I've been a big fan of Pat Metheny for a long time...since about 1979. He's an exceptional guitarist, songwriter, composer, performer, musician, and innovator. When I moved to Lee's Summit twenty years ago, I thought it was cool that I was in his hometown. I read an interview he gave several years ago in which he talked a little about classical music and I wanted to know more about his relationship with this genre. I reached out to his publicist and requested an interview. Pat is very busy he explained, but if I agreed to email the questions to him, it would be easier for him to answer them. I was so excited to see that he actually took the time to do this interview with me, and I think you will agree he is very thoughtful and genuine. What a class guy. Enjoy!
1. Did you hear much classical music in your home growing up?
I remember my mom bought one of those classical music series of 10 or 12 records that was in the “all the classical music you will ever need” category at the local A and P grocery store. She always had music on at home. I wouldn’t say that my folks were aficionados, but they were very aware of classical music. But at that time I would say that most middle class people were - much more so than now anyway.
2. I read an interview from several years ago where you were asked if you listened to Wagner…to which you replied there was too much modulation going on…you wished he would stay in one place. But you did say you were into the “Russian guys…Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc…. And the French…Debussy, Ravel and Satie. What classical composers, if any, interest you these days?
I must have meant the Wagner comment as a kind of a joke - actually the more modulations the better for me! While I feel an ongoing attraction to trying to understand all the composers that you listed and many others (Berg, Webern, etc.), I don’t feel like I have ever really had the time to devote to sitting down with scores and spending the months I believe it takes to truly digest that music with the kind of seriousness that I have been compelled to invest in other forms. I keep thinking someday I will. I would love that.
But, I do need to add - as much as I love the musicians on your list there, hands down the most important composer in this general realm for me was J.S. Bach. His music has a place in my life that rivals that of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in that in addition to loving it as a fan, any time spent under the hood with it also has an instant pragmatic effect on the specifics of what I aspire to achieve in music myself.
3. Many musicians I speak to tell me they don’t actually listen to music very often. Do you find time to listen to music purely for enjoyment?
Earlier in life, that wasn’t true - I was listening constantly, but as the years have gone on, I probably do fit that description. The main reason is simply time - most hours of the day are set on “output” for me - I have almost no time for “input”. This is especially true since I have had kids. In addition, when I do get a moment away from having to generate ideas, I have a real craving for nothing - no sound or music at all is about my favorite way to spend an hour or two.
4. To that end, do you still listen to vinyl?
I know about the recent revival of interest in vinyl, but having lived through it the first time, I am less enthusiastic about it than many I guess. I understand that there is a kind of mystique about it which I attribute to the fact that most people prefer a noise floor to the almost unreal sense of “digital black” that exists in the digital world. The truth is, 16 bit/44.1 CD’s are not great either, let alone MP3s. What is really sad is that most people have never heard digital sound as we have been hearing it in the studio for the past 10 years or so - that being in the much more advanced 24 bit/96+k audio form. To me, this sound is far better than vinyl in every way - it is essentially identical on output as it is on input. However, unless you buy your records from HDTracks.com (highly recommended) and have a home system set up with super hi res D to A converters, you have never really heard what most of these recordings actually sound like. Probably the best aspect of me about vinyl is the size of the artwork and the immersive experience that it offers.
5. During improvisation, do any classical themes or melodies ever inspire or shape your soloing?
I should probably cut to the chase here. I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of “genre” or styles of music kind of to start with. To me, music is one big universal way of living and being. 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 an individual who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that is usually my favorite kind of musician - but the same instinct to describe the most personal and essential elements of an individuals identity through written material is essentially the same activity happening; albeit at a very different temperature.
I feel like I am a musician in this broadest sense first. And all the subsets of the way music often gets talked about in terms of the words people use to describe music is basically just a cultural/political discussion that I have found that I am really not that interested in in the same way I am interested in the spirit and sound of music itself.
