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Published: 2002/02/20
by Pat Buzby

Pat Metheny: Speaking of Now

More than four years after its last release, the Pat Metheny Group returns with Speaking Of Now. “There aren’t many groups around like this anymore, and there haven’t been for some time,” Metheny comments, and he’s quite correct. Few groups explore a broader range of production and composition while maintaining a firm jazz basis, and, at the same time, the record includes the accessible melodies that have made their efforts consistent strong sellers and Grammy winners.

The Group experienced its most dramatic lineup changes in many years when it reconvened in 2001. Metheny’s primary collaborators, keyboardist/co-composer Lyle Mays and bassist/co-producer Steve Rodby, remain on board, but the new Group includes three fresh faces : drummer Antonio Sanchez, percussionist/vocalist Richard Bona (who, although known for his Jaco-reborn fretless bass work with Joe Zawinul and others, was happy to renounce that position in this group), and trumpeter/vocalist Cuong Vu. To this listener, then, it seemed ironic that the new record seems more relaxed than the PMG’s 90’s studio efforts, which featured mostly familiar personnel, but which sported a number of un-PMG like sounds such as hip-hop beats or distorted guitars.

Metheny, though, sees things differently. “My perspective on things is just bizarre, of course,” he admits, before offering his view : “The basic premise of the Group has been more or less continuous from the start, which is to try to have a band that addressed form in a way that we hadn’t seen too much of in small-group jazz. Included in that was the idea of involving this incredible revolution that’s been happening in the world of musical instrument technology. That original idea has manifested itself in different ways over the years, but there’s always been this common thread to it. The question is: what can we do as a band that I’m not really hearing anybody else doing? That usually involves some way of looking at form, or the idea of using different kinds of guitars or, in Lyle’s case, the synths or the Synclavier. But whether you do it on Synclav or piano or guitar is secondary to the notes you end up with on music paper.”

As a result, he views the PMG’s history as a continuum, despite the personnel changes and the different influences that have appeared on various releases. “One of the things that I’ve always needed when new guys come in the band is a sense of backwards compatibility.’ When Antonio auditioned, the first thing I said was, You’ve got to be able to play “Phase Dance,”’ because everything that we do, even now, is connected to the basic ideals that the first band was about. Yes, we’ve expanded on that and done many other things, but the dynamic and the kinds of grooves that we play and just the way we play together feels as resonant to me now as it did then.”

At the same time, he comments, “There’s a real shift that happened this time, because for the first time we’ve got three guys in the band who are a generation younger than we are. Up to now, it’s been more or less guys of the same age. Now we have three guys, who are all extremely evolved and successful musicians, who grew up listening to PMG records. The way that they viewed our history reminded us of how viable our initial ideas still were.”

The trademark PMG sound remains intact on Speaking Of Now despite the half-new lineup. Metheny says, “All three guys really wanted the gig because we had an effect on who they turned out to be as musicians. There wasn’t too much molding that needed to be done, because they wanted to play that way. They knew the general zone of what we deal with. At the same time, an important part of this gig is for you to bring some stuff.” Each of them do; Metheny offers high praise for Bona’s percussion work (“His time is ridiculous”), Vu’s individuality on the trumpet and Sanchez’s ability both to groove and to “contribute information on a microsecond-to-microsecond level” like the best acoustic jazz players. Metheny admitted that the Group had not been together since the tracking sessions in spring 2001, and was about to gather for tour rehearsals. “I’m sure that over the first couple weeks of the tour there’s going to be some growing pains, no question about it,” he says, but with a smile audible over the phone that suggests that he’s looking forward to the challenge.

Perhaps more than the lineup, what defines Speaking Of Now is Metheny and Mays’s compositional collaboration. The record includes some of their most ambitious efforts, but Metheny emphasizes the importance of melody : “A goal for me on this record was to attain this condition that happens in the tunes of mine that I like the most, where every note of the melody could only be that note. That’s true of the best solos, also. There aren’t too many improvisers who are capable of sustaining that; I think Miles, at his best, did that. But in terms of tunes, it is something you can quantify a bit more, because it’s not happening in real time. I can sit and think about it. I wanted to get to the point on every tune where the major melodies have that quality.” In his view, the effort paid off : “I feel very good about the core melodies on this record. I’ll be playing some of these tunes for many years in a million different settings.”

