RNZ Music’s jazz specialist Nick Tipping has been listening to the music of jazz superstar Pat Metheny for decades, and Nick even used to teach a class on Metheny at the NZ School of Music. So naturally when he sat down to chat on the phone with Metheny in advance of his Auckland Arts Festival concert, he had a few butterflies.
Pat Metheny has one of the most recognisable sounds in jazz, with a style influenced by Brazilian music and classic jazz, shaped by his upbringing in rural Missouri.
It’s a style that has had a major influence on guitarists over the last 40 years, and which helped bridge the gap between jazz and rock. Along the way Metheny has led bands which have included some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz, and won 20 Grammy Awards in 10 categories - more than any other musician.
Throughout his career, Metheny’s cultivated a restless musical curiosity. He’s consistently looked ahead to the next development, not being content to play it safe.
He began as a young guitarist alongside legendary jazz figures like Gary Burton and Jaco Pastorius. However it wasn’t long before Metheny and keyboard player Lyle Mays formed the Pat Metheny Group (PMG) - a jazz-rock fusion band which managed to be both experimental and hugely popular.
The PMG sound was built around Metheny’s flowing guitar lines, new MIDI technology, and Brazilian rhythms, and earned Metheny eleven Grammy Awards.
But Metheny’s innovation reached far beyond the PMG. Various projects involved an automated ensemble he called Orchestrion, a fusion of jazz and Appalachian music with bass player Charlie Haden, and various uniquely constructed guitars.
His own personal style as a musician is hugely influential as well. Metheny cherishes that individuality, and sees it as an important part of making music. “The main interest for me is the admiration that I’ve always had for creativity, by people who’ve found ways of reconciling all the things that matter to them, in a way that expresses something that’s unique.”
Metheny’s search for uniqueness started early. He describes trying to emulate the playing of another great guitarist, Wes Montgomery, as a teenager. While audiences loved it, Metheny relates getting “a little bit of a raised eyebrow from a couple of key musicians”.
He quickly came to realise that that was the key to playing jazz. “All of my heroes across the musical spectrum, they've all been able to kind of tell us something about who they were and where they're from, and, you know, the things that make them, them.”
For his Auckland concert, Metheny’s bringing a new band, and for the first time he’s taking a retrospective approach. “I thought at this stage of the game it would be fun to get some talented people and really look at the older tunes.” Those talented people include British pianist Gwilym Simcock, Malaysian-Australian bass player Linda May Han Oh, and Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez- who Matheny describes as “one of the greatest drummers ever”.
Would this be a good concert for the uninitiated? For Pat Metheny, that’s a definite yes. “I can one hundred percent guarantee that they’ll enjoy the music. My life has been one of meeting people on airplanes, or after the gig somewhere, who say ‘I had no idea that that even existed’.”
Despite Nick’s trepidation, his half-hour chatting to Pat Metheny flew by - and both he and Metheny were disappointed when their time was up. And first-time audiences can expect a similar experience. “When you hear the best people playing really good, there’s nothing else like that. It would be a really good first concert, I would say”.
Here's Nick's extended interview with Pat Metheny:
For more jazz from RNZ, here's Nick Tipping's regular show Inside Out.