YouTube Logo
Pat Metheny - Cover Music Technology September 1989
Music Technology Magazine, September 1989
Click to Enlarge

Metheny and Mays:

The Music, Mechanics and Marketplace

Photography Jesse Frohtnan, Interviews by John Diliberto.

Music Tchnology
Volume 4, Number 1
September 1989

While you might hear the Pat Metheny Group over a supermarket sound system, their music (and attitude) is definitely more sophisticated than meat and potatoes.

PAT METHENY DOESN'T make the kind of music you usually hear in a supermarket between the soft rock and broccoli. But recently, I heard 'Last Train Home' from his last album, Still Life (Talking), right after an announcement for a two-for-one sale on economy-size boxes of Pampers.

"That's one of the least weird ones," says Metheny, unfazed by this revelation. "I mean, there's actually Muzak versions of some of our tunes. That is weird."

Weird, but perhaps not surprising for one of the most popular instrumental groups in America. Since his solo debut on 1977's Bright Size Life, Metheny has continued to ride a line between popular acceptance and experimentation. In his solo albums - New Chautauqua, 80/81, Rejoice and the critically acclaimed 1986 recording, Song X with Ornette Coleman - he pushes the limits of jazz improvisation and freedom.

In the Pat Metheny Group, he's created a melodic, texturally inviting, rhythmically compelling music that has drawn a cross-sectional audience. Pat Metheny and his long-time cohort and keyboardist, Lyle Mays, find themselves in a nether region between the straight-ahead jazz that they grew up with, and the easily seductive music they make with the Pat Metheny Group.

"It tickles me," laughs Lyle Mays, thinking about the Pat Metheny Group as supermarket music. "I could have an attitude that 'this is not background music,' but it's kind of fun to hear it seep into the culture."

"I think the cross-pollination is inevitable," asserts Mays in the offices of his managers in Brighton, Massachusetts. Mays is like Billy Strayhorn to Metheny's Duke Ellington, or perhaps Mr. Spock to Captain Kirk. His quiet background role has forged the group's underpinnings for years, and like his contribution, Mays is understated and sedate next to Metheny's well-known, boyish exuberance.

L-R: Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Paul Wertico, Armando Marcal, Steve Rodby, Padro Anzar
L-R: Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Paul Wertico, Armando Marcal, Steve Rodby, Padro Anzar
Click to Enlarge

"Personally I don't see our music as background music at all," says Metheny. "I see it as important to me. This is the music that I feel strongly about. It's designed to be listened to closely, preferably through headphones, really loud."

Metheny grins from beneath his thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair. Sitting in a New York City hotel room, barefoot and in leather pants, Metheny is at the top of his game as the architect of a music that blends rock, jazz, Brazilian music and classical impressionism.

Both musicians have become increasingly involved with synthesizers, although with different philosophical points of view.

Metheny's first synthesizer love was the Roland GR300 Guitar Synthesizer, whose elephant trumpet clarion has become one of his trademark sounds. He followed the Roland with the Synclavier II.

Looking back, Metheny is almost embarrassed by some of his earlier, naively enthusiastic comments like "The Synclavier is a breakthrough that makes the guitar look like nothing," or "The guitar synthesizer makes everything possible as an improvisor."

"Oh boy, I must have really been in an optimistic mood when I said that," he laughs, rocking back on the couch. "I take it back. I take it back. There is this one guitar synthesizer, and I would put it in quotes, which is the Roland GR300. It's this sort of primitive thing that a lot of people use. It's basically one sound that you can sort of turn the filter up and down on, and sort of move it up an octave or down an octave or wherever you want it. That one I love because you look at it and it knows you are looking at it. Anything you do, it does a sound that's analogous to it."

Mays, on the other hand, has always looked at synthesizers somewhat askance, even though he's played them since he bought his Micromoog in 1975. He currently uses a Macintosh with MIDIPaint software to run a Kurzweil 250 and other synthesizers, including his favorite Oberheims, to compose and arrange his own music.

"I feel that I have the freedom to say derogatory things about synthesizers, maybe because I've explored them for quite a while and have used them in all sorts of settings," he declares. Piano remains Mays' personal voice, and while he lives with synthesizer technology, he's not quite ready to take it to bed.

"There is the aspect of different personalities and what they bring to the music and there's also the actual complexity of the sounds," he says, revving up the standard argument that synthesizers can't replace the true feeling of musicians. "Acoustic instruments are just more interesting, on the sonic, acoustic level."

Metheny has come around more to Mays' way of thinking. "Synthesizers want to sound bad," he proclaims. "They do sound bad. So for me, the easiest thing is to play straight-ahead jazz with just a regular electric guitar, acoustic bass and drums. Adding synthesizers to that makes it twice as hard. Adding a guitar synthesizer to that makes it twice as hard again. Adding a sequencer to that makes it twice as hard again. So the music has to be seven or eight times better than it would normally be."