After the last PMG tour in 1998, Metheny spent the better part of two-and-a-half years leading a trio featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart, which gave him a new perspective on the Group’s work. “It was interesting doing the Trio stuff to see which [PMG] tunes would hold up in that setting, because Bill and Larry probably were the first trio rhythm section I’ve had who had the Group sort of material in their stylistic range. It was interesting to see which tunes held up the most in that stripped-down, bass note/melody setting. To me, the best thing is when you’ve got that kind of melody combined with the attention to detail and development that comes when Lyle and I write together.”

He adds, “I was really anxious to get back to the Group. These built-in pauses have allowed us to continue for so long. I did so much Trio stuff, way more than I anticipated when I started, and it was a blast. But when we got the Group back together, the first time Lyle played a chord while I was soloing, I thought, Wow, a chord!’ We have this whole other world that exists where we can dream up anything in this weird dialect we’ve developed over the years.”

The Group’s meticulous approach may seem like the opposite of the jamband style, but there are a few seldom-noted connections the group has with the jamband scene. Longtime PMG engineer Rob Eaton, who worked on Speaking Of Now, is also a noted Dead taper and a part-time member of the Dark Star Orchestra. As well, Trey Anastasio has cited the PMG as a major early influence, and parts of his early compositions such as “Divided Sky” and “Slave To The Traffic Light” could easily be mistaken for the PMG in a blindfold test.

Metheny admits to having heard little of Phish’s music, but comments, “I know a little bit about [Phish], because [Anastasio] has referred to me in very flattering terms here and there over the years, which I really appreciate, and that’s caused a significant number of younger people to check out my thing who might not have otherwise. That whole world of young people who are curious about improvisation and following those kinds of bands is very exciting for me. I feel like we’ve been living in a period of apathy where fans weren’t as supportive of bands as they had used to be, and to hear about people travelling around to see bands who seem to have an awareness of a larger sense of music is exciting.”

Metheny, now a New Yorker, was about to have Mays and Rodby rejoin him to finish Speaking Of Now when September 11 arrived : “It was terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my whole life, especially with two little kids at home. The feeling that was in New York for the days and weeks that followed the event was quite unlike anything that any of us will probably experience again, I hope. It was almost encouraging, because suddenly all the things like race and class were so far down on the priority scale. There was a kind of acceptance of who we all were in the face of this that was unique, that, to me, kind of dissipated around the time that we started bombing Afghanistan. It’s gone back to Plan A, and for a while there it seemed like there was the potential of a Plan B. There was a sense among New Yorkers of “What do we do now?”, in a good way.”

When asked about the event’s impact on this record, he says, “We were working right in Times Square in a studio, just about to resume when it happened. We had to ask ourselves, Are we nuts to stay here?’ Yet at the same time, we wanted to get the record done. It’s overly dramatic to say, We were willing to risk our lives to finish the record,’ but that’s sort of what it felt like.”

On a happier note, Speaking Of Now is also the first PMG recording since Metheny became a father of two. “[Fatherhood] just makes everything better, and that is probably the number-one clichbut whenever anyone asks me about it, I just say, Just take everything you’ve heard about it and multiply it times four.’ [laughs] Since I started this later in life, I know very well the feeling of when friends of mine had kids and I didn’t. You can talk about it until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t have that much meaning. It’s almost like the world is divided into two parts: the people who have kids and the people who don’t. I remember very well being a part of the previous zone. I waited a long time for a reason, which is that I wanted to do it when I felt like I was capable of doing it at the same level where I like to do everything else. I’m just enjoying it so much. As far as how it affects the music, again, I don’t think I have enough perspective to say, but it just seems to make it all better.”

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