Pat Metheny plays Aspen’s Wheeler
ASPEN – For a very short period of time, Pat Metheny could have been called conservative and retrograde in his musical tastes. As a teenager in the mid-’60s, when rock ‘n’ roll was having its biggest cultural eruption, Metheny kept his ears attuned to the jazz sounds that had preceded the rock wave.”I missed Jimi Hendrix because I was listening to Coltrane and Sonny Rollins,” Metheny said. “I only wanted to know what was going on in jazz. I was 11, pretty young to be a jazz snob. But I was.”Even then, though, there were indications that Metheny would become more forward-thinking, even rebellious. The album that hooked him on jazz was “4 & More,” a live Miles Davis recording that featured pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and 18-year-old drummer Tony Williams, a young troupe of sidemen who were helping Davis break new sonic ground. This wasn’t a continuation of the bebop heights of the ’50s; this was the next thing, with Williams’ attacking approach to rhythm creating lightning-like tempos. It thrilled Metheny.”It was a light-switch moment,” he said of hearing “4 & More,” which had been recorded at Lincoln Center, a short walk from Metheny now lives, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “Within five seconds I said, ‘What is that?'”Along with his taste in music, there was his choice of instrument. Among the Methenys of Lee’s Summit, Mo., trumpet was the family instrument. Pat’s mother and maternal grandfather played it. More significantly, Pat’s older brother, Mike, was a trumpeter, and a promising one. Pat, who started on trumpet at 8, grew tired of the frequent comparisons to his sibling, and when he saw an exit strategy, he grabbed for it.”The last thing my parents wanted me to do was play electric guitar,” Metheny said. “It wasn’t just an instrument; it was an iconic symbol in the culture.”••••When Metheny performs at the Wheeler Opera House, on Saturday it will look like a conventional jazz setting – Metheny joined by a tenor saxophonist (Chris Potter), drummer (Antonio Sanchez) and bassist (Ben Williams). But for Metheny, conventional means a departure: The current combo released an album in June, “Unity Band,” which marked the first time Metheny has had a tenor saxophonist as a member of his group in over 30 years.”I’ve done I don’t know how many records now, 40, and it’s bizarre to me that only one – ’80/81’ – was with that standard jazz combo,” Metheny said. “That’s because I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to find things other than that. There’s so much of that in the world. From the beginning I thought, What can I do other than that?”The answer is plenty – easily enough to make Metheny probably the most innovative and wide-ranging guitarist in jazz history, as well as one of jazz’s most provocative figures on any instrument. Since going to Boston’s Berklee College of Music at the age of 19 – not as a student, but as a professor, becoming the youngest teacher in the school’s history – and then making a name as a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s group, Metheny’s output has been marked by an intense restlessness, a constant desire to see what else he could do.Metheny’s experimentation with the sounds he got out of his guitar have run the gamut. Early on in his Pat Metheny Group, which he launched in the late ’70s, Metheny made frequent use of a guitar synthesizer, while keyboardist Lyle Mays, his most regular collaborator, also used synths, giving the group a distinctive fusion sound. In Metheny’s last Aspen appearance, in 2007 at the Wheeler, he broke out his “Pikasso,” a 42-string instrument with multiple necks. The 2010 album “Orchestrion” represented Metheny’s effort to compose, record and perform as a one-man orchestra, using an array of electronic and mechanical instruments that he commissioned to have built.Toward the other end of the spectrum was the 2003 album “One Quiet Night,” a gorgeous album of solo acoustic guitar recorded in one night while Metheny was at home, playing around with a baritone guitar. The album was successful enough – it earned a Grammy in the Best New Age Album category – that Metheny followed with 2011’s “What’s It All About,” also built around the baritone guitar. “What’s It All About” also earned a Grammy.Metheny has made duet albums with a keyboardist (Mays), with a bassist (Charlie Haden) and with another guitarist (Jim Hall). He has recorded regularly in a conventional guitar trio, with drums and bass, but with a rotating cast of colleagues. He has collaborated with composer Steve Reich; electric bass icon Jaco Pastorius; free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman; his brother Mike, who now