On '5-5-7' from Letter From Home, Metheny opens up a window to his Wes Montgomery/Jim Hall jazz roots. "Yeah it's funny, that's the first time with the group that we've actually come out and played like tang-a-dang," says Metheny, who's contemplating a recording of jazz standards in the near future. "We're all thinking much more in those terms than we are into pop music or whatever, even though with this record and the last one, we're dealing with the sort of pop environment more than we are with the straight-ahead jazz environment. I spend more time thinking about how what I do measures up to the standard set by Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall than I do about anybody else. I think that for Lyle it's Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. For Paul (Wertico), it's Roy Haynes. For Steve (Rodby), it's Ron Carter and people like that. Even with the stuff that we do that's more rock-oriented, it's still coming from that other point of view."

Nevertheless, don't expect either musician to be giving up their synthesizers any time soon. Both use them extensively as composing and orchestrating tools. Lyle Mays may have hired a chamber ensemble for his second solo album, Street Dreams, but they were mixed in with a lot of electronic sounds and ambiences. Metheny, who is planning a solo album of guitar and synthesizers and takes credit for the synthesizer programs on the new Metheny Group album Letter From Home, is still prone to enthusiastic claims for his Synclavier.

"It takes the limits off of your imagination," he explains. "I was a jazz guitar player and anything in the world of jazz guitar was conceivably available to me if I practiced long enough and hard enough. But now any music that I hear, I can put that into my immediate world."

Mays, who has more traditional, classical training than Metheny, also looks at synthesizers and computers as an orchestrating and composing medium. "Yeah, the process is all mixed up," he agrees. "'Cause I learned to write music the old-fashioned way, where you just had to imagine it and write out the scores. I still find that graphic representation to be a real aid, but it's also a great help to have a sonic sort of sketch. I view a lot of the sequencing things as just sketches for how the real thing will happen. I can get close enough with samples to let my imagination fill in the gaps, but for me the music doesn't happen until the end with the combination of the acoustic and electric instruments. And in the process of copying, I realized that there were all these things that acoustic players can do that you just can't do on a synthesizer, so my imagination starts taking over. In the process of actually writing out the parts, I got closer to what the music would finally sound like."

MAYS AND METHENY also share a common interest in Brazilian music, which became dominant on 1984's First Circle with the introduction of Brazilian musician Pedro Aznar. His sultry percussion and sweet, Milton Nascimento-inspired wordless vocals brought the Metheny Group closer to a pop-jazz-Brazilian sound. Even before that, Nana Vasconcelos brought that sound to the group in the early 1980s. Metheny now lives part-time in Brazil with a Brazilian girlfriend, and to hear him talk about it, the sounds of Brazil have always been a part of his music.

Lyle Mays
Lyle Mays
Click to Enlarge

"The first songs that I learned that had any kind of complicated harmonic structure at all were (Antonio Carlos) Jobim tunes," claims Metheny. "Like a lot of kids who pick up the guitar and get interested in harmony, one of the first tunes I learned is 'Girl from Ipanema' with that wild bridge that goes all over the place."

Metheny reduces his music to a simple formula. "To me, every record I've made is full of what are essentially bossa novas. I've often said that this whole thing about me being completely taken by Brazilian music in 1981 or whatever it was when Nana joined the band is really a myth. Because if you were to overdub percussion and somebody singing along with the melody, even on Bright Size Life, it would sound essentially the same as what I do now. The thing of having people in the band who are from Brazil certainly brings out that aspect of it."

Lyle Mays interpolated some Brazilian breezes into his own album, Street Dreams. One piece, 'Chorinho,' sounds like a computerized Brazilian samba via Switched-On Bach.

"Well, Brazilians, of course, will think it's very stiff, which it is from a Brazilian standpoint," says Mays sardonically. "I wasn't attempting any kind of authentic Brazilian sort of feel. It has a very Baroque element combined with the more Brazilian kind of harmonic scheme that seemed interesting to me. It was more of an etude, more of a study in a way. But it also had a kind of playfulness. It's more complex than the average little ditty."

Sometimes they're influenced by Latin music even when they don't know it. Metheny is surprised when I suggest that the opening of 'Every Summer Night' from Letter From Home, with its bandoneon-like melodica and the tango rhythm, sounds inspired by Argentinian new tango master, Astor Piazzolla. "Wow, tango," Metheny exclaims with surprise. He laughs, "Well to me it sounds like Burt Bacharach. I never thought of that as a tango, wow. I suppose it is kind of a tango. To me, it's like real pop. But yeah, why not. I mean, I'm a huge Astor Piazzolla fan, so maybe there's some kind of subliminal something in there that's happened. In fact, we are probably going to do a piece together sometime in the next few years. He wants to write something for me to play with his group."

