Interview: Pat Metheny

Ken Micallef

By Ken Micallef

on 07.03.12 in Interviews

Unity Band

Pat Metheny

As a teenager, Pat Metheny spent warm summer nights playing guitar with a bizarre religious sect. While not exactly a cult, the whiz-kid with the toothy grin cut his early guitar chops with the Unity Church (now simply called “Unity”) of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Many years later, Metheny’s track, “Unity Village,” an apparent dedication to the experience, appeared on the ECM collection Works II. And throughout his 40 year career, Pat Metheny has unified and explored diverse styles and sounds, from the fresh jazz improvisations of his debut Bright Size Life, to the lush Brazilian templates espoused by the Pat Metheny Group, to the avant garde-isms of the landmark quintet recording 80/81, to his recent solo acoustic guitar album, One Quiet Night. If unifying jazz genres is a recurring theme in Metheny’s music, his brand spanking new Unity Band (album and band of the same name) carries on the tradition.

Featuring tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and perennial Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez, Pat Metheny’s Unity Band is a culmination of the guitarist’s brilliant career, yet also pushes his art forward. The album touches on almost every aspect of Metheny’s music, performed by a stellar new band of blazing jazz guns. There are Metheny moments unique to Unity Band, flashes of instrumental brilliance and textural sophistication that have never quite come together in this way on previous recordings. Everything Metheny’s global fan base has come to love — engrossing improvisations, high-flying acoustic reveries, Ornette Coleman-inspired guitar synths, and the Orchestrion — a computer- and guitar-controlled orchestra — is present and accounted for on Unity Band.

Arguably the best-selling jazz artist in the world, Pet Metheny has ceaselessly extended and advanced his music. Unity Band brings it all together now.

Throughout your career you’ve constantly found novel and new ways to express yourself. To what do you attribute your growth?

It’s really all just following my interests in music as a fan. I am playing from that perspective almost all the time; that’s a compass I follow. When it’s time to do something, I go deep into that thing, not only in execution, but philosophically. In the case of Unity Band, the question was: What does it mean for me to be doing only the second record in 40 years in the most conventional context, which is [a tenor] with a rhythm section? 80/81, my first, has a very resonant place for me. It’s probably become an iconic record of that time. And in some ways it’s daunting to do another record along those lines. Maybe that’s why I waited 30 years!

Chris Potter is so strong on the record, but on tenor he really sounds like Michael Brecker. That almost gives some of your melodies a Brecker-ish quality.

If you’re a tenor player, you have a choice. It’s like a fork in the road. Either you’re going to deal with John Coltrane or you’re not. The vast majority never make it out the other side. And you’re talking about a Mike Brecker way of playing; I know what you mean. Chris had Trane but he also had Brecker. And he has a significant Sonny Rollins thing too. Chris is probably one of those most complete musicians I’ve ever seen. His most daunting task was this achievement of coming out the other side of the Coltrane thing, [and Brecker], with something very distinctive.

With the unique combination of musicians present in Unity Band, I hear moments which are texturally new to any Pat Metheny record.

Definitely. This is the first record where I’ve really drawn from the entire palette that I’ve developed with the different acoustic guitars, guitar synth and even the Orchestrion, all coexisting within this classic environment.

There are [guitarists] out there that sound a little bit like me and little bit like [Bill] Frisell or [John] Scofield all mixed together, and they all say they only listen to Grant Green! [Laughs] In a way, I’m thinking, “What do I miss on [their] records?” There’s a kind of one dimensional-ness to some of that stuff, but Unity Band is really 3-D. When I think of a whole program with electric guitar I want a range of color. I’ve spent 40 years developing these various angles on what my thing can be sonically and that all comes together in this record. Beyond that, there is this specific thing of the guitar synth and the soprano on “Roofdogs.” When we listened to the playback of “Roofdogs” it was almost impossible to tell the guitar synth from the soprano. “New Year” [begins] with nylon string guitar, something I would normally only play on ballads or “Beyond the Missouri Sky.” And most notably the elephant in the room is the Orchestrion.

That’s the band playing with the Orchestrion in “Signals (Orchestrion Sketch)”?

It’s an improvised piece. It’s called “Orchestrion Sketch” but there was a loose plan for the track, though it could have been anything. It’s the quartet, but it’s really a different kind of quartet. The word “Unity” is a word is a good word for me. I’ve suffered through fusion and all these words, words that no musician uses. I’ve always thought of music in a unified way. It can be loud, soft, complicated, simple; it can be improvised, written, and in this case it can be human or non-human. [Laughs] And so Unity Band fits on many levels.

A couple of the new songs remind me of older Pat Metheny songs. The intro to “Leaving Town” reminds me of “James”; “Then and Now,” particularly when Ben takes his solo, recalls Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made.”

Good ears. That kind of groove on “LeavingTown” or “James” is a groove that I trace back to “Omaha Celebration” and Bright Size Life. That’s my default zone. “Leaving Town” is a particularly good one, it does a few odd things in terms of phrase lengths and odd metered groupings. The thing with Jaco [Pastorius] and “A Remark You Made,” I know what you’re referring to. Ben is really coming from Jaco. But what he understands is that Jaco was primarily a melodic player. And when you actually gave Jaco a melody, like I did with Bright Size Life or what [Joe] Zawinul did on “A Remark You Made,” he played the shit out of it.

Your track, “Unity Village,” appeared on Works II. Is that part of the same “unity” theme?

Well, that and I played in the Unity Village Unity Band. Where I grew up in Missouri, there’s a corner called Unity Village, the world headquarters of an unusual church, the Unity School of Christianity. It was founded in the early 1900s by a guy named Charles Fillmore. It’s wacky in that 1920s way. Our families go way back, though we don’t have a religious affiliation with them. My grandfather put electricity in at Unity. There were people there from all around the world. That was first time I saw people in dashikis. Every Sunday night there would be a Unity Band concert and my dad played in it and my brother played in it and I did too. So summer nights outdoors with music brings up these Unity Band memories. Yet another reason to call this Unity Band. We will be doing a lot of outdoor summer gigs. It all fits together.