Jazz Improvisation Magazine Interview
Jazz Improvisation magazine – 2004 interview with Pat Metheny
JI: Could you tell us about the kinds of feelings and sounds and things that you experienced growing up that led you toward the direction you’ve taken?
PM: Well, I’m from a musical family, my older brother Mike is a great trumpet player and he’s five years older than me and as far back as I can remember, I can recall the sound of him practicing. I think he started when he was six or seven and the sound of someone practicing trumpet in the house has kind of been with me right from the very beginning. My dad was also a trumpet player all through his college years and he continued to play and still plays a bit. And my mom’s dad was a professional trumpet player his whole life. He played with John Philip Sousa’s band one summer, he was an amazing trumpet player, so trumpet was kind of the sound that probably defined my early relationship to music of all kinds and remains probably my touchstone in terms of sound. I still think and also I should add, I started playing trumpet when I was eight. Mike was my teacher and we had a great teacher in our school system who was also a great trumpet player, Keith House was his name, and Mr. House was Mike’s teacher and whatever Mr. house taught him, Mike would try to teach me. The trumpet consciousness I think that’s been with me from the early days has always been a real defining part of who I am as a musician and the kinds of things that I’ve been attracted to. I grew up in a little town in Missouri called Lee’s Summit, that’s not too far from Kansas City, although the time that I grew up there as young kid, it seemed like it was really far from Kansas City. It was a town that my dad grew up in, his dad spent most of his life there, it had two or three thousand people the years that I grew up there. It has since expanded quite a bit because they built interstate highway rings around Kansas City and it now has crept out towards Lee’s Summit, where there’s thousands and thousands more people that live there now. But in my mind it’s always going to be this little sleepy mid-western town. But, the fact that Kansas City was close by was pretty significant because starting at around age, well, I switched from the trumpet to the guitar at around age 11 or 12 and got intensely interested in jazz after Mike brought home a Miles Davis record, “Four and More” – an amazing record-and as much as I hear people describe how jazz is supposed to be this thing that you gradually have to learn about and develop a taste for, in my experience as an 11 year-old, it was sort of like somebody walked into the room and turned on the light, from the moment the needle went down.
JI: It was the same for me.
PM: That was the way it was for me and it wasn’t just Miles, it was the sound of Tony Williams’ ride cymbal and the way Herbie was playing -- all of that was just kind of like an electric shock to me; like an alarm clock going off. From that moment until now it’s been kind of a continuous journey for me of trying to explore and aspire toward that level, that kind of ability to manifest ideas into sounds. Starting from that point on is when I began to try to learn about jazz on a practical level and the best thing that happened to me was that Kansas City was just down the highway. I was at a jam session when I was 14 years-old with some of the best musicians in Kansas City, who then began to call and I got hired to play pretty much all the best gigs in town from the time I was a freshman in high school until I graduated.
JI: Did those jobs involve reading music or had you already developed a repertoire of tunes you had memorized?
PM: No, we were playing jazz gigs, larely in the format of the organ-trio thing, which was the hip thing then. The years we’re talking about are 1969 through 1972, were the years that I was active around Kansas City. And, you know what the scene was in Philly, and Kansas City in particular was one of those organ-trio kind of towns. So, if it wasn’t an organ, it was something sort of like that. Most of the gigs that I played in Kansas City were under the auspices of an incredible trumpet player – who still lives out there, who still is the major jazz musician in Kansas City. His name is Gary Sivils. Playing in Gary’s different bands was probably the most important, amazing, incredible experience I ever could have had as a teenage kid growing up anywhere in the mid-west. Gary always had the best players and he was one of those kind of players that was very intuitive; he couldn’t really tell you, “okay, these are the notes in this chord”, and “you should play this chord scale” or any of that. He was just one of those guys who could play a ballad and break your heart. He was an incredible, melodic, amazing improviser. To have had the kinds of experiences that I’ve had at such a young age, playing not only with Gary, but with all the musicians that were in Kansas City, in particular a couple of drummers who remain some of my favorite rhythm section players I’ve played with. It gave me a real head start and laid a foundation , I think for pretty much everything that I have done.
JI: It sounds like when you heard Four and More, it was a bell-weather for things to come. Did your interest and curiosity motivate you to transcribe the music that was on those recordings, or was it more of a intuitive process?
PM: Well, as we know now, that era of Miles’ music and of jazz in particular, was a pretty advanced place to jump into the pot. Honestly, the whole idea of playing on form and that sort of thing, at the point that I heard it, I didn’t know what they were doing. I didn’t have a clue that there were cycles in the form that were happening when they were playing. I just loved the sound of it and I loved the spirit of it. It was a very visceral thing for me. And then, the process began of trying to understand. And I might add that that process continues to this exact moment and it hasn’t ever stopped. I can’t say that transcription was ever a huge thing for me. It was more memorization, kind of out of love more than out of, “this would be a good idea for me to do to advance my education.” It was more like, “I just want to listen to that 5,000 times in a row !”(laughs) And after about time 2,000, you have it memorized. That went for not only what Miles was playing but also for the rhythm section-type stuff. I’ve always felt like, and maybe it was just my experience, we didn’t have thousands of records. I had probably about eight records that I just loved. That I would just listen to over and over again. In some ways, I think that’s almost better because the records that I really know...I really know them. Then you have every record that such-and-such guy recorded and you listen to them every now and then. There were a few records that I just completely immersed myself in, and that was one of them. There was a Wes Montgomery record, Smokin’ at the Half Note with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. There’s an Ornette [Coleman] record, New York is Now, which in fact may not be one of his better records, but it is the one that I wound up spending a lot of time living with. There was a Gary Burton record – a very obscure Gary Burton record, Live in Concert. It was a live record from the late 60’s, his quartet. Those four records were records that I just listened to over and over and over and over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of them. Of course I was listening to everything else too, but I tended to spend a lot of time with those records.
