improvising musician as being kind of like a reporter - you talk about the things that are going on inside and around you. but I think each persons response to the events of their time are very personal and unique. One of the great things about jazz, and in fact any kind of instrumental music is the poetry that it offers. There are ways of discussing things in the syntax of sound that just cannot be expressed any other way.

LP: Many musicians have talked about how 9/11 affected them when it happened. Some were not able to do anything creative for months, yet for others, getting back to music was the only way to move forward. What impact did it have on you personally and as an artist?

PM: Since I live in New York, it was a local thing for me. We all had direct contact with the event one way or another. I made a record around that time called "One Quiet Night" that was a solo guitar record. I actually didn't even realize I was making the record; it was just kind of personal playing. I can't say for sure that it was in response to the events, but somewhere there seemed some connections.

LP: You have had the opportunity to travel very extensively and also live and experience life outside the U.S.  Are we closing the gap between our different cultures and what will it take to bring us closer together, or could that also cloud our differences in ways that will not necessarily appreciate our cultural differences?

PM: This is the biggest cliché in the world, but thirty some years of touring around the world has really proven this to me - people are really much more alike everywhere than they are different. People are naturally proud of their own heritage and the things that make them unique. But, personally I am much more interested in the ways that everywhere you go, there are so many things going on that are exactly the same between people, and especially the way they listen to music. That ultimately gives me a lot of hope.

LP: Does the forward-thinking artist have a unique ability or awareness of what surrounds them and is there a responsibility with that awareness?

PM: I think a good refrigerator repairman has an awareness of things that you or I can scarcely imagine. Same with a little kid. Everyone has a sense of things going around them that they filter through their needs and desires at that point in their life. I can only speak for myself as a musician, and for me, as my awareness of musical things has increased, it has enhanced my perception of every other thing in my life. And gladly, I can say vice-versa. Somehow it all goes together.

LP: You have spoken about the positive influence music has on young children and there are more studies that have supported this analogy. What do you know about it and what is it about music that provides this life and energy?

PM: I think music occupies a unique spot in humanity. It is unlike anything else, and therefore difficult to measure. But I think somewhere in almost everyone, music is kind of a necessity. I have often though of music as a kind of vapor that occupies that same frequency of human response as those other unquantifiables that we all seem to need - love and faith.

LP: One of the problems with documentation focusing on jazz, such as Ken Burns's series, is that it spends most of it's time concentrating on what jazz created in the past tense and little on what the music is creating at the moment, which is the essence of this great music we call jazz. Doesn't this seem shortsighted, perhaps a lost opportunity to educate potential aspiring jazz students and educate people to what jazz is really about and what is available to them?

PM: Jazz is such an infinitely interesting topic that there would be dozens of ways to describe it in the form of a documentary film. "Lost opportunity" would be an apt description in this case.

LP: Cecil Taylor said that "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor describes?

PM: I love his description. The "magic" factor, the qualities that are unquantifiable are the most interesting and least discussed when it comes to jazz. But I feel that in fact, those qualities are largely intangible and there is a reason why they resist textual or verbal contexts, a reason why so much writing about jazz is so superfluous. The mystery of the process itself remains one of its great appeals.

LP: I think that composing is one of your greatest strengths but improvisation seems a critical aspect of the dynamic that brings together the relationship of your compositions and the emotional involvement of those you collaborate with together. Can you discuss your approach of bringing these aspects together?

PM: They are similar tasks that happen at wildly different temperatures. The heat of the moment causes a result that differs from the coolness of time to consider. However they feed each other and seem to bask in the relief that one offers another. The performance aspect, whether as an improviser or when playing the written parts of the music is so largely affected by the audience and the general environment of it all that you can't separate that from the equation either. All in all, the whole idea is to tell a story - to form a narrative and to try to offer something to others that you yourself have found to be true or meaningful or even just that you think it sounds good. The skills that come with learning about improvising greatly enhance the composition process for me, and the inverse is also the case.

