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At a certain point in a musician’s career he or she should be able to identify precisely what, or who, influences them. And if they are really special, or lucky, or both, they might also at some point be able to identify those they have influenced.
That’s where the American guitarist Pat Metheny now finds himself, and it is why he has called his band’s new album Kin. “I’m at a point in life right now where I look this way and I see all these guys and, man, they’re coming out of me,” he told me recently in London, agreeing that the album’s title plays on notions of connection, ancestry and genealogy as well as the evolution of his own music. “I’ve always thought that my thing is really one continuous long record,” he says.
If Metheny’s body of work were indeed somehow scrunched into a single recording, the result would be as curious as it would be ambitious. The guitarist’s 20 Grammy Awards range from country and western to contemporary jazz and include 10 for the Pat Metheny Group, an unrivalled seven for consecutive releases. That band hasn’t toured since 2005, but Metheny, 59, has hardly been idle.
Recent projects include innovative solo performances, a slew of collaborations – the most recent with left-field agent provocateur John Zorn – and a film score. The standout, though, is the free-flowing jazz quartet, the Unity Band, that Metheny formed for a tour in 2012. It is an expanded version of this quartet that has recorded Kin, and which embarks on a world tour next month.
The Unity Band was conceived as a one-off project, but the onstage chemistry – between drummer Antonio Sánchez, bass player Ben Williams and saxophonist Chris Potter – proved so potent that Metheny decided to keep it going. “The batting average was unbelievably high from night to night,” he says. Yet he also wanted a broader palette of sounds – “a slamming quartet thing sitting in the middle of this panorama”, as he puts it. The musician who made that possible was a recent arrival in New York, the Italian multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi, who provided orchestral textures.
The new quintet – aka the Unity Group – also explore some of the layers and flavours that Metheny has engineered through his ongoing project to expand orchestrion technology. Old-school orchestrions, which originated in the 19th century, attempted to reproduce mechanically the sounds of an orchestra by using punch-card technology. But they lacked dynamics – “it’s why you don’t want to listen to a player piano for more than three minutes or you’ll want to kill yourself,” says Metheny, who realised that the solenoid technology used in Yamaha’s 1980s Synclavier keyboard might provide a solution. Based on variable electric impulses, it allowed users to play soft or hard, and had the potential to bring a wide range of instruments to life.
Metheny’s updated orchestrion took years of research and development, but now he is able to enhance his solo performances with a stage-filling behemoth of instruments – assorted pianos and a full-sized marimba, a shop’s- worth of drum kits, and more – all triggered while he plays solo guitar. “If there was any question as to how weird I actually am, then that would put the question to rest once and for all,” he says.
His fascination with technology started the moment he plugged in his first electric guitar. He recalls pianist Paul Bley telling him in the 1970s that “if you’re playing an electric instrument, you’re playing the speakers” – “And that’s exactly right,” Metheny says. He was an early adopter of synthesisers in jazz and helped develop new kinds of guitar, including the 42-string Pikasso, which has four necks, two sound holes and looks like a cubist painting. “I love the front end of what modern technology is, to be able to take material and do stuff with it. But . . . ,” he pauses for emphasis, “we’re still going to hear it through a speaker.”
Metheny’s interest in music came early, raised as he was in the music-rich environs of Kansas City. He was eight when his older brother Mike started to give him trumpet lessons; guitar came after Metheny saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 – “it was a transformative moment”. Jazz followed when Mike bought the Miles Davis album Four or More. “He didn’t really dig it that much,” Metheny recalls, “but I remember going down into the basement and dropping the needle and hearing that intro to ‘Four’ and thinking ‘what is that?’. And that sounded like the future to me.”
By the time Metheny was 15 he was working up to five nights a week, mostly with organ trios. “It just kind of happened that there were not that many guitar players,” he explains modestly. It was in a Kansas City club that vibraphonist Gary Burton heard him, and was impressed enough to offer the guitarist a teaching job at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. In 1974 Metheny joined Burton’s band, staying for three years and appearing on three albums for ECM, the same label on which the Pat Metheny Group released its debut recording in 1977.
Metheny has now released 43 albums under his own name and appeared on a hatful of carefully chosen sideman sessions. He has also composed his 17th film score, his first since 1999, for David Trueba’s Goya Award-nominated Living is Easy With Eyes Closed. Metheny describes writing for film as a “horrible job for a musician”. “The film tells you very quickly what it wants and what it will accept and what it won’t accept,” he says. After that, it’s time-consuming, often solitary work. “Every guy I know who is a film score person always looks 10 years older that they are.”
The guitarist is thinking about ways to combine his new band with the orchestrion and doesn’t rule out reconvening the longstanding Pat Metheny Group. But now the Unity Group is his focus, and he’s itching to get back to live playing.
As the group’s extended world tour approaches, Metheny admits that, despite the possibilities afforded by technology, he still finds touring with a band addictive. “There’s a certain thing that happens when you play a lot and the connection between ideas and execution becomes x milliseconds”, he says. “I love that thing. It only exists in the heat of battle”.
‘Kin’ is released on Nonesuch on February 4. The Pat Metheny Unity Group’s world tour starts on February 3 in Jackson, Mississippi, patmetheny.com