As far as what is happening under the hood while improvising, I always try to let the music at hand decide what direction I go in in terms of orchestration and scope and sensibility. I am pretty happy to play in a really dense way, or a really sparse way, or really loud or really soft or all over the dynamic range, really inside the chords or outside the chords…it kind of doesn’t matter too much for me - it is whatever seems to sound best for what is happening at that particular moment.
It is the creative impulse itself that attracts me - much more than any arbitrary sense of what makes one set of possibilities different from any other.
6. Over the past year, I have been fascinated to learn about and share in my writing that many famous composers performed in Kansas City: Ravel, Strauss, Prokofiev, Bartok, Rachmaninoff, Respighi, and Honegger, to name a few. I also learned that Django Reinhardt played in KC with the Duke Ellington Band in 1946 at the Pla-Mor at Linwood and Main St. Do you enjoy Django’s music, and have you given any thought to a Django-styled Hot Jazz project of your own?
Of course I love Django. I didn’t know that he had played in Kansas City - that is amazing. To me, like most of the truly great musicians in our general realm, he is literally inimitable. Except for the very early days of my time playing, I have never really spent much time or energy devoted to imitating someone else. To me, the idea is to “do what they did, not what they did”. In other words to define your own voice in sound and spirit. That is the essential point of it all for me.
7. During your time in KC, did you ever play with Claude “Fiddler” Williams?
There was a record date possibility that came up that I wasn’t able to do at the time - and I really regret that I didn’t. I did get to hang out with him a couple of times though, which was incredible. He was such an amazing person as well as being a fantastic musician.
8. As a musician myself (violinist with the Heritage Philharmonic in Independence, MO) I have been dealing with some of the challenges of getting into my middle years...(I just turned 50). I have tinnitus and my memory is a bit of a challenge these days. How is your hearing? Do you take any special precautions with your hearing when you play? Are you able to concentrate at the same level during a performance as you did when you were younger?
Knocking on wood as I write this - but no, there is no difference on the negative side in any way for me as the years go by. To the contrary, everything is much easier and much more enjoyable for me the longer I have played. I have always considered music to be really hard work; it has never been easy for me. But maybe for that reason, I have a kind of work ethic towards music that necessitates the constant thing for me of having to maintain a certain level through diligent practice and consideration. I never have taken anything for granted and probably never will. So, I am used to having to work hard to maintain a certain level.
Regarding hearing, yes, I have been standing a few feet away from various people beating on skins and metal with big wooden sticks for 2 hours a night for almost 45 years now. There are a few dips here and there in the spectrum, but it isn’t major (again, knocking on wood)
9. This is the standard classical music question, so please humor me: You have to live on a desert island and can only take the musical catalogs of 5 classical composers with you to listen to. Who are your 5? (mine are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Bruckner).
Actually I would only need one….
10. Not to suck up too much, but I am a huge Pat Metheny fan. I am also a runner, and one of my running routes takes me right by Lee’s Summit High School. It’s pretty cool to think that you were once a student there, beginning to shape yourself into such an incredible musician and creative force. I never get tired of listening to It’s For You…or Sueno con Mexico...or Above the Treetops…or Are you Going With Me?……ok, I will stop now…….
That’s great! You must be the only one! No one out there seems to really be that interested in my thing and never really were even way back when. It has always been that way….football and sports seem to be the dominant thing there.
Last question: Do you think growing up here in the KC area had anything to do with your development and success, or were you destined to be who you are today no matter where you would have grown up?
Growing up there was huge for me on a few different fronts. First of all, just the geography and the nature of the land itself around eastern Jackson County is fundamentally a thing for me. I carry that with me everywhere as I travel around the world and it informs everything I do. Lee’s Summit was very different in the years I grew up in, but if you go to the older parts of town, they remain almost unchanged. Whatever that feeling is, it is all the place in the music that I have made.
But maybe more importantly, the scene that existed in Kansas City during that era and the way that that community embraced me as a 14 or 15 year old kid had an enormous effect on me and provided me with a way of learning about this music at a high level that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else. I was unbelievably lucky to be able to be hired by trumpeter Gary Sivils and to have the chance to sit next to and learn from drummer Tommy Ruskin on and off the bandstand.