LP: It appears that time, space, and intensity are significant elements that make up your compositional form and are always considered within your own personal vocabulary within the group compositions. Can you explain how these aspects are developed?

PM: I have often talked about how I thought the geography of where I grew up affected me aesthetically. There was a lot of space out there - you could really see things far away, and see things from a distance in perspective with each other. But I left the Midwest when I was 18 and have lived in fairly intense urban settings ever since. But that reserve of quiet is always there for me - that first 18 years in Lee's Summit, Mo. really added up to a base for me that I feel that everything else came out of. I think as I have learned more about music and how it works over the years, I naturally gravitated at different periods towards different ways of deploying things. There have been periods where I have very intentionally played lots and lots of notes, and others where it has been quite sparse and full of space. I like to be able to invent a way of playing or writing that seems to be appropriate and resonant (for me) in each setting; something that seems to reflect where I am at that particular moment.

LP: Can you discuss your personal relationship with time?

PM: Well, time...that is big one, maybe the main one. To me, the way each musician ultimately sounds is about how they perceive time and how well they are able to listen and live within the time. And I mean that on the most micro level and the most macro level. To play great swing time with a rhythm section is still a rare quality that within jazz is only achieved by the very best players. But then, if that feeling of time is not informed by the spirit of the larger sense of time (the things that make 2005 different from 1958), the feeling of it is noticeably less compelling somehow. To me, when I think of someone like Roy Haynes - his "time" is his own. He owns it, every nanosecond of it. And he can offer it in connection with a personal history that gives it weight, or he can offer as a human being that is equally conversant and interested in the things that make THIS moment in time unique. That would be the model for me; to be able to render the sound of time in a way that reminds everyone just how precious - and vital - it all is.

LP: Miles Davis has said that "The right notes can fertilize the sound of a composition that it can make the sound grow; much like adding lemon to fish or vegetables that bring out the flavor. That it's your sweat." You work a lot with density while adding various colors and textures to your group compositions. Can you describe that process or what you are attempting to do within the context of the music?

PM: Another great quote. I think that we all become musicians because we love music. For me, I try to follow that love in a very devoted and serious way. The stuff I really love becomes potential for me. Why do I love THAT? What is that I love about THAT? Those questions, as a fan, mean one thing - but the thing that separates musicians from being fans is that I feel that we all naturally want to play the things we love. Involved in that learning process is, in fact, an enormous amount of sweat. That sweat represents YOU - your spirit, your soul; all the things that make you unique. The mix of a musician with a sound that they love, that they are pursuing and aspiring to is a recipe for a certain kind of intensity. When this intensity gets applied to a spontaneous act such as improvisation, in the right hands, with the right material and the right kindred spirits, the result can be basically the highest level of human achievement manifest (i.e. the Coltrane quartet, the Miles quintet of the 60's). The goal for me would be to try to manifest into sound the things that I love, the things that I have found to be worthwhile and valuable through a lifetime of pursuit of this stuff.

LP: A number of years ago, you spoke about hearing a sound that you were trying to reach but that it kept moving away as you got closer. Are you finally getting any closer to that sound and are you able to enjoy your artistic accomplishments?

PM: It is way more fun for me now that when I first started. When I first started making records, I had only been playing for a few years. Now, with lots more experience, I am able to much more faithfully reproduce the ideas in my head directly through the instrument or the pen. There is a real pleasure in that growth that I do appreciate. However, music is really hard. And everything you learn does in fact open up vistas of previously unseen possibility. But that is a big part of what makes it such a fascinating and rewarding zone to devote ones life to.  As far as enjoying my own artistic accomplishments, I am one of those guys who always wishes it had been better. I am naturally pretty critical, but not in a negative way. I always just think I could have done better. Actually, I think we all could almost always do better! So, so far I have never had the luxury of basking in any sense of accomplishment, I am always working on trying to make the next thing better if I could.

