The jazz guitarists new recording is a protest album
in disguise, he tells Metropolis
One only has to try and count Japans
profusion of jazz bars and legions of jazz fans to understand
the countrys importance in the worldwide jazz marketplace.
Because of the size of Japans jazz audiencesecond
only to the U.S.performers have been crossing the Pacific
(some even putting down roots) for as long the journey was
made simple by modern transportation.
So it was that the most influential guitarist of late 20th
century jazz found himself in an anonymous hotel room in Shinjuku
in December to promote the release of his Pat Metheny Groups
ninth and latest album.
Ive been coming since 1979, the famously
shaggy Metheny said, leaning forward in his seat. And
as much as you hear about Japan being a special place in the
jazz panorama, its true. The level of intense and deep
scrutiny that is applied to what we do and the genuine support
we feel from the people here really does set it apart from
anywhere else on earth.
Entitled The Way Up and released this week on specialty label
Nonesuch, part of Warner records, the album is the latest
in a long series of collaborations between Metheny and pianist
Lyle Mays, the pair at the heart of the group.
The two shook up the jazz world in the late 70s and
early 80s with recordings that defied the norms of mainstream
and avant-garde jazz, and even fusion, despite Metheny and
Mays extensive use of electric instruments. Wildly popular
albums like 1979s American Garage were built around
decidedly non-blues-based, folksy melodies that shifted imperceptibly
into extended improvisations. Their songs jettisoned the standard
jazz form of beginning with a melody, followed by improvisations
from each instrument, and ending with a restatement of the
melody, establishing a new template for jazz and bringing
it to fresh audiences at a time when its future looked iffy.
The Way Up, says Metheny, came at a critical juncture for
both the group and the culture at large. This time there
was a certain urgency. We really changed our band around drastically
as of the last record. We got a new drummer, and we needed
a record and a tour to bring the new guys into the fold and
bring them to the point where they can speak with comfort
and fluency in this really odd dialect that we trade in.
Metheny explains that after more than two decades, it was
time to bring the groups experiments to their logical
conclusion. Much of the groups platform from the
beginning was to look at ways in which we could expand the
general idea of what a quartet could be, because at the core
of it in fact is this guitar, piano, bass and drums sound.
Weve always been interested in using form in an expanded
way...and it really felt like this was the time to finally
follow through on what wed been hinting at on a couple
of records, which was in fact to use an entire CD as a platform
for one single statement.
Symphony is the form that comes perhaps closest to describing
what Metheny and Mays were aiming at, but listeners will still
recognize the hallmarks of the Pat Metheny Group sound: Methenys
fleet, uplifting guitar work and Mays impressionistic
piano and synth playing are at the heart of The Way Up. Their
almost telepathic interplay is enriched by new textures provided
by the recent additions of Vietnam-born trumpeter/vocalist
Cuong Fu, Swiss/American harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret,
and Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez.
But Metheny says the extended form the album took was also
intended as a political statement to the culture at large.
This record in a lot of ways is a protest record. Lyle
and I both feel completely out of step with the direction
that the larger culture is moving in: a culture thats
about reducing things, placing less demands on listeners,
and making things shorter. It went from a five-minute tune
to a three-minute tune, to now you just have to have a ring
tone. We reject that. Thats not an effective way of
getting to a deeper point of understanding and the good things
that we have found through our research in music that lead
us to conclusions that are in fact enlightened or enhanced
views of wisdom.
They dont come through reduction, they come through
nuance and detail and expansion and development. And theres
several hundred years of musical wisdom and truth that also
support that. The general tendency of the culture to go for
the most common denominator is something that with this record
were fighting against.
While the polemical aspect of The Way Up will probably be
lost on most listeners, this is not the first time Metheny
has dipped his toes into the treacherous waters of jazz politics.
A few years ago, he excoriated smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny
G for overdubbing himself onto old Louis Armstrong recordings,
igniting an instant controversy in the jazz world.
I kind of zipped something off, never expecting it would
turn into this international thing that it has, recalls
Metheny. I was shocked that anyone would give a shit
what I think that much, but on the other hand everything I
wrote I completely stand by. To me it was incredible that
there wasnt more of a reaction to someone overdubbing
themselves on a dead guys record and saying its
theirs. Have we really gotten to a point where thats
cool? And the answer is, yes.
Metheny opposes the current neo-orthodox movement in jazz,
embodied by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his amply funded
Jazz at Lincoln Center program, with as much passion as he
did Kenny Gs necrophiliac use of jazz great Louis Armstrong.
The tendency of jazz to become an academic music is
one I resist with the same fervor I reserve for guys overdubbing
themselves on a dead guys record. To me, they are both
directions that will lead nowhere. Within the world of jazz
there is a strong fundamentalist, neoconservative movement.
In fact it parallels in amazing ways the political issues
that involve fundamentalism and religious issues.
To me, the academic part is one that presupposes that
its OK to go to this idealized, mythological version
of what a form of music is. Lets put it in that
box. Thats what it is, its done. If it doesnt
have the right key, its wrong. This would make
jazz like baroque music or some kind of clearly defined form.
To me it needs to remain malleable, so that each new generation
can reinvent it using the found materials that are true to
them, and can keep replenishing the supply.
Tokyo International Forum, April
21-22. See concert listings for details. M
with METROPOLIS readers at http://forum.japantoday.com