Readers Poll Winner / Pat Metheny Gets Lost In Translation


For someone named Guitarist of the Year in the 2022 DownBeat Readers Poll, Pat Metheny has a complicated relationship with his instrument.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

For someone named Guitarist of the Year in the 2022 DownBeat Readers Poll, Pat Metheny has a complicated relationship with his instrument.

“I don’t necessarily think of myself as a guitar player,” he said in a September Zoom call from his hotel room in Baltimore, where he was playing to overflow crowds at the Keystone Korner before the final leg of a jam-packed makeup tour after the pandemic that would take him to South America. “Maybe it’s sixth or seventh on the list. It’s in there, but it’s nowhere near the top.”

Metheny, who has also won Album of the Year for Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV) (Modern), said that, up until about a decade ago, he thought of his instrument as a “translation device” useful in strictly utilitarian terms. “I never gave a shit about guitars. To me, they were just screwdrivers. Like, ‘A screwdriver does this, and a screwdriver does that.’ An analogy I always made was that if you look at a house, do you think, ‘Did the guy use an electric screwdriver when he did that or did he use a regular screwdriver?’ It doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is the house.”

So what changed? It started, he said, with a “delayed mid-life crisis,” one spurred by a conversation with fellow guitarist Miles Okazaki, who turned him on to single-coil pickups like those pioneered by Charlie Christian. Spending time trying out the devices at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Metheny became a convert and something of a hardware obsessive.

“They got this so right in 1936. I wondered, ‘What have we been doing for the last 70 years?’ I went down the rabbit hole.”

The extent to which his playing reflects his newfound attention to equipment may be debatable. What is not, he said, is that his playing has improved: “I don’t know why, but suddenly I could play, like, way better. It just is kind of happening. I’ve always had this thing where it’s more about the listening than the playing. Recently I’m able to hear inside it in a different way that’s allowed me to get to some really different kinds of stuff where, when I get back to the room, I can say, ‘Yeah, that was good.’”

The last time he perceived a quantum leap in the quality of his playing, he said, was in the period starting in the late 1970s. In that instance, he attributed the improvement in no small measure to the concentration of work. From the time he joined vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band in 1977 until about 1994, he was in constant gig mode, in some years playing nearly 300 dates a year.

“That was a huge thing for me,” he explained. “I was constantly filling in blanks that needed to get filled in.”

While the roots of his current improvement may be unclear, he allowed that maturing as a person hasn’t hurt: “A lot of it is that thing of just being around and hanging out and being on the planet for a long time and having a lot of experiences. It just adds up to something in a way that I honestly did not necessarily anticipate, but it’s really been gratifying.”

As gratifying as the change in his playing is, that Metheny remains first and foremost a conceptualist. “The idea is before the instrument — always,” he said, adding that he often writes music and only later realizes that there is no real place for his guitar in it. “I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be known as a good guitar player; I’d better find a hip guitar part in this.’ And sometimes I don’t.”

Metheny professed to more than occasional detachment on the bandstand — “A lot of times I feel like I’m just standing there” — though that might come as a surprise to the members of his band at the Keystone Korner, pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sánchez. Though they had not played together since their tour was put on hold in February 2020 because of the pandemic, Metheny said, “We took right up where we left off.”

That band, which by default became known as the Evening With Band — a moniker that, after playing nearly 300 live dates and producing an acclaimed album, From This Place, he thinks was too casually bestowed on it — is one made up of musicians in mid-career who all have established ensembles of their own.

But Metheny’s most recent project, Side-Eye — so named because of the sideways glance with which he views today’s “bizarre” social and political climate — is geared toward nurturing young musicians. The project, he said, has morphed at least three times, which he had anticipated and hoped for. It has also been active: About 140 of the 160 gigs he has done this year have been with the Side-Eye Trio.

The trio’s keys and drums chairs, held by James Francies and Marcus Gilmore on the album, are now occupied by Chris Fishman and Joe Dyson. As before, the group represents what Metheny called a “21st century organ trio,” with Fishman’s left hand working the equivalent of the organ pedals. The three personalities have melded so well that Metheny is considering taking the group to the Beacon Theater in New York and festivals in Europe next summer.

“The record was nice,” he said, “but it’s gotten to a much different, cool level right now.”

As the Side-Eye concept evolves, he plans to expand on it with another album. That one will enlist what he described as “every musician I might ever want to have in Side-Eye.” He’s constantly scouting young musicians, asking those he feels have promise to come to his home and jam. The new album, he said, will include about 30 of those players. All are younger than 30, and most are well versed in Metheny classics like “Bright Size Life,” which appears on Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV) and was the title track of his first album, released 41 years ago. Still in his twenties when he made that album, Metheny was nonetheless able to convince record executives that he should use an unknown bassist named Jaco Pastorius on it. With Side-Eye, the impulse to promote new talent continues.

“My thing now,” he said, “is that there are so many excellent musicians around and much to my astonishment — and it’s really interesting to me — many of them have, as a part of their diet growing up as musicians, listened to records I’ve made. So they all kind of know how to do it.”

Though he is one of the great collaborators, his every iteration of the solo format has held something fresh. That will be the case with another planned record, a solo one he said will revolve around “quiet electric guitar.” By definition, it will depart from the quiet-guitar model that typically employs the acoustic version of the instrument. Playing electric guitar quietly is not in itself new for him, but he saw appeal in documenting those efforts in a formal way.

As he put it: “In addition to playing really loud, really slow, really fast, really free, really in the changes — all the other things I hope to be as a modern musician — the thing of playing really quiet on an electric guitar was something I thought would be an interesting place to go.”

With Metheny, of course, precisely how the concept is executed remains to be seen. His solo albums have been as mixed a bag as one could imagine and still fit under the solo rubric. They have ranged from the brilliantly eccentric, electro-acoustic one-man band that yielded 2010’s Orchestrion — “the record,” he joked, “that proved once and for all just how weird I actually am” — to the follow-up, What’s It All About, a collection of pop tunes notable for its use of baritone guitar. Along with the upcoming album, he plans some solo concerts, in which he promised to appear alone onstage — in his world, perhaps, a technicality, given his predilection for conjuring phantom voices.

Long-term, he is planning performances on a wholly different scale from that of the solo affairs. About two years ago, a conglomerate of European orchestras proposed a package of concerts. He hired a student at the Juilliard School to place his oeuvre — from film scores to extended works for classical guitar — on the music-writing program Sibelius in preparation for rearranging in such a way that these orchestras could manage it. He is lining up bassist Darek Oles and drummer Jonathan Barber for that project, tentatively slated for 2024.

Meanwhile, he was looking toward the end of the COVID-makeup tour in October, after which he planned to take a break to mix the new records. After a few years that have elicited more than their share of sideways glances, he hoped to recenter before heading back on the road in May.

“So many things about this period of time have been weird for all of us,” he said. DB

Click HERE for the complete DownBeat 87th Annual Readers Poll listings.

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