Concert preview: Pat Metheny a 'bandleader' on 'one long trip'

Published July 16, 2014 2:13 pm
Concert preview • He'll co-headline Red Butte with Bruce Hornsby on Monday.
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Pat Metheny has won 20 Grammy Awards and been nominated 35 times in 12 categories, so it's not easy to compartmentalize his music.

"I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of 'genre' or styles of music to start with," the guitarist/bandleader wrote in an recent email interview in advance of Pat Metheny Unity Group's show at Red Butte Garden. The band co-headlines the July 21 concert with Bruce Hornsby.

"To me, music is one big universal thing," said Metheny, who took time during his recent European tour to explain how his music often defies categorization.

Describe what you're working on right now and give us a hint when fans will have the opportunity to hear it.

The main motivation for me is exactly the same as it always has been which is to try to understand music to the best of my ability. That quest has been pretty much front and center to my consciousness since I was 11 or 12 years old and hasn't really changed much. The main difference is that I do feel like I am starting to getting to the point where there is a certain kind of connection to what I had always suspected was behind music that I am increasing gaining access to by working hard at it and really trying to give as much as I possibly can in the efforts I make to be a good musician.

Right now, I am touring with my Unity Group and we will be playing there this summer. This is one of the strongest bands I have ever had. We made a record together a few years ago called "Unity Band" — it was really successful, winning the Grammy for best jazz record and lots of other awards. I wanted to keep it going and really integrate all of the aspects of music that I really love under one roof. The new record is called "KIN" and I think it is one of the best recordings I have ever been able to offer. 

Our live presentation this time is really exciting. At the core is this exceptional group of musicians, but I have also integrated the Orchestrion (musical robotics) into this band in a way that I am excited about and we are covering a huge range of things from all over my career as a musician.

You once said: "For me, jazz is a vehicle that takes you to the true destination — a musical one that describes all kinds of stuff about the human condition and the way music works." Could you elaborate?

I think that music can come in all shapes and sizes and dimensions. I encourage everyone to recognize that most of what we are exposed to in modern culture is actually just a tiny sliver of what music actually is. I don't know why the culture at large has chosen such a small subset of possible musical expressions and seems satisfied to make endless tiny variations on those subsets rather than thinking of whole new ways of hearing and being.

There is a level of abstraction at work when talking about goals in music. For me there is no real straight line between here and there in music, it is more circular in nature in almost every way. But I can say that I get much more satisfaction out of it all now than I did 20 years ago because I can get much closer to what I imagine on a much more consistent basis. But as it always seems to go, the more you see inside of something, the more there is to see. It is that process of learning and expanding your horizons in music that makes it so fully rewarding. 

What is it that you hear in jazz that describes how music works?

I really just try to honestly represent in sound the things I love about music.

I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of "genre" or styles of music to start with. 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.

I feel like I am a musician in this broad 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 the same way I am interested in the spirit and sound of music itself.

As far as sound goes, I always try to let the music at hand decide what direction I go in terms of orchestration. 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.

In what ways, theoretically, is the Pat Metheny Group the same as or different from what started in 1977?

In many ways, my main occupation over all these years, even before being a guitar player, has been that of bandleader. Coming up with a concept for a band or a project, finding and hiring the right people and then writing music for it and finally getting it to become a viable live performing unit have been the consistent elements of my focus over all these years regardless of whatever context the music winds up in. Because I have also been the primary composer of the music that my various bands have played, I have always had specific needs to fill to get that particular set of music to sound the best that it can. In a lot of ways, I see the whole thing from "Bright Size Life" until now as one long trip, one long record, one long composition with a varying cast of characters that come and go to create a kind of exposition on the evolution of the basic premise that I laid out a long time ago on that first record.

That said, I love being around musicians who can really contribute. To me being a bandleader is kind of like being a curator — you are making a certain set of demands of the musicians around you that are based on your own sense of what it is that they do best. Among the many things about the Unity Band experience that made it such a life-changing thing for me was the fact that everyone could really be themselves and each person is able to contribute in a way that lines up exactly with what the music that I gave them asked for without a whole lot of adjustment in any way. Also, it is just a great group of people. There is very little drama or insecurity, just music — which at this point in life is really important to me.

What from your youth and who (musically) from your youth still influences you?

The whole experience of growing up around Kansas City was huge for me. I was able to start working regularly at a very young age (around 14) with many of the best players in town. I was so lucky to get all those chances to play when I was still really just a kid. By the time I got out of high school I had had quite a bit of experience on the bandstand playing with guys who were really excellent musicians, and that had a huge effect on me going forward.

The tour takes you all over Europe, the U.S. and then Korea and Japan, ending with a free concert in Playa del Carmen. Which dates/places stand out in your mind and why? 

There are some obvious things that you might be able to predict — Mediterranean audiences are more demonstrative than Asian audiences in terms of decibels, Northern audiences are maybe more analytical and so on. However, these overt observations are less interesting to me than the subtle ones. For instance, you could play three days in Rome and each of those audiences would be very different than each other, depending on the weather, the vibe, the sound in the auditorium and many other factors. The one thing I have learned over all these years is that you really never know what to expect. I play each gig like it is going to be the last time I ever play and always hope for the best from each audience.

What has performing in Salt Lake City meant to you over the years? How many times have you played here?

I have always really enjoyed playing in Salt Lake City and feel lucky to have performed there at least 10 times over the years. I am really happy we will be able to come and visit again this summer.

Are you teaching or mentoring musicians these days?

I don't get to teach as much as I would like. I really enjoy it and feel like I get more out of it than anyone. It is limited mostly to the occasional master class now and then because of the busy schedule.


Metheny and Hornsby

Pat Metheny Unity Group co-headlines with Bruce Hornsby (with Sonny Emory).

When • Monday, July 21, 7 p.m.

Where • Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $47, $42 (garden members), $32 (children 3-12)



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