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Jazz legend refuses to align with one genre

Metheny bends genres at Pavilion concert

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published August 22, 2019

Heads Up! This article is 3 years old.

Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has never been one to play it safe or rest on his laurels.

He came to prominence in the late ’70s with lush, stirring mood music.

“The music is quite distinctive,”’s Scott Yarrow wrote of breakthrough album, The Pat Metheny Group. “Floating rather than swinging, electric but not rockish, and full of folkish melodies…This music grows in interest with each listen.”

Taking Musical risks

At a time when Metheny had become one of those rare jazz musicians who enjoys rock star status, he risked alienating several factions of his audience by collaborating with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman on the album Song X and with David Bowie on “This Is Not America” for the soundtrack of The Falcon and the Snowman.

In those days, jazz aficionados reacted with outrage when jazz musicians openly canoodled with pop musicians. And a lot of music fans, even many jazz aficionados, hated free jazz.

Since then, Metheny has been all over the map and his fans have eagerly followed him across that map. He has continually redefined what a guitar can be and how it should sound.

The one constant in all of this, Metheny wrote in an email interview, is “The Pat Metheny Group.”

Musicians are regularly rotated out of The Pat Metheny Group, but the group remains unchanged as a concept.

Metheny said he gets an idea and then fills The Pat Metheny Group with the musicians he thinks can best explore it.

Showcasing Young Talent

“In truth, everything I do functions in basically the same way in that I try to find the best musicians I can who I feel can help me to get to the best version of what is interesting to me at the time,” he said. “In that sense, regardless of what I call it, everything is essentially the ‘Pat Metheny Group’ in that it is about coming up with a setting that is unique and inspiring and resonates with my sense of how I am hearing things at that particular moment.”

Right now, Metheny is pursuing a project he calls Side Eye. It’s a way for him to showcase young musicians in much the same way that jazz stalwarts showcased him when he was a young musician.

He also wants to collaborate with young people who have been inspired by his music but have used it as a springboard to climb to greater artistic heights.

“This particular version of that platform is set up so I can draw from the best of some of the younger players around who have impressed me,” Metheny said. “Many of those musicians have grown up listening to my stuff as part of their broad interest in this music and have absorbed the details of it in a way that is really interesting to me.”

Their view of his music has created a “prism” that Metheny can look through.

“So far it has proven to be a total blast,” he said.

Metheny said he has more ideas than time to explore them.

“I have dozens of things in mind that I just have not had a chance to get to yet,” he said.

Focusing on the good notes

Metheny has heard the carping of jazz fans who think jazz and pop should be separate entities and, needless to say, he doesn’t agree with them.

“I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of ‘genre’ or styles of music to start with, so I kind of don’t really feel any alignment with the ways it gets described,” he said. “To me, music is one big universal thing. The musicians who I have admired the most are the ones who have a deep reservoir of knowledge and insight not just about music but about life in general and are able to illuminate the things that they love in sound. When it is a musician who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that is usually my favorite kind of player.”

Any artist, regardless of medium, who does what he or she does at a high level is worthy of study and emulation, Metheny said.

Metheny doesn’t listen to what the “culture” is saying about music. He just listens to the music.

“The only currency for me that has any truth attached to it is music itself,” he said. “I feel lucky that I have been able to spend most of my waking hours trying to respond to the amazingly high standards that music demands. How the culture at large responds or doesn’t respond is superfluous to that pursuit. Anyone who spends much time worrying about that is missing the point of what music truly offers us.”

Cultural trends, popularity contests, and snap judgments rarely have anything durable to say about the quality of the art that is being produced at any given moment, Metheny said.

“In the end, that perception of what ‘it’ is is not much more than a superfluous byproduct of the actual thing itself,” he said.

Metheny feels lucky to be invested in the “it of it” — meaning the essence rather than the effluvia. Being invested in the “it of it” also means that Metheny doesn’t worry too much about the state of the music business. Certain truths do not change when technology or consumer habits change.

“Through music, I have come to understand that the core merits of what it is to be on earth remain the same,” Metheny said. “In sound, good notes will always be good notes whether played on an ancient instrument or a modern multi-gigaflop computer device, whether played in a church for free or delivered by who-knows-what new system. And by the same token, bad notes will never sound as good as the good notes.”

Metheny said he has spent his life “in the currency of ‘good notes.’”

“It has been useful and comforting to live in the truth of that, especially in weird times,” he said. “Good notes offer a kind of soul-safe haven from a lot of the crap that fills up so much of what the world has become.”

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