In March of 1979, Pat Metheny appeared on the “Oral Tradition” radio program (broadcast out of Venice, California) to talk about the Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled debut and his then freshly released solo follow-up, New Chautauqua. Produced by Martin Perlich, this hour-long special was released on a rare promo LP by ECM and features an in-depth conversation with the guitarist between selections from both of albums.
Metheny gets into the meat and potatoes of his upbringing. Growing up in small-town Missouri among a family of trumpet players, his brother Mike having taught the instrument at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1976 to 1983, Metheny needed only reach his hand out to grab hold of one. And that he did, joining the school band and doing fairly well for himself until his need for braces put an end to his future in brass. Immersed as he was in Top 40 culture, guitar was an easy choice for a substitute, and so he picked out his first axe and starting swinging. After doing the “garage band thing” for about a year, at age 14 he had a watershed moment when he saw Wes Montgomery and Gary Burton’s group perform a stone’s throw away in Kansas City. Hearing improvisation in earnest for the first time, and in such close quarters, converted him to jazz on the spot. It wasn’t long before he had every album by Burton, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane he could get his hands on. He recalls how naturally the concepts of jazz came to him, whereas in rock music the role of the guitar was ultimately unclear. Sitting in with blues musicians in Kansas City, where he humbly guesses he was being brought onstage as more of a novelty at first than anything else, was his first real classroom. After a year of teaching in Miami, he joined Burton’s band with Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Mick Goodrick, all of whom saw something in the young guitarist. Along with their already-heightened abilities came the patience needed to allow someone like Metheny to blossom.
Metheny elaborates on his jump from rock to jazz. Whereas in the former vein he saw a vital sensuality that was of organic appeal to younger listeners, he also yearned for a subtlety that rock just didn’t have. He even gave prog (Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, etc.) a chance in the hopes there might be something there. But he quickly realized how those guitarists were just “playing blues scales up and down like every rock player always did, [only] a lot longer and twice as boring.” It was in improvisation that he found the wider, more nuanced feeling he was searching for, and the first guitar icon to show him how it was done was Jimi Hendrix. Thinking back on it, he still wonders how Hendrix was as popular as he was. Still, Hendrix was in no way a conscious influence, but a talent to look upon with wonder. In Metheny’s estimation, the guitar was essentially neglected as a frontline instrument until Larry Coryell joined forces with Burton in 1967, paving the way for John McLaughlin and other pioneers. Before then, advances in guitar technology just weren’t developed enough to make it stand out against the harmonic landscape of a saxophone or piano. Coryell was groundbreaking for bringing a hard-edged sound to a jazz context, thereby widening the scope of what the instrument could do as a method of sound production. When Metheny himself came on the scene in 1974, the only viable gigs for jazz guitarists were with Jack DeJohnette, Chico Hamilton, or Burton. Burton was the natural fit.
From Pat Metheny Group we hear “Phase Dance” and “San Lorenzo.” In light these wonders, even Metheny is aware of their commercial appeal the non-jazz listeners (the album hit the Billboard charts, after all) but is adamant about changing nothing to achieve that success. “I just physically couldn’t play something that I didn’t really believe in,” he admits, thus capturing something essential to the steadfastness of his art.
Metheny transitions into reminiscing about touring in Oslo, where he spent three days writing, and two more recording, the music that would become New Chautauqua. Spurred on by fears of typecasting himself, and encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, transitioning from a quartet to a solo project was the logical next step in his recording journey (though he isn’t without his sense of humor, as when quipping about a “fantasy record” with Lyle Mays and singer Nicolette Larson). Metheny likens the sound of Chautauqua to the open spaces of his childhood—hence the country twang of the album’s title tune (heard here, along with “Sueño Con Mexico” and “Daybreak,” the latter a nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”). He also unpacks the title, which pays homage to the so-called Chautauqua who drove around playing one-nighters all up and down the Midwest (his great-grandfather, in fact, was a leader of one such group).
In addition to these anecdotal details, Metheny reveals a bit of his creative process. “Every time we hit the stage and we play the first notes, it enters a completely different realm for me,” he says of live performance, which is more than his wheelhouse but a way of life. He goes on to describe his style as one of playing “out” and never for himself, and shares an analogy for playing that was passed on to him by Burton: “There’s a whole grammar thing you go through when you’re becoming a musician and an improviser that’s very similar to…when you’re a child and you’re learning…how to speak…. It gets to the point where…you don’t think about verbs and pronouns and stuff…you just say whatever you have to say and it comes out. Sometimes there’s little goofs…but the message comes through if you’ve got something to say. It’s exactly the same when you’re improvising. You have this whole backlog of information, but when it comes time to play, as you become more advanced as a player, you think less and less about the technical things…and you just say what you have to say, and hopefully the audience will respond to what you’re saying if you make the picture clear enough for them.” And how does he respond whenever people come up to him and ask how he plays so well? “I haven’t practiced in four years.” The stage is where it all goes down.
“I don’t see myself as a guitar player that plays melodies in a setting,” he self-observes. “I see the act of playing the guitar and writing the tunes and having the band as a statement about what I want to be like as a guy, you know…. If I were ever not going to do that, I would go sell cars for my father.” Of course, we can be thankful he isn’t selling cars but rather music that was made to flow from their stereos as we drive along open roads to places we’ve yet to know.