JI: I feel exactly what you’re talking about. When I first heard Miles [Davis In Person, Friday and Saturday Night Live] at the Black Hawk, I knew nothing about jazz. It just hit me. It was the energy that grabbed me-not any perception of the individual notes or the music. I had no idea what they were doing or how they were doing it. I think I bought that record three times in vinyl format, among others that I played over and over again.
PM: I think so many people get their introduction to the music by hearing Miles. Past, present and future. I think that he’s a very unique case. His music, his records are unique in that they offer a kind of overt accessibility and yet, they’re unbelievably advanced. That quality of those two things are so often described as things that are incompatible. They are things that I’ve noticed throughout my life as a musician and as a fan of his music, that whenever those two things are in common – the sort of like invitational quality and accessibility sonically and spiritually with incredibly detailed components and incredibly advanced languages being expressed. That’s what gets me. That’s what attracts me. Real brainy, intellectual stuff that doesn’t really sound that good, I can appreciate as a musician and I’ve always been able to appreciate it. Even at that time I was trying to listen to a lot of Schoenberg and that sort of thing, but I never really dug it that much in the same way I dug Bach or even Bartok. To me, there’s this unique other thing that happens rarely in jazz, where the musicians are able to take the most complex conceptual things and render them in the most soulful kind of way, that attracts people to want to hear it.And that, to me, is what Miles did better than anybody. That’s why there’s so many people, their introduction to jazz, is Miles and he remains their number one favorite.
JI: After beginning on the path of memorizing and learning the musical language, songs, basic elements and motivic morsels, what processes did you go through in developing your approach to improvisation?
PM: During that period of time, the late 60’s early 70’s, things had not gotten quite as quantified as they are now in terms of labeling. Like let’s say for instance, on a D minor 7 you got a Dorian, or this-that-or the other thing. Certainly the players that I was playing with didn’t know Dorian from a hole in the ground. They were just playing sounds. A couple of the piano players that I’ve played with have a certain advanced harmonic-thing going on , but they didn’t really sit around talking about too much, in terms of like, “okay, use chord scale here and use that chord scale there.” It was more like these kinds of substitutions – to describe substitutions as things that work to enhance and expand the harmony. It sounds good. There weren’t many official teachers around Kansas City. None on the guitar, but there was a really great jazz piano player in Kansas City who I got to play with a lot and I actually did study with him for a little while. His name is John Elliot. If you ever talked with any musician in Kansas City, chances are they also studied with John Elliot. He is something like what I think Dennis Sandole is in Philly. He was the guy who gave lessons, who taught people about harmony, in particular about advanced harmony, and was also able to play great. The thing about John is that he didn’t describe things in terms of chord scales much either. He described things almost completely in terms of bi-tonality. Like you impose this certain kind of harmony over that kind of harmony, with which you have this sound or that sound. That kind of study was the first formalized sense I ever had of organization of tones. It wasn’t until I started playing with Gary Burton, who is probably the most eloquent chord-scale guy I have ever seen in terms of really being able to go in depth as to the why, when and how of which note to fit on to which chords, that I was able to connect this sort of intuitive thing of Sivils, with the bi-tonality thing of John Elliot, with, what I would say is now sort of understood around the world, as the basic language of chord-scale based improvisation that we all pretty much agree on. To me, I still to this day, move around between these three points of view. Playing with Gary, and also part of my gig of playing with Gary, was to teach at Berklee. I had to learn the standard nomenclature of, if it says, “D minor 7, flat 5, you need to take the Locrian or the Locrian Natural 2.” Prior to the time I was around Gary, I didn’t think I would think that was F minor, or something like that, F minor 6.
JI: That’s the kind of terminology that was written in the old “Number 1” or “Number 2” fakebooks.
PM: Exactly. Like, “oh, okay, this is a better way to think about this!” Gary would just instantly view – you could throw like 50 random chords at him and he would find all the common tones and give you this neat package at how to look at it. It’s like, “wow, that’s fantastic! That’s great!” It was magnificent to have not only that tool offered to me, but to be able to stand two feet from somebody that could render that into these magnificent solos.
PM: At the same time, I’ve always valued that my early days were always spent playing by ear combined with this very weird John Elliot thing. For me, it’s a mix of all of those things.
JI: We ran an interview a few issues back with Gary Campbell. He said that when he got to Miami he said he was shocked. He was accustomed to doing everything intuitively and suddenly, it was all laid out in scriptures, as he called it.
PM: There’s two sides to that issue. Among younger musicians, I’ve run across several guys who willfully don’t address the idea of chord scales. They don’t really want to know it almost. They want to hark back to the day where it was much more about playing by ear and also super-imposing things on top of each other as opposed to this sort of linear thing. To me, the best is to know everything and to have all different angles of it. I will say what I have seen over the last 25 years as the chord scale system has become more and more accepted as the, “this is how you’re supposed to do it” thing. Probably the most important aspect of all this is to talk about, when you’re talking about chord scales, is that in fact, they’re not scales. They’re just a group of available tones – and in my opinion that doesn’t get emphasized enough. The fact that they’re even defined as scales is slightly problematic. It’s sort of like philosophy or religion, if you go back far enough it’s all the same shit anyway. (laughs) It almost doesn’t matter what face you put on it.
JI: Ultimately, it’s the sound that comes out. You’ve probably experienced this. I have. I remembering approaching any number of accomplished players as I was developing and asking “what was that that you did?” The response was usually: “Oh, I don’t know what I did.” Maybe that was their method of protecting their own unique approach to music, for fear that somebody might decipher their trade secrets. Or, they really didn’t know how to put into words exactly this complicated process of harmonically sophisticated improvising at which that they had become so fluent. Instead they were simply using their own uniquely conceived and ordered vocabulary in expressing whatever they heard.
JI: I was going to ask you about some of the artists that you’ve played with that have influenced you, but of course you have mentioned Gary. Are there some others that you’d like to cite along the way?
PM: Maybe we should spend just a little bit more time on Gary, because to me, his impact on me in terms of improvisation, was so enormous. First of all, as a fan, because before I joined his band he was already one of my favorite improvising musicians. But most importantly, the actual experience of standing next to him night after night for three years is something that I can’t really say I’ve experienced with anybody else to the degree I’ve experienced it with him, in terms of just watching somebody who can really improvise with that kind of clarity and freshness so succesfully night after night, year after year. Maybe because it’s vibes, sometimes people miss it a little in his case because there’s all this ringing and all these notes going on ...it’s like, “what is all of that?” At the core of everything with Gary is this unbelievable wealth of melody and he can reinvent it at will like few improvisors I have heard. As much as I admire many other kinds of players, the players I think I ultimately respond to the most and I think, have tried to emulate the most, are the guys who can really play melodically. By that I mean players who can generate things that are not simply “melodious” but who really connect detailed lines and ideas for really long periods of time as a matter of course in their improvisations. People who can play entire solos that are developed and truly linked through melodic material. That’s a goal that is rarely talked about. It’s much easier to talk about and quantify chord scales and rhythmic displacements and all the millions of little bells and whistles that we all love to talk about.
PM: The thing about melody is that you can’t really describe it in a way. Like, “why does this really work as a melody and this doesn’t?” It looks like it should, but it doesn’t resonate somehow. The players that really have affected me the most are Gary or Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall. I would even include people who aren’t obviously “melodic” playeres – all the guys that I just named are overtly melodic players, but I would almost include Cecil Taylor, certainly Trane. It doesn’t have to be people that we think are melodic, but the people that have the kind of impact on me as a listener all display very high stake in connecting their ideas through melodic gestures of their own design. Those melodic gestures may be simple. They may be complicated. They may be rhythmic. They may be a-rhythmic, but there’s this core sense of personal melody that connects everything. Gary’s reservoir of that impulse is just bottomless. It was so amazing for me to have to follow him night, after night, after night. Amazing is not the right word. Challenging. Stimulating. Exciting and scary. I just think that anytime any player can be around somebody who is addressing melody to that degree of intensity, it’s going to really help their development, and that certainly was true for me.
JI: Were there other aspects of your association with Gary that had an impact on you, in addition to the musical aspect-professionally, business, personally?
PM: His impact just in terms of my awareness; what it’s like to be a bandleader; what it’s like to be a functioning participant in the “music business.” I had never really been around anything like that. The guys that I was playing with in Kansas City were just playing local gigs. I never had any sense that this was a business. I was also 18, so I was much more concerned about trying to play and felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water with just that. Early on in my stay in Gary’s band, the proposal came up for me to make my own record for ECM. Gary at that time was the producer for ECM, so suddenly it was like, “You mean a record contract? Wow...what’s that?” That began a period of Gary explaining everything to me like, “Now this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to sign this thing and you’re going to make a record. Since you’ve written TUNES, you’re going to have to start a publishing company, etc. “ All that stuff that was totally new territory for me, so yeah, certainly Gary helped enormously in that. Plus, Gary was, in some ways, one of the last of the “mom & pop bandleaders.” That was his business. He drove around in his van all over the place playing gigs. His profit margin was probably $100 or $200 per gig and that was the model that my band was based on. During the three years we played with Gary, we played hundreds of gigs all over the world and it was time for me to move on. I made a couple of records and started my own band. Basically, I just modeled exactly off what I had been doing with Gary. We bought a van, drove around, played hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gigs everywhere and built up an audience. That’s a thing that you don’t see many people do nowadays.
JI: The whole economy has changed. In Philadelphia there were a bunch of jazz clubs. One of the clubs was Brandi’s Wharf, where big bands would come and they’d play a week at a time. There was Just Jazz. There was the Main Point where I first saw you in 1974 with Gary Burton’s band-which at the time included Mick Goodrick on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass, Bob Moses on drums and Gary.
PM: I remember that gig really well. We played there often, and in fact, when my band started, that was one of the few places we could get a gig! (laughs).
JI: In the 1970s and prior, artists would be booked to play at a place in town for three or four days at a time. Now, nobody’s booking anybody in a club for that length of time. Venues want artists to come in for one night, bring all their fans and then, “you’re outta there!” They want to get the next group in to bring all their fans.
PM: It’s true. A lot of what you’re saying is true, however I feel I must add, it really wasn’t that great back then either. I’ve always feel it’s important to remind people of that. It was rough then too. Back then when I started my band, our fee for the band was usually around $200-$250 for the whole band. I could pay $25, $30, $40 a guy after I paid for the hotel and the gas money and the commission and yet I knew, and it was important to me as a bandleader, to play every place we could possibly play and to get guys that were willing to do that. That was hard to do then and it’s hard to do now. I still really, really, really believe that anybody that’s got something really powerful and important to say as a musician, as a jazz musician or otherwise, if they want to go out and play hundreds of nights a year, they can and will develop an audience. It’s just that it requires a commitment that very few people are willing or are in the position to be able to do. Part of it for me, was at that time, I was in my early 20’s as were the guys I was playing with. At that age, they’re like, “Sure, let’s go out and play 300 gigs! Yeah, we’re going to make $20 a night? Fine. We’re going to have fun!” Also, at the time we started, we were on a mission from god musically. We really had a point that we wanted to make. I think that could be done now too. I really do, and in fact, the only group that I’ve seen that has sort of modeled their thing on something somewhat like on our thing and have had success, has been Medeski, Martin and Wood. They also went out and played every place they could possibly play relentlessly...
PM: The truth is, then, and now, the only thing you have is to go out and play gigs. Radio doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. No one will know about you otherwise. You have to go out and play gigs. That’s it. You probably won’t make any money for a long, long, long, long time, if ever, but you get to play.
JI: That’s the best part. You’ve worked with keyboardist Lyle Mays for many years. How did you two meet? What kinds of discoveries and connections musically, energetically, spiritually are there between you?
PM: Well, from the first minute I heard Lyle, which was in 1976 at the Wichita Jazz Festival, I was there playing with Gary Burton’s Quartet and Lyle was there as part of a student ensemble from NORTH Texas State, I had just never heard anybody my age who had so many of the same interests. It was just obviously apparent to me that he was curious about so many of the same issues that I was interested in harmonically, etc. We struck up a friendship that night. Shortly after that, he came to Boston, played a gig with myself, Swallow played bass and Danny Gottlieb played drums. From literally the first note we played, it was like, “Oh! (claps his hands once). There’s the sound!” We didn’t even really think about it. It just was. How many years is it now? ‘76...so that’s about 28 years and we haven’t stopped. We still have so much to talk about musically. We have been able to communicate, not only as players, but as performers with an audience, through our joint interest in expansion of what our basic musical relationship to eachother could be. For all these years, in ways that continue to grow. We’re working on a record right now that is easily the best work we’ve ever done together and an incredibly ambitious undertaking for what the band can be. He remains one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known. He’s just an amazing guy and we have a certain rapport as players, as friends and as people, that is really fertile. We have a lot of fun trying to figure it all out.
JI: Is the album that you’re working on, radically different in terms of instrumentation, or is it a different concept musically or directionally. I don’t want to take you in places you don’t want to go to before it’s released.
PM: Yeah, I’ll just say this. It’s really ambitious. It’s the same band as on the last record, with one slight change, but essentially the same band. One thing about my efforts as a musician in general, and I think it’s reflected in the group and in the work I do as well too, I don’t feel like – if I look back at the first record that I made all those years ago, Bright Size Life, I can sit here right now and play the music from Bright Size Life and it still feels current to me. I think there’s some musicians that say, “Oh man, I did that shit...that’s like some old...no, man, I don’t play that anymore.” For me, it’s all been one thing. It’s been a process of going deeper into that thing and expanding that thing. It’s always been this general zone that’s kind of infinite in it’s potential. This record...it’s not like you’re going to put it on and go, “Oh my god! Who’s that?!” Yeah, it’s our thing – but it is exponentially expanded now in terms of the writing.
JI: When you say exponentially expanded in terms of the writing, does that mean that there are fewer places for improvisation or spontanaiety, in the music with your regular group, where there is more ensemble writing or pre-determined structure, as compared to, let’s say, your Trio album with Bill Stewart and Larry Grenadier?
PM: The group, in general, has functioned and continues to grow in the area of trying to find a balance between the development of the written material and the development of the improvisational material. By that, I mean not only the improvisations themselves, but the frameworks that forms the structure that the improvisational areas are built upon, and how they connect to the written material. To me, that place the group in a category that brings it closer in a way to a big band than to a trio in many cases, although certainly the group could strip down to being a trio at any point much the same way a big band can. The areas of research for us that I think have proven to be the significant ones, have been when we gathered all of our forces not only as improvisers, but in terms of what the ensemble can offer, and align them in such a way that all cylinders are working in the same direction. This project is more about the gathering of all the forces than it is about this big swathes of blank white paper. Trio playing for me is all about the white paper factor, and I’ve loved that too. The group thing is much more about the details in the canvas.
JI: I wanted to ask you before about guitarists who’ve specifically influenced you and why. In hearing you speak, I see a similarity between us in the sense that in my study and practice and development, I deliberately avoided vibes players. Not that I didn’t listen to them, but I wanted to be able to be challenged to articulate the kinds of lines that worked easily or well on other instruments, but not necessarily on my own.
I listened to and or transcribed, for example, a lot of music by Thad Jones or Joe Henderson. I like their angular sense of rhythms, and the fact that things were so spontaneous. Learning their styles forced me to transfer it to the vibes. It was much different than learning and practically applying what some other vibes players – like Gary or Milt Jackson- might have done. It took me in other directions. Did you similarly find yourself exploring music by non-guitar players, for that express purpose of not pigeon-holing yourself into a style of playing that others have done before?
PM: Yeah, definitely. The other thing, it’s probably true for you too, is that much of the music that I really love, didn’t have guitar. I want to preface the answer to that though, by saying that when I really got interested in the guitar, I had a big, big hero, and that was Wes Montgomery. Wes remains my number one hero, to the point where when I first started playing in the first year or two, I played only with my thumb. I played in octaves every chance I possibly could. Basically, I did everything I could do to emulate and sound like Wes. In fact, part of the reason I started to get gigs at age 13, 14, 15 around Kansas City, was that it was viewed as kind of far out that this little kid could do this Wes Montgomery imitation. It was like, “Wow! He sounds like Wes Montgomery!,” according to the average casual Kansas City jazz fan.
JI: With the thumb and all!
PM: It was quite, whatever....that was where I was coming from. Fortunately for me, very shortly after I started playing gigs around Kansas City, a couple of older musicians didn’t dig it that I was sounding like Wes Montgomery. They kind of overtly didn’t dig it and came up to me and said, “What are you doing that for? Why are you playing all that Wes Montgomery stuff? You ought to try to get your own thing happening.” So I thought, “Yeah, you’re right!” (laughs) Then I went, and have gone, and still am, to a point where I realized I love Wes Montgomery so much, that the thought of imitating him became incredibly disrespectful when I really thought about it. Then, it was like, “Well, I’m never going to do that again,” and even now, every now and then I’ll play a note or two in octaves, and I’m like, “Oh, man.” I just can’t do that, you know? It’s just not right to do that. It’s funny because even now when I hear somebody else playing like Wes Montgomery, I have to leave. I can’t even stay in the room, or if I hear it on the radio, it freaks me out! Yet, at the same time, we live in an era in jazz now, where it’s perfectly fine now, to sound like anybody. In the mid to late ’70’s and early 80’s it seems like it stopped being a priority that you had to find your own thing. It used to be that that was the main thing, and something shifted in there, where, “You sound like Wayne Shorter!” “Yeah, I take a little bit of Wayne. I kind of like Joe Henderson too. It’s like, I’m a cross between Wayne and Joe Henderson.” It’s like the whole idea of just eliminating that as a possibility doesn’t come up the way it did for me in that moment. I can remember it very well that summer I was 15. I said, “Okay, I love Wes Montgomery so much, that I am never, ever going play anything that sounds like him ever again.
JI: It was fortuitous that those guys told you that so early on. We all are presented with influences that take us in certain directions. Those influences can be overwhelming and can keep us penned in to certain approaches. I guess initially, though, when we’re young and someone suggests something, or offer constructive ideas, we might say “Gee, why is this guy criticizing my playing?
PM: Totally. The other was that when I used to do my Wes Montgomery thing, it would get lots of house and you know, I was a little kid with braces on my teeth. Honestly, I have heard many, many people do great Wes Montgomery impressions over the years, dozens of guys, but mine was right up there. I did a really good Wes Montgomery imitation for the time and where I was at, yet at the same time, I knew too; that this isn’t the point of this.
JI: You had so much respect for Wes Montgomery, that you didn’t want to do exactly what he was doing because it was already said. Many aspiring musicians though embrace the opposite of that perspective. I think in schools, especially, you see Coltrane clones, Charlie Parker clones and so on. I read that back in the 50’s if somebody would say to some established or emerging artist, “Hey, you sound like Sonny Rollins, or you sound like Lester Young.” The recipient of that “compliment” would do everything they possibly could to change their style. They wanted to avoid doing the kinds of things that elicited the comment about how similar they might have sounded to another stylist.
PM: Absolutely and I would say in many ways, I was always overly sensitive to that. If somebody said, “You sound like so-and-so,” I would always go, “Oh, man, I better stop doing whatever that is!” Somewhere around that period, the idea clarified itself in my mind. Sort of like, “What’s the point, here?” The point, to me, is to essentially manifest into sound the things that you found to be true in your own life. That’s what the point is. I think about the thing that all of my favorite musicians have in common. They all represent a very particular kind of individuality that is unique to who they are. Now we’re going to connect this to the question that you initially asked. Once that point became clear to me, I started asking questions of myself and of music, like, “What is it that I really love about all of this?” When I think about Four and More and when I think about STRAVINSKY, and I think about the Beatles, and I think about Sonny Rollins and Dolly Parton and all the stuff that I love. There’s something that connects all that stuff. What is that? What’s the glue between all these things? And now, you’re waiting for the answer! The answer is one that to me, only exists in the syntax of sound. That sound is what I’ve been in serious pursuit of from that time until now. Within the world of jazz, there’s an enormous political component which has only increased in the last 15-20 years. That political component has never been nearly as interesting to me as the sound. I would say that there’s a lot of jazz where “jazz” is the destination. Then there’s a lot of jazz where music is the destination and jazz is the vehicle that takes you to that. That is the music that I’ve always been attracted to, but not much of that has come from the guitar. Most of it has come from saxophone players, piano players, etc. Some of it has come from the guitar, but one thing that I’ve been really excited about is that I feel like, in the last 27 years, I’ve been a component in a group of guys who are often grouped together-John Scofield, Bill Frisell-where we’ve all worked really hard to bring our instrument into that zone of offering to our fellow musicians a sound that really hadn’t been explored much in this sound world, prior to the 70’s or so. It has become a viable force the development of modern music. I think in my case and in terms of my interests, and when I think about John and Bill I know it’s the same, it’s that thing of really trying to develop an individual voice on the instrument that transcends the instrument. When I think about Wes Montgomery, who was my original model for that, he certainly did it too. I would add to that, Jim Hall, who found a way for his instrument to co-exist with Sonny Rollins and that kind of virtuosic and completely exploratory linear blend. I would also add to that, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, who I think transcended the instrument in very, very essential and important ways, the same way that we find with the best of the horn players.
JI: I totally resonate with what you said. Going back to the political reference that you made, could you elaborate on that a little more? Are you specifically referring to a kind of an “executive branch’ in jazz of people at the corporate level, or are you referring to...
PM: I think there’s many different ways you could look at that, at the cultural component of what jazz is and how it fits into the larger culture at any given time. It’s always big news in the magazines and yet, twenty years later, the only thing that remains is the sound
JI: And the music.
PM: And the music. So, ultimately, it’s not of much consequence, although, it’s probably of more consequence at the moment because people’s livelihoods are really affected by the way the larger culture is moving away from anything having to do with, probably what most of us reading this magazine would call, anything interesting. It’s rare now that the larger culture that meets our requirements for holding our attention. Those are aspects of the political state of jazz that I do find myself pondering, and partially for my own continued survival. I want to be able to keep playing. I do want to know what’s going on out there in the larger world so that we can, I don’t want to say compete, but function even on the margins and continue to play. So, my awareness of it goes to that point and not much further.
JI: Could you discuss the kinds of things you go through in your composing. I’m imagining that there’s no particular, specific process. As improvising musicians we might pick up a fragment from something we’d played and say, “Oh, that could be a whole tune.” Or, we might discover some rhythmic element or maybe the title of a tune that goes with some melodic thing that goes with some chord changes, or any combination. How has that panned out for you over the years?
PM: My impulse to start writing music was driven by the fact that I was unable to find in standard tunes, blues forms, the modern tunes of the day, vehicles that were satisfactory for me to invest the kinds of things that I was curious about as an improviser, fully and successfully. I had to start writing tunes in order to play the way I wanted to play. It was a very practical, pragmatic decision. There’s this way I’ve got to play. I want to be able to play on triads. I love the sound of three notes that are the basic chords and there’s really nothing out there that really does that. The first tune that I wrote, that I felt like, “Okay, this is setting up the way I want to play. There’s a tune called “April Joy.” It didn’t appear until later on, but if you listen to that tune, it’s on the first group record. It’s that thing of having a couple of keys available all the time that comes from this John Elliot thing I was talking about, like where it’s sort of in B flat, but it’s sort of in F, but it’s kind of in D major. It’s kind of like there’s all these common tones all ringing between all these chords, and only a couple of notes shift. It’s set up a very simple diatonic way of thinking about chords, that allows me to improvise using very simple, not “pentatonic-like” kind of thing. Triadic type things. That was a zone that I was really curious about. After that came all the tunes that are on Bright Size Life, that I think really exemplify that kind of philosophy harmonically, that were all functional kinds of writing things, for me. Once I got my foot in the zone of like, you can write a tune and it’s sets up this whole sonic environment for improvisation to happen, as well as a harmonic environment. Then I went crazy. To this day, the group thing has gone from something that started out as just song-type work, to these structures that I don’t even know how you can describe them in terms of, “A-A, B-B, C-DD” type of things. They’re no longer about just songs. They’re really much more involved compositionally.
JI: Could you discuss your activities composing music for film?
PM: It’s a funny zone that I hadn’t really anticipated. There’s a thing that started to emerge as we started making records, that was never intentional, but it seemed to attract people to our thing that weren’t necessarily jazz fans. It was kind of the imagery that it seemed to evoke for people. It was never intended to do that. It just kind of happened to do that and that attracted film people to it, I guess. We started to get requests and people started to use tunes occasionally for films. The first one was actually used in Kevin Costner’s first movie called, “Fandango,” where they used twenty minutes of one of our records sort of at the end of the movie. I wasn’t quite sure about it, but when I saw the movie, I was like, “Yeah, that works!” To me, it was hard for me to separate the music from this sort of insular world of sound, to this other thing. I’ve always enjoyed movies, in general, so I figured, “Yeah, maybe that would be fun.” So, I started to accept doing a few of them. I think I did eight or ten over the years, and then sort of retired. It wasn’t anything that I ever spent an enormous amount of time on in terms of an ambition level, like, “I really want to go out and do film scores! You know, it was more like things would come along and if it happened to be during a break in a tour, I figured it would be fun. At first I just wanted to see if I could do it and not get fired; if I could actually just do the job. Because I’ve been a band leader for so long and so much of the time, I actually love working as a side-man. It’s really fun for me to go into somebody else’s world and try to offer them and deliver to them what their vision is. Writing music for films is the ultimate version of that. You not only get to go into the director’s world, but there’s all these people on the screen. There’s a reality there, and that reality is really what you’re in service of and I actually love that. The down side of it is it takes a lot of time and you’re having to interface with Hollywood, which I don’t do well at all, as it turns out. (laughs) I’m one of the least Californian-types of people there could be. Also, millions of dollars are at stake, and you’re the last guy that got to be able to save some stuff for them, which music often does. As a result, whenever I run into a film guy, the kind of guy that does 8-10 films a year, they all look twenty years older than they are. It’s incredibly stressful. For me, I wouldn’t say, “No,” to something amazing if it were to come along, although most of what comes along isn’t that amazing. I realize if I’ve got two or three months of my life, I’d rather do a record, or tour. It’s much more satisfying and grounded. It’s fun to do a film score every now and then, but ultimately, I found it slightly unsatisfying – at least compared to going out and playing gigs. I’d rather play the gig.
JI: What criteria do you have for selecting musicians for your group?
PM: Wow, that’s a big one and a hard one. It’s very, very difficult for me to find people. Basically, you’re asking somebody to understand the ins and outs of what has happened in jazz over the last forty or fifty years, and then be willing to not do those things. Not only be willing, but understand why it’s often not the right thing to do for what that music is, yet at the same time it forms the basis for everything that you do on the gig. And then there’s another component which is; it’s a really hard gig. You play sometimes three and a half, four hours straight with no intermission; a hundred and fifty to two hundred nights a year; six, seven, eight nights a week without a night off. It’s one of the hardest gigs there is. Also, the standard that I maintain for myself is one that I expect from everybody else, is to play every night like you’re going to be dead tomorrow. Anything other than that is not really acceptable, so it all adds up to being a really hard gig. To find people capable musically and also on all these other levels is very difficult for me. For that same reason, there hasn’t been a lot of personnel changes over the years. For however many years it’s been now, there’s only been two bass players and one of them was only in the band for two years at the very beginning...maybe only a year and a half. The other guy, Steve Rodby, has been there ever since. We’ve only had three drummers; one guy for seven years, one guy for fourteen years and then one guy who has done the rest. So, the other guys, the people who have come and gone, their roles are more like section players in a big band. The core of the group has always been a quartet. That core has maintained a very high performance standard over the years, that I’ve described, and a pretty high standard in terms of what we expect from ourselves. It’s a very unique situation.
JI: Being on the road is so demanding, even just logistically-getting to the gig, air flights... No matter how wonderful they may be or no matter how polite people are at the airport, you’re still away from home. It’s a challenge to eat nutritionally and stay in shape, and to maintain your stamina. In light of the fact that you’re playing so hard for four hours, and many days in a row, what kind of lifestyle on the road do you and the members of your group lead? How do you maintain high levels of both mental and physical stamina?
PM: Our thing is unique on a levels. I talk to a lot of musicians who go out on the road and they’ll do thirty, forty or fifty gigs and say, “Wow, I’ve really been out there hitting it hard.” To me, fifty gigs barely qualifies as a tour (laughs). There’s lots of different stages to all this and I’ve been doing this so long, starting in 1974 when I was with Gary, so that’s thirty years that I’ve pretty much spent on the road. From 1974 to 1993, it averaged around 230 days a year. I’ve really grown up doing this, and for me, I can only talk about my thing. Everybody’s got different ways of doing things and I would never say there’s only one way to do it. For me, what has worked has been to be pretty conservative. There’s no real philosophy attached to this; I’ve never even tried alcohol or drugs. I just have never been interested in it. I just kind of skipped that whole thing. In Kansas City, all these bands that I was playing with, that I speak very fondly of and have very fond memories of, the truth is most everybody was bombed out of their minds, most all the time. As the night would go on, the music would sound worse, and worse, and worse. It was pretty evident to me, even at that time, there was no real benefit to getting more and more plastered. Nobody was sounding better as the night would go on and that was really obvious, so, that may have had something to do with it. Also, I’ve always been apathetic towards all that stuff; I never really saw much appeal to it. I was in bands with so many people that were strung out, literally, and I didn’t see any upside to it at all. It didn’t seem like anybody was particularly happy or groovin’ or sounding especially good because of it. There was nothing about it that was cool. It was like that for me. As time has gone on, it’s turned out to be a benefit that I never went there, because I can see now when I look into the mirror compared to people that I know my age or even younger, there is a toll that’s paid. Especially drinking. It’s always been important for me to maintain a connection to real life. The way that works is I just get out, run a few miles each day. If I’ve got a few hours, I don’t stay in the hotel room. I try to see something, walk around or do something. What I notice is, that to maintain a good thing on the road, its partially physical, but it’s mostly mental. You have to stay in contact. It’s the people that disengage are the ones that have the most problems. Everyone in the band kind of just lives in their own little pod. I really try to stay engaged with the world as much as I can. As I said before, 230 nights on the road is such a different animal than even 100 nights on the road, particularly on a musical level as an improviser. That’s something that’s very difficult to even describe to somebody that’s never done it. There’s this “Hollywood” version of improvisation that I read about, even in magazines...even by guys who haven’t done 200 nights in a row. I don’t care if it’s John Coltrane, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or the greatest or the worst improvisers that ever lived, if you play 200 nights in a row, you are not going to be playing different shit every night. You’re just not. There’s this mystical version of what jazz improvisation is that implies that every single time you play, that you’re going to go to this far off mystical place and you’re going to discover this universe. Especially back in the day, when people were playing six sets a night, six nights a week, people had their zone. There isn’t a band out there right now that doesn’t play basically the same set night after night, for most of the tour. If you’re going to play 200 nights a year, or even 50 nights in a row, you have to. You don’t have any choice. You’ve just come in from Finland, and you’re in Spain and you’ve got ten minutes to brush your teeth and you’ve gotta go on stage, you’re not going to reinvent yourself that time. That reality is one that doesn’t really get discussed that much. Going back to my Gary Burton days, he was what I would call a real durable improviser, in the sense that, yes, he had his material. He had his language and his language skills were so finely developed, that he could talk about the same subject, night, after night, after night, using the same words and almost in the same order, but it was new at the time. That quality of durability, or that kind of hardened skill as an improviser, is one that’s really rare now as players don’t really get the opportunity to play that much. I feel like the last connected part of a long breed of guys. I know Gary got it from Stan Getz and George Shearing. You have to develop a skill that is deep enough that you can talk about the same subject thousands of times, and find a new window to it every single night, without being afraid of not completely reinventing the situation. That’s a skill that I think you have to have to function night after night, and it’s something that I have to look for from the guys that are going to be in my band, because we do still play that many gigs. It’s not enough to get somebody that’s just a great player. I’m finding myself, when I hear somebody, it’s like “I’m sure he’s going to sound great for the first eighteen gigs. How is he going to sound from gig nineteen to 79? And then, how is he going to sound from gig 80 to 150? And then, how is he going to sound from gig 151 to 240? I can think of guys who would sound great up to gig 79, and up to maybe 150, but after that, it’s really hard for me to find people to deal with it night after night and come up with the goods and play the same tunes night after night and make it new each time.
JI: It’s seems that you’ve been lucky to have a core group of musicians who have worked with you for years. Steve Rodby is credited as producer on your albums, and he also works as the bassist in your group. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamics between you two, and the dialogue that goes on in the production of your albums.
PM: Sure. Well, first and foremost, he’s a great bass player and had all of the things that I’ve been talking about here, in place, by the time he auditioned to get the gig. Those qualities were the thing that drew me to him, not to mention his stylistic range. That thing about being a really good jazz player and willing not to do it, in terms of just overt 4-4 time, straight ahead playing. That’s Steve. You know, his foundation is playing at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. He was the house bass player and played with everyone you can possibly imagine. The gig he played with us was not that. It was something else. Steve brought the wisdom of all of that, to our thing and it was an enormous boost. Steve also had another side to him, in addition to being the house bass player in the Jazz Showcase, he also played on every jingle that was made in Chicago in the mid-70’s, up until the time he joined our band in the 80’s, which gave him a “studio wisdom” that we didn’t ever really have. The records that I made for ECM, he did them in a day or two, jazz style, and mixed them the next day and that was that. When Steve came into the band, suddenly there was somebody in there who had an awareness of the studio as an instrument and was able to deploy that awareness in a way that we didn’t have before. This first showed up on Steve’s first record which was Offramp. There was an awareness he had of everything that was going on in the studio, that was new to us. It was cool that somebody was looking out for these things. That’s what ultimately became his role as co-producer when we left ECM, and we started with Geffen. The first record that he made was, Still Life (Talking), which Steve was quite involved in, at a production level. He has continued to be significantly involved in the way we’ve made, not only the group records, but I’ve brought him into other records that I’ve done. Pretty much everything I do in the studio now, at some point I’ll call Steve and say, “Steve, can you help me with this?” He’s just an incredibly ally in the studio. He’s got an awareness of the whole thing, which kind of goes with a lot of bass players are like that. They’re holding down the fort back there with this overview of it all. Steve has really got that and is able to deploy that in ways that go beyond his bass playing.
