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"I'm in the category of people that, no matter what I do, I think it sucks," he says, his boyish manner reminiscent of a scholarship jock explaining his scholastic free ride. "The place that I'm the most critical is with myself. I'm much more hard on myself than anyone else could ever be. So it's like any reaction I could ever get from anyone--whether another musician or anyone--it couldn't even begin to compare to what I put myself through 24 hours a day."
Metheny is among the few improvisational players who has been able to reach a wide audience without going soft on his art, but you won't hear him bragging about it, in spite of six Grammys and the confidence he's gained over his 37 years. His words paint a picture marked by angst and battered self-confidence unless he's talking about past work and future projects; then, his enthusiasm suggests that there's no shortage of emotional stability beneath all that hair. After 20 years spent writing, playing, winning awards and explaining his music, he's neither jaded nor acerbic. He's full of life.
The same can be said of Metheny's latest project, Secret Story, a 77-minute musical chronicle of his relationship (now in the past tense) with a Brazilian woman. It's an ambitious effort in which the compositions take us through the exuberance of falling in love, past the joy of unity and into the sharp loneliness of dissolution amid jagged emotional terrain. At its conclusion, Metheny--and the listener--must face the challenge of starting over again.
Despite this description, Secret Story isn't the jazz equivalent of a soap opera. In fact, Metheny doesn't like talking about the specifics of the affair the album chronicles; he'd rather bare his soul in the recording studio than in conversation. "Well, yeah . . . it's about a relationship," he stammers when asked about it. "I mean, yeah. What can I say? That's pretty much it. You just have to go on." He's more effusive about the songs that make up his story, which were written over a five-year span.
"I think there's an obvious relationship between happy and sad that one can find in the music," he says. "But I think there's a much more subtle relationship that exists in terms of happiness and sadness, particularly when you're dealing with improvisation. It's a more abstract kind of thing. My relationship to my own personal feeling from moment to moment, as a player and a writer, doesn't necessarily come out in the obvious way. But I think it's in there somehow."
So are a huge number of musical inspirations. Metheny explored Brazilian music while he was courting his Brazilian love; on Secret Story, he combines these sounds with his trademark rural Americana and an assortment of Asian folk influences. The latter are exemplified by Cambodian strains that evoke romantic optimism. Unfortunately, the lush arrangements often sound far too sweet to have come from the guitar-synth wiz who's worked with talents as disparate as Gary Burton, Paul Bley, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Steve Reich and Charlie Haden. He may have kicked improvisational ass on Off Ramp, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls and Letter From Home--three dynamic recordings that showcase his musical collaborations with keyboardist Lyle Mays--but he seldom does so here. Some listeners will feel that much of the songwriting seems too meek to have come from the powerful spirit who in 1986 created Song X with Ornette Coleman. Metheny acknowledges that not everyone will be pleased with the disc, but feels that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
"Well, for me, the curve of the record is something that takes maybe a while to discover," he says. "It's something that you maybe have to cover from start to finish. I do see the record really like a collage in a lot of ways, which is kind of a form that I'm interested in, anyway. Those little pieces, little kinds of sensations on the record that come from other places--the Japanese stuff, the Cambodian stuff--are to me like little postage stamps set on this general aesthetic that relates to the other music that I've done through the years. I've been saying a lot. And I think in a lot of ways this record is a culmination for me--kind of everything I've done."
That's a good way to look at it. If Metheny's music is a stylish van he's been driving since the beginning of his career, the new recording finds it plastered with bumper stickers from all of the musical places he's been. But the question remains: Will listeners take the time to read them?
Metheny hopes so--and this innovator of middle-American guitar speak is quick to add that his nomadic music is not without roots. "The thing that keeps me going is the actual music and the pursuit of trying to get better as a musician," he says. "This has been kind of my base ever since I can remember. Also, I do have a base in the sense that, for the first 17 years of my life, I lived in one house, with my parents in a very small town. My whole early life--it was idyllic and it was great, but I was really wanting to have a lifestyle something like I have right now, because my early years were so, so stable. I think that's given me a foundation to do all of this."
His upbringing also taught him modesty: You'll never catch him claiming to be one of the six-string wonders of the world. "There are some guys who are just incredible guitar players, who just play the instrument unbelievably well. I'm not really in that category," he says. "I mean, I can sorta play."
"I don't even think about the guitar," he continues. "It's not a priority for me. It's just this thing. It's like a voice box for me. It's the thing I get from my head out. I have a limited spectrum of things that are available to me. So I have to fill each one of them with something that has real meaning. But there's only certain things I can do. I can't play, like, all over the instrument--like ridiculous. It's not like I'm the greatest technician that ever existed on the guitar, ever."
Sure--and without his hair, Albert Einstein would never have amounted to anything.