Even as the group has gotten more and more electronic, they've infused more and more percussion, beginning with Nana Vasconcelos. "Yeah, it's true," says Metheny. "I think that as you increase the electronic elements in the group, you have to balance it with other things. It's not just percussion, it's the voice too, which really is a nice antidote to all of the technology that we use. It kind of balances things out."

Lyle Mays disagrees, however, countering with the example of the four-part title suite to Street Dreams, especially the energized second second part of Street Dreams there's an awful lot of machine percussion," he reveals. "It wasn't my original intent to use machines, but I had some trouble getting the written-out parts played. It's a tough thing sometimes without adequate rehearsal or adequate money for adequate rehearsal. It's tough sometimes to get very complex things played in such a way that they don't sound complex or they don't sound awkward. I ended up having to use a lot of machines, but I don't feel necessarily that percussion is a balance to the synth. I think that acoustic instruments in general provide more of a balance to the synths and that the rhythmic aspect of music is just something that is intrinsically interesting."

The Pat Metheny Group has set the standard for both longevity and style in contemporary jazz fusion. Despite the sometimes soft-focus pop ambience of their compositions, they've rarely sacrificed the traditional improvising basis of their music. The group tours relentlessly after each album release and, for Metheny, that's where the music comes alive. "All the different things I get to do are really fun," he exudes, "but to me it's all peripheral to the main activity of playing, which is what I became a musician for in the first place, to face it and come up with some new stuff each night."

Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Click to Enlarge

IN RECENT YEARS, the Metheny Group has been facing it more and more with sequencer backups. "We use the Synclavier as an orchestration device to play woodwind parts and string parts and stuff so that Lyle can really concentrate on the piano. So in essence, we do play with the Synclavier a lot, live and in the studio. It's very similar to a big band, and using the Synclavier as an orchestration device is exactly analogous to hiring a horn section. You are still going to write the parts for the guys and expect them to play the same every night. And what you play around that as a soloist or whatever is completely different from night to night. It's just a matter of setting up a world to play in as an improvisor and the Synclavier for me is our band. It's part of the band.

"We've been doing this since 1981," he reveals. "I don't feel the need to keep it secret. I've never really advertised it that much. But 'Are You Going With Me,' one of our most popular songs, the basic groove part of that is played by the Synclavier and that's like 1980 or '81."

"Using sequences enables us to really get a lot more parts in the music, a lot of information, and it's something we've been using more and more," affirms Mays. "It's a way of enabling complex things to happen in the course of the music that wouldn't happen with six people."

They both see no contradiction in an improvising, interactive ensemble playing with pre-programmed sequences. "We don't feel any kind of restriction from that at all," asserts Metheny. "Because everybody can really do it. I mean, I've heard people play with sequencers and it sounds so bad, you know, there's eighth notes all over the place. But Steve and Paul have a way of grabbing the machine by the horns and saying, 'Okay, this is it,' making it swing like I've never heard a rhythm section do. Rodby uses an analogy which I think is so perfect: playing with the Synclavier is like playing with somebody in the band who's got perfect time but can't listen. He's got no ears. You've just got to take that into account and make it swing. And the guy is going to lay it in the pocket every time."

"It's like playing with a musician who's incredibly stubborn," amplifies Mays, laughing. "Very accomplished in some areas, but very dense and inflexible in others. It can be frustrating if you're used to really mixing things up and really having a lot of interplay, but then again if you compare it to playing jazz with an orchestra backing the combo, it's much more flexible than that, and it certainly doesn't lag as much."

The arrival of sequencers parallels their interest in more complex, multitimbral, multi-layered compositions, which began in their pre-sequencer days of 1980 with the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays recording, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. For most listeners, Wichita is an evocative landscape that shifts through clouds of synthesizers with wistful melodies and Nana Vasconcelos' almost subliminal, yet earthy percussion.

"For me, it's about harmony," laughs Metheny, recalling all of the exotic imagery people have attached to the piece. "It's about chords. I think this is probably true for Lyle too. Even though I know the music has the potential for imagery etc., when I hear it, I hear notes and I hear chords and I wish I played better. I wish there wasn't so much reverb."

Mays won't go anywhere near an image for Wichita, nor his other, more impressionistic, extended works such as 'Alaskan Suite' from his eponymous debut or Street Dreams. "I don't think of them as landscapey and I don't really want to address them from that standpoint," he insists, clearly trying to avoid anything approaching the New Age tag. "I do think that one of the things that we've not explored in the group with Pat is more extended forms, and different kinds of structures for the music. The music with Pat is very song-based. And that's very much in the jazz tradition. The more impressionistic stuff, as you call it, is not always song-based. I think it's much more through composed and that's the main difference from a structural standpoint. You know, when you stop the rhythm section and you have the time to float for a minute with some other instruments, you are leaving the jazz realm."

Mays is trying to bring the worlds of composition and improvisation closer together. "There's a very curious connection and also a disconnection between written and improvised he explains. "All written-out music is improvised at some point. You have to conceive it or just spontaneously do it or whatever, so it's improvised at that moment. There's also a lot in the various improvising forms that is not improvisational. There are licks the players have, there are devices that they use time and time again that one might call compositional elements. But I think that the biggest diversion is in style. I mean, thoroughly composed music for English horn and bass clarinet just sounds different than walking bass and saxophone. There are all sorts of stylistic elements that are different. And I think that when you try to bridge that gap, it gets more difficult."

Mays created impressionistic, almost classical forms with guitarist Bill Frisell on 'Newborn' and the Miles Davis-influenced 'Hangtime.' "I think that there's a spectrum in what I'm doing with composed music that may not always be as apparent as composed music. But I've been trying to put as many compositional elements as I can in the more jazz-based music that I've done. For me, one of the ways of bridging the gap is to not really try to bridge it stylistically. Not trying to make an English horn swing for instance, but rather trying to organize more jazz-based music, trying to put another level of organization into it, another level of architecture. I think when that's done well, it's not all that apparent. And it's part of my continued exploration into a little more abstract, 20th century style."

Metheny took his own excursion into 20th century music when composer Steve Reich wrote Electric Counterpoint for him. It consists of ten pre-recorded electric guitar parts and two bass guitar parts, all played by Metheny, to which he adds a live guitar part. It's a work that evolves and transmutes in Reich's distinctive style, with melodies given births and rebirths.

"It was also incredibly difficult for me," confesses Metheny. "It was the first time I'd ever played anything that was written from start to finish with no improvising at all. And also just technically it was hard. It was a difficult piece to play." A longtime fan of Reich's music, it wasn't until he played it that Metheny began to understand the complex nature of his seemingly simple compositions. "What you hear and what gets played are two different things," he says. "In the composite thing that you hear, no one thing is playing. Which I sort of knew. But it wasn't until I started to hear this part that I just played an hour ago and the part I was playing live and then realizing there was this other part in the middle of my head that wasn't one single part playing, it all clicked."

Lyle Mays
Lyle Mays
Click to Enlarge

Like Mays' music, Electric Counterpoint was an attempt to merge a jazz and classical feel. That's one of the reasons that Reich decided to write it for Metheny rather than a classical guitarist. But Metheny thinks it didn't quite work on that level. "My idea was to play it a bit looser rhythmically rather than the way his music usually gets played," he explains, "which sounded great on paper to me. It's just that what I ended up doing was making this rhythmic curve in things that I then had to follow as I kept adding parts to it. That not only wasn't spontaneous after a while, it was difficult for me to follow my early parts. If I had it to do over again I would play it in a straighter way."

This merger creadted somethig of a dichotomy for Metheny. He's essentially a performing musician, playing in the jazz tradition of improvisation as composition. In the Metheny Group, that side is less evident than in his solo recordings, particularly Song X, recorded with his longtime hero, alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, along with drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Denardo Coleman.

Playing toe-to-toe on freeform blow-outs like 'Endangered Species' with Ornette's saxophone joining Metheny's guitar synthesizer in a frenetic squall of passion and daring is a shock next to the more controlled atmospheres of the Metheny Group. "It wasn't about notes anymore," recalls Metheny. "And when you can get to that point, that's when you know you've crossed the line. The thing is, Ornette is at that point about 99% of the time and that was the tune on which I could consistently cross the line with him. To me, that song is melodic, but to an extreme degree. It's a certain kind of melody playing that's a little hard to understand sometimes. But it's about the shape of melody."

Of course, Song X is the kind of record that wins critics polls instead of readers polls and sales charts. Metheny, in particular, seems to save his outside playing for outside dates, like a forthcoming Jack DeJohnette record with Herbie Hancock and a reuniting with his old boss, vibraphonist Gary Burton. But the Metheny Group has nothing if not an ear for the limits of the commercial marketplace. Their skill lies in taking music from the inside out on even their most popular songs, like the searing solos on 'Are You Going With Me?' which is continued on the Mays composition, 'Are We There Yet?' on Letter From Home.

"We have to survive. We are on the fringes of the music industry, even being pretty successful playing this kind of music," says Metheny, thinking about his presence on supermarket sound systems and New Age radio playlists. "We need every possible source of exposure that we can get, because the everyday person in America is not going to hear our music, ever. It's got to get played while you are picking out your asparagus. Because it's us against Madonna or whoever it is this week. And we are going to lose."