JI: You’ve been to a lot of exotic locations in your travels. Can you discuss some of your musical and non-musical experiences performing and exploring, and how those expanded your awareness as an artist and as an individual?
PM: When I think about all the places I’ve been able to play and the life that I’ve been able to participate in, as a functioning musician in the larger community of musicians, what a privilege it has been. And that’s something that has been prominent for me from the very, earliest days. Every time that I get the chance to play any gig, or do anything as a musician, I just feel so lucky that I’m able to do it and was given the opportunity to do it. The fact that I’ve been able to go all over the world playing, is something that I just absolutely feel honored by, and I also really try to enjoy every second of it. I try to get out into the place and learn about the places as much as I can, and learn about the people. Really be in it as it’s going on. In terms of the specifics of it, god, it’s even hard to know where to begin. Let’s just multiply 250 x 30 years, and that would be roughly the places I’ve been and gigs that I’ve done. Certainly, you repeat a lot of cities lots of times, but the highlight places that, for me have been consistently great, have been ones that most people talk about: Europe, Japan, South America. There are places that have shown enormous support for jazz in general year after year year, and happen to be some of the greatest places on earth. Italy comes to mind. It’s a place that we really have quite a substantial following and have sold hundreds of thousands of records. Over time, that’s lots of records. When we play there, we play for thousands of people and it also happens to be probably the most beautiful place on earth with the hippest people and the best food. We can play on tour, dozens of concerts, just in Italy. It’s the greatest. There was a period of time that I was living in South America, in Brazil, and played a lot of concerts down there. That’s one of the greatest audiences in the world. It’s a great place and fantastic musically. There’s a deeply musical sensibility everywhere. Then Japan is one, too, that I think is some ways taken for granted, but it does remain the backbone of the “jazz industry.” Without the Japanese fans and the Japanese support, the jazz community as we know it, would probably not exist in the same way. Their genuine, deep, true enthusiasm for what this music is, is such an important part of what allows it to continue. They are so important to me in terms of continuing to offer them things that are at the quality level that they have.
JI: Could you talk about the rehearsal preparation you undertake in learning a song, or preparing for a recording?
PM: The key to what it is that will allow me to get to my best as an improviser, is familiarity. I really need to know the material inside out and backwards and forwards, in order to get to the places where I know I can offer the best stuff. That, in my case, has never been an easy thing. I’ve never been what you call, “a quick study.” I need to play over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, to get to where I’ve “got it.” I can function and learn something pretty quick and kind of deal with it, but in terms of really illuminating the ins and outs of a particular set of chords, or a particular playing situation, for me to be at my best, I got to be able to just know it so well, that I can forget it. That means making a loop on a sequencer or something, or just playing it for hours, and hours, and hours, until it just disappears and that I’m not thinking about it. Until it’s not an issue and it’s just sound, and that can take some time. I need to really prepare myself to do well.
JI: It’s funny you say that. Recently, somebody that I interviewed told me they were at a recording session that Dexter Gordon was doing for some producer. The producer said something like, “I really liked that Mixolydian line you played. Could you do it again at...?” Dexter apparently surprised, asked: “I played a Mixolydian?” I don’t know, maybe he was goofing on him.
PM: It was that era of guys. They just did not use that kind of descriptive mechanism to talk about chords.
PM: They just didn’t, you know? Having known a bunch of players of that era, I actually find it really fascinating to ask them what it is exactly that they do think about. There are an incredible array of descriptive mechanisms for what notes to use on which chords, that are in some ways, colorful.
JI: Yeah. I would love to talk to a bunch more of those players. Many of those guys are in their 70’s and 80’s now. Could you discuss the temptation to focus on technique over the music itself, that some artists tend to experience. How have you dealt with that and how you work to balance the two. I’m particularly curious because you referenced earlier the fact that the melody, and that kind of thread that goes through the music, is ever so important. Indeed, the concept of melody really resonates with you as it does with me. Sometimes I’ll hear a player with astonishing technique, and it’s being played in time, and I’m wondering, “Okay, this has a groove maybe, but there’s something that strikes a question mark.” I wonder if they’re breathing at all, as horn players must, or are they just wiggling their fingers?
PM: You’ve just described exactly, almost to the word, the exact way I describe issues that guitar players, vibes players, piano players, bass players and drummers have, of not having to breathe, and often they don’t. There’s just a physical limit to how long the lines can be, for horn players, because they have to take a breath. In my case, as I told you, I started out on the trumpet. I still breathe like I play the trumpet. (Inhales) And when I’m out of breath, I stop. I don’t do it consciously, but I’ve always done that because I’m actually thinking in terms of trumpet most of the time. Even to the point of fingerings. So, that’s huge for me, that element or way you can evoke that feeling of breathing, is really, really important for the players of those instruments we’ve listed, to be aware of and aspire to.
JI: What kind of practice do you do when you’re not on tour?
PM: Well, my relationship to practicing has gone through several phases. I was one of those guys, from the time I was thirteen, until the time I was playing in Gary’s band, I would literally play eight to ten hours a day or more. Honestly, I think that I was so curious and so hungry in a way, to be able to just get it out, that I just was in a huge hurry. I just wanted to be able to do this. Also, I think that it’s natural at that age, ‘cause, you know, music is hard.