Pat Metheny: "Nothing Ever Feels Obsolete to Me"

There are inherent advantages to being a jazz musician. Genre constraints are practically thrown out the window and almost anything is considered acceptable no matter how free, new-agey, rock-leaning, contemporary, ballady or bopping. As long as integrity to the art form remains, experimentation is rewarded.

Guitarist Pat Metheny has been rewarded plenty, with 20 Grammy awards covering a wide array of ensemble configurations -- from solo efforts to large groups -- and musical directions covering every known spectrum, and creating a few as well.

Improvisation is paramount in Metheny's world. Though he tightly constructs his compositions, Metheny also inserts holes for his bandmates to fill. It is here where the Unity Band -- his current ensemble -- shines, as evidenced on their latest release, Kin.

Already out on the road supporting the album, Metheny wasn't available for a traditional phone interview, but instead offer thoughtful and well thought out answers to Up on the Sun's emailed questions. Always forthcoming, Metheny discusses his band and how it has musically expanded the past few years, his musical vision, and his constant desire to push the envelope.

Your new album is called Kin. Is this title in relation to the way you and the Unity Band relate on stage or in the studio -- that is, with that telepathic ability usually associated with kinship?

Kin is a word that implies connection or family or lineage. To me, like the word unity, it really fits with what I am shooting for -- and not just with this band, in music in general. I like the idea of making connections, finding inclusion and forming a way of thinking about not just the way the people making the music may be connected to each other, but also the way the music that I hope to present has connections with all of the other music I love.

Beyond that, this may be the first band I have ever had that really can address everything from my trio stuff, to stuff from Song X, all of my regular band stuff, the more straight ahead kinds of things; all of it can coexist under one roof. And the "unpronounceable" symbol that follows the word, (←→), was something that just sort of popped out that I thought did a good job of indicating that our "kin" is not always behind us chronologically in an ancestral sense -- we are also going to be the ancestors for many generations to come. And also musically. So this is a message to those future listeners as well.

Five years ago you did the first of two solo albums. Then in June 2012 you went back to a band set up. What was the thinking in taking a solo route, and what was it that made you decide to return to performing with a complete band?

All the records kind of blur together to me -- it all feels like one big thing to me, like a book with different chapters that are moving the plot along in different ways but always about telling a story from a singular point of view.

Playing solo was not something I did often. I was often asked about doing solo concerts and I decided that if I ever were to do one, I wanted to do something really different -- hence the Orchestrion project.

I have had a lot of different bands and groups over the years -- and they all kind of continue; nothing ever feels obsolete to me. It is more a process of constant expansion for me. Each platform seems viable.

For this band, you again have a saxophone out front, something that hasn't appeared since '80/'81. The combination of horn and guitar is so fluid on both albums, it's really great to get lost in. Naturally, there are so many musical options and combinations, but what led you back in this direction?

I think I had to wait 30 years for Chris Potter to show up! I have been following Chris since he first came on the scene playing with Red Rodney all those years ago. I was a fan right away and have enjoyed his playing all along. But I remember hearing him about halfway through his stay with Dave Holland and walking out of the performance feeling like he had transcended to a different level. To me, he is one of the most brilliant improvising musicians I have ever been around. Having him in the band inspires me the same way that it did when I wrote for Mike Brecker and Dewey Redman all those years ago.

How has the Unity Band grown or gelled since the first album came out?

This is such a special group of musicians. From the first notes we played together in early 2012, through the recording and then all the touring that we did to follow, there was an instant connection that seemed to go beyond the usual kind of thing. We had such a great time together and the consistency of the playing was at a super high level and we seemed to always get to something night after night.

We all wanted to keep it going, and my sense of it was that we had only scratched the surface of what it might be. My instinct was to push it to be something else, but that that something else could have the benefits of all the playing we had already done together as a place to build from and expand outward from. To me, this recording is exactly that. I am so happy with the way it all turned out.

And yes, I would say that as it has been from the beginning with these guys, it goes way beyond what I imagined. As a bandleader for all these years, you have an obligation to the guys you hire to set up a platform for them to do what they do best. I think if the conception of a band and the music locks with that mandate, this whole other element starts to emerge where the full nature of the music continues to reveal itself as the work progresses. That was the feeling during the recording. I can only imagine where it will go live on this next round of touring.

It seems jazz musicians are so often free of the egos and personalities that mar many great rock bands. What it is that allows this band to interact so well?

I think for the kinds of musicians I am attracted to who tend to be grouped together in the category that you mentioned, there is a sense that music itself is the destination. There is a seriousness and commitment that must be there to get to a level where you can contribute to the discussion. With that kind of regard for music itself, it tends to demand a certain type of dynamic that has little use for the kinds of things you are talking about that might happen in other realms where the music itself is just a part of the whole thing.

How has the addition of multi-instrumentalist Guilio Carmassi (who came on board for the second Unity Band album) changed the dynamic?

He is an excellent musician who I brought in to have one more element to write for. Having another person increases the compositional possibilities exponentially.

How do you see the two albums this band has created compare (or differ), if they do at all?

They are very different records with very different palettes and intentions -- but with the same slamming quartet thing sitting right in the middle. I have described them like this: the Unity Band record was a black and white documentary type record; (Kin is) like the IMAX 3D version of that same band.

Between the first Unity Band album and Kin you explored John Zorn with Tap: Book of Angels, Vol. 20. You've flirted with more free forms of jazz with Ornette Coleman and Song X, so what was the goal on Kin? Did that outing influence your writing for Kin at all?

To me, everything is free. I don't really worry too much about the materials, it is what you can do with them. And in almost any setting, you are faced with infinity -- in the best possible way. I really admire Zorn and I really appreciate him and the incredible work he has done. That record kind of has a life of it's own and is unusual in the way that he sets up structures that then each musician can take anywhere they want.

I would say that Kin is a record that sort of sets a new standard for me in the way that you can blend structure with improvisation. I have always had interests in defining an environment for improvisers that sat in close proximity to a lot of written material. Getting a good balance between the two has been an ongoing issue with me in my regular groups and special projects like Secret Story or even Orchestrion. This time it seems to have a unique flavor that is particular to these guys and I think it is because we played so much as a very loosely structured quartet and have that sensibility to draw from even on these more formalized structures.

In your mind, what's the standout track on Kin, and why?

The whole thing! No, for me, it is all kind of like one long tune. It is the way that it all adds up together to that makes it what it is, I think.

You've had such a varied career, so many different musical avenues. Do you look back at a particular era or group you've worked with and say, "That was the best band, or time in my career," or is it more about building on what was and continually moving forward.

To me, it is all one continuous thing. I don't make a distinction this period or that period. When I have a band and I have picked certain musicians to be in it, it is because I feel like they are the best guys to help me realize a certain sound and I feel like each of those areas of interest are still interesting. I know there are musicians who go through life kind of like a snake shedding its skin, moving on the next thing and then the next. It isn't like that for me -- it is more a process of addition and expansion onto a preexisting structure, like adding rooms and wings and additions onto a house. Everything is connected to me.

The Pat Metheny Unity Group is scheduled to perform on Sunday, February 23, at Chandler Center for the Arts.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver