The multi-Grammy award-winning guitarist Pat Metheny is one of modern jazz’s most respected figures. Since bursting on to the scene in 1974, he has performed with artists as diverse as Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock and David Bowie, and his 20-year writing and performing collaboration with pianist Lyle Mays has been hailed as one of jazz’s most fruitful partnerships. Metheny’s extensive discography of over 70 albums has earned him no fewer than 18 Grammys – What’s It All About, out now, is his first solo guitar album since One Quiet Night in 2003.
It’s interesting that What’s It All About, a very intimate solo album, comes on the heels of your largest solo project to date, the 2010 album Orchestrion. Was that an intentional decision?
Well, both albums are definitely connected. The fact that they’re both solo records and are so different, almost makes them the head and tail of the same coin. People had been asking me about doing solo concerts for years and I always thought if I ever do a solo concert I’d want to do something really different, which was of course the Orchestrion thing, a whole different way of thinking about how to present oneself alone on stage. That was quite a wild experience. I did over 140 concerts. When the Orchestrion tour was over, there was just me and the guitar again. I didn’t really plan on making What’s It All About – I’d just gotten some new recording equipment and I tested it out and played one tune, which happened to be the Carly Simon tune (‘That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’) and I was like ‘Wow, this sounds good’ and then I did another tune and another one and it was like ‘You know what, I think I’m making record.’
Tell me about the different guitars on this record – you don’t use a usual six-string acoustic guitar…
The bulk of the record is on a baritone guitar. Baritone guitars are basically halfway between a conventional guitar and a bass guitar. Also in terms of size, it’s bigger than a regular guitar, and a little shorter than an electric bass. Tuning is basically down a fifth, but I take off the third and the fourth string, the middle two strings, and then put on light-gauge strings, and tune them up an octave. So then I have an instrument that is three two-stringed instruments. There’s sort of a viola range on top, a violin range in the middle and a cello range on the bottom.
You also use an incredible piece of equipment – a 42-string guitar?
Yes – it’s the Pikasso guitar, the 42-string guitar which has a baritone guitar sitting right in the middle of it. But then it has 36 other strings that are sort of fanned out in various ways. They basically function like a harp and I can tune them any way I want, really. I mean the first couple of years I had it I just stared at it, trying to figure out how to tune it! Obviously you could do anything with it, but I’ve sort of settled into a kind of diatonic modal kind of zone – that seems to be what it does best. It lends itself beautifully to The Sound of Silence, which is essentially a diatonic-type song. [Hear audio clip below].
Tell me about the choice of songs on the album. It’s rare that an album of yours doesn’t include any music written by you…
All the songs are from the time when I was 9, 10, 11, 12. I’m sort of relooking at music that was from before I was a musician, reflected through my more than 40 years of playing experience. These tunes are from an era where chords and form and melody had a different place in popular music than they do now. My versions of these songs, I think, are far from literal versions. Mostly they’re abstractions on the tune.
And melody has always been very important to you – from your through-written music to your improvisations.
The whole issue of melody has been fascinating me right from the beginning. There aren’t that many great melodic improvisers, and the ones that have had success tend to be fairly few and far between, but significant. The improvisers that I love the most – you know like Lester Young or Stan Getz or Miles, even Wes Montgomery, Gary Burton – that had this melodic flow were always models for me, but that also goes for tunes, for songwriting. I have a lot of admiration for the craft that is involved in organising things on a melodic plane that is kind of transcendent to the style it’s written in. There are a couple of those here, like Alfie. It’s so robust as a form and a lot of that is thanks to its melodic aspect. It’s built on this frame of melody so that anybody can tackle it, and it retains its value melodically. But it’s also a kind of mirror for the person who’s playing it – whatever you put into it, you get it back. That sort of melodic aspiration is real high on my list.
Interview by Oliver Condy