specializes in flugelhorn as well as music journalism; the late saxophonist Michael Brecker and vocalists including Joni Mitchell, Bruce Hornsby, Cassandra Wilson and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey.Metheny keeps his ears open to sounds that originate from places other than his own head. In 1994, while listening to the car radio, he was moved to pull over to the side of the road to focus on the playing of pianist Brad Mehldau, who was 24 at the time. What hooked him was the way Mehldau broke with the past. “It is maybe a little close to the tradition, and I’ve been more of a dissenter against that. But there’s also a sense of getting to the tradition by addressing the particulars of your moment within that culture. There’s a strange vapor when a music is living in the time,” Metheny told The Aspen Times in 2007. After nearly a decade of crossing paths, the two finally got together in 2005 to record what would become a pair of albums, “Metheny/Mehldau” and “Quartet.”Unity Band likewise stems largely from an appreciation of another musician, Chris Potter. The tenor saxophonist has released 16 albums as a leader, recorded extensively with both bassist Dave Holland and drummer Paul Motian, and has been a part of Steely Dan’s more recent projects. Metheny was interested in working with Potter partly because it had been so long since he’d played extensively with a tenor saxophonist. “Even though I’ve played in that setting often as a sideman, I’ve only explored that once, what a saxophone could be,” he said. But much of it was an interest in what Potter has achieved, and a desire to spotlight him.”Brad [Mehldau] and Chris are a little similar – about the same age,” Metheny, who recently finished a 30-date European tour with Unity Band, said. “There’s this golden group of people, around 40, after a pause in generations. Christian McBride, Joshua Redman – that’s a great bunch-up of birthdays, a good group of guys. And Chris, to me, didn’t get that same launch. He was a little under the radar. But now he’s making an incredible surge.”Potter, having played with elders like Holland, and Motian, who died last year at the age of 80, has gone through the deep immersion in jazz history required of any standout player. But more important to Metheny, he has gone beyond that history and forged his own style.”He’s gone through Coltrane, gone through Brecker, taken all that information and come out the other side with a platform of his own,” Metheny said. “There’s an enormous depth. It’s not so much an idiosyncratic thing; it’s almost scientific. There’s so much research. It’s got such a foundation. That’s rare.”Perhaps even rarer is the musician whose sound goes beyond musical issues and addresses bigger cultural questions. Miles Davis did so in the ’60s and ’70s by embracing youth culture and the rise of rock music. Metheny believes Potter is also probing significant issues through his saxophone.”The musicians I liked most were asking harder questions, not just playing good,” he said. “Playing good is enough; it’s a lifetime’s work. But people I liked, they were playing good, but there was a ‘Yeah, but at the end of the solo, what else was there?’ Gary Burton was addressing the culture in a way that hadn’t been done. The guitar and vibes thing was a unique sound.”Mostly it’s about who the people are. I thrive on people who know who they are.”As much of a technical monster as he is, Metheny’s popularity might stem from the way he acts like a jazz fan. This is reflected in the fact that he remains able to find other musicians who impress him.”There’s a certain instinct I follow very closely. It’s built on being a fan more than a musician,” he said. “When I’m playing, it’s more like I’m listening: ‘What would I, the fan, like to hear?’ Then I play that. If I was following the guy, what would I like him to do next?”The next thing for Metheny is a DVD and soundtrack for a film about the Orchestrion project. Next year he will begin writing for a new Pat Metheny Group album; the last one was “The Way Up,” from 2005. “That feels like the right thing to do,” he said.If Metheny can’t see further up the road past that, it could be because he can’t know what the world around him a year or two ahead will look like. He doesn’t know what he’ll need to respond to. If the past is any indication, he’ll continue looking toward something that hasn’t been done.”I knew playing in a previously known way was not cool. I was not interested in that,” Metheny said of the attitude that has marked his career. “Now I’m in the extreme far left side, the most liberal idea of what jazz is.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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