Jazz and the “megastar” epithet do not generally make for natural bedfellows. However, if you were to single out the odd artist from improvisational musical climes, Pat Metheny would definitely be a strong candidate for official stellar status.
The 61-year-old American jazz guitarist will return to Israel for three shows this month, with gigs lined up at the Zappa Herzliya club (June 13 and 14, doors open 8:15 p.m.) and Live Park in Rishon Lezion (June 15, doors open 8 p.m.).
Metheny’s current multinational band includes classically trained British pianist Gwilym Simcock, Malaysian-born bassist Linda Oh and Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez.
To say Metheny is prolific would be to damn with faint praise.
During a career that began with a bang more than 40 years ago, the guitarist has put out almost 50 albums under his own name, garnering 20 Grammy Awards in the process.
While industry kudos are gratefully received, Metheny says he keeps his mind firmly fixed on the artistic goal at hand.
“I don’t really think too much about the things that surround the music; my focus is almost entirely on ‘it’ rather than the things that surround ‘it’,” he states. “I do try to appreciate it when stuff like that comes up. But the only real satisfaction I get is from the feeling of playing well or achieving a specific goal within music itself.”
Metheny hails from a musical family.
His grandfather and father were trumpeters as is his brother Mike. The guitarist also started out on the instrument, but his musical focus was soon distracted by sounds from a different part of the world and discipline.
“I started on trumpet when I was eight, but I fit chronologically right in that demographic of people who saw The Beatles in the early 1960s, on The Ed Sullivan Show,” recalls Metheny.
“Suddenly, the guitar had a place in the culture that took it from being simply a musical instrument to an almost iconic emblem of everything that was about to happen.”
The youngster may have been wowed by the Fab Four from Liverpool, but any thoughts he may have had about getting into the burgeoning pop music scene were waylaid by a formative encounter with one of the icons of the modern jazz fraternity.
“Where my story differs from the other gazillion people who got interested in the instrument around that time was that I heard that Miles Davis record shortly after I got a guitar, and I became devoted to wanting to understand what that music was all about,” Metheny says.
Once he discovered the wonders of jazz, there was no stopping Metheny and he quickly became a wunderkind about town.
“I started playing gigs around Kansas City when I was 14, often with the best musicians in town at that time,” says the guitarist who hails from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, a suburb southeast of Kansas City. “There was a very active music scene during that era in KC, and I was incredibly lucky to get that chance to really learn by doing.”
Metheny was in excellent neighborhood company. Over the years, Kansas City produced some of the jazz world’s most venerated figures, such as Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. The teenager quickly got in on the action.
“It wasn’t an academic thing for me,” Metheny continues. “I was getting experience as a player by having to hang with people who were much older and more experienced. I often say that the most important thing is to be around musicians who are better than you are, and I really believe that and benefited from that a lot. I was very fortunate that by the time I was 17 I had already been playing professionally on hundreds of gigs around the Midwest. I would say that that real world experience was huge for me” With such a hands-on start to his musical career, it comes as no surprise to learn that Metheny did not take much of an academic approach to the profession, preferring to learn his craft as he went along, on the bandstand. After a brief spell at the University of Miami, he crossed to the other side of the student-tutor divide and at 19 took up an assistant teaching position at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Metheny first made his name as a teenage prodigy under the wing of acclaimed vibraphonist and Berklee professor Gary Burton. In 1974 he made his recording debut on two sessions for pianist Paul Bley and Carol Goss’s Improvising Artists label, along with similarly non-academically oriented fretless electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, who later became known as a member of stellar fusion outfit Weather Report.
Over the years, Metheny has collaborated with an almost bewildering array of artists and constantly delves into new areas. You really never know what you’re going to get from the man. His bio to date includes synergies with such envelope pushers as avant-garde jazz forefather Ornette Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden and minimal music pioneer composer Steve Reich. His bulging discography also features more mass appeal projects such as the soundtrack he wrote for the 1999 film A Map of the World, which starred Sigourney Weaver.
I asked Metheny what he got from the likes of Coleman, Haden and Reich but, as far as the guitarist is concerned, industry categories are of little interest. It is all about the quality of sonic output and how it moves him.
“To me, it is all one thing – I have never thought of music in the way that you are sort of implying there. There are vocabularies at work across a spectrum of potentials that all become evident as you find yourself really drawn to something. I always respond to music as a listener. When I am playing or working on something, I mostly don’t even feel like I am doing anything. I basically am just listening. And if I can really hear it, maybe I might be able to contribute something. But it always starts from a listening perspective,” he says.
Metheny first hit the road more than four decades ago, and he has been one of the busiest performers in the business ever since. Most years he manages to cram close to 200 gigs into his schedule.
He says he does his best to keep things in perspective but that he may be nearing the end of his musical road.
“Balance is the most important thing for me, in music and in life. I am always trying to get it together. Playing live is great, but it is getting close to the point where if I never played another note, that would be fine too,” he says.
For tickets and more information: *9080 and www.zappa-club.co.il