LP: Your musical direction has been tremendously diverse. When you first realized that you wanted to create musically, was your vision and musical philosophy as diverse as what your work has become? How has it changed?

PM: Pretty early on I had a strong sense of what kinds of things I wanted to do. It seemed to me that that there were huge areas that I was interested in that were fertile zones for study and research. The "diversity" of it is something that gets talked about a lot, but for me it is all of a piece. It is all music that I love and feel close to. I have always just wanted to represent myself honestly as a musician. To edit out huge areas of interest in the name stylistic "purity" (an impossibility anyway when it comes to jazz) would have not be a good course for me, since musical honestly is at the top of the list for me as a fan and hopefully as a player. As time has gone on, there are some things that have changed, but mostly the general approach to it all has remained constant. The main difference is that I can get to much more stuff more consistently now than I could when I first started out.

LP: Jazz can require musicians to take a number of risks in their careers and you have taken many. What have you learned about both music and yourself?

PM: Risk taking is at the core of it all. And those risks may be subtle ones that fall well below the radar of other people's perceptions or they may be overt career ones like what you are talking about. For me, I have always been pretty stubborn about wanting to sound a certain way and play a certain way that would allow me access to the maximum amount of stuff that I love about music in general. It is hard to see such a rather inclusive view of music as being that risky or radical, but in fact the general urge to dismantle the stratification's that rule the status quo ultimately do bear out to be controversial at the minimum to some folks, outright blasphemous to others.  What I have learned is that all you really know is what you love - and that can be the only compass that one should use to guide oneself. As soon as you give the aesthetic reins of power to an audience, other musicians, a critic, the guy sitting in the third row, your girlfriend, your boss - you have crossed a line that is difficult to recover from. This is not to say that you remain stubborn and isolated in your "vision" because your vision has to be pliable and malleable to the reality of the conditions that you are actively participating in at a given moment (i.e. it always sounds crappy to quote 'Donna Lee" on country and western gig that you may be doing to pay the rent). To me, the goal would be to render an honest musical response the opportunities that each moment in sound offers that is effective at making that music sound the best that it possibly can sound. Is there a risk in that? Yes, in the reconciliation of your own personal aesthetic with the specific realities of what is actually going on right then on the bandstand around you. The risk is ALWAYS there, along with the opportunities.

LP: Do you have a common philosophy that you try to impart among students or young musicians?

PM: Yes, to be yourself.

LP: What is it about jazz and the art form that is important to you?

PM: It is one of the greatest aesthetic inventions of all time for its inclusiveness. It is a form that asks each participant to bring the qualities to the table that makes them unique. I would be on the left wing of jazz that would use the widest possible umbrella to embrace all of the different sub- sets of players that would like to find a common ground under the jazz banner. And to me, this is one of jazz's greatest assets, and it has always been a puzzle to me to see the enormous efforts made to keep people out, and to constantly form new definitions (that always place the definer themselves at the center of the universe of their own definition of it) that become less inviting to not only players but listeners as well.

You have the reputation of being one of the hardest driving artists today with more projects going on at any given time than most artists target in a given year. What drives you?

I love music and I love working on music. Every second that I get to spend practicing or writing or playing is really like a gift to me. I feel that the thing of getting to go around and play gigs and play with great musicians is an incredible privilege. I feel incredibly lucky to have led the life that I have been able to lead.

LP: Has your life in jazz so far been everything that you thought it would be?

PM: Maybe ten thousand times more. I never dreamed that learning about and understanding music would offer the kinds of insights into so many other areas.

LP: Do you have a philosophy or some way of looking at life that you would be willing to share?

PM: There was a line from a small film that I worked on a few years ago that I thought really summed it up. "It is always worth the trouble".  Whatever you offer, if you make it the best you have, you will always get some great stuff in return, even if it takes a while. I always try to make each moment, each encounter, each gig, each meeting with someone, special -- because this is it. It is not in preparation for something else. Use the time you have to do something you love.