Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny

by Jeff Fitzgerald

copyright © 2003 Jeff Fitzgerald

It has been said of Pat Metheny that if Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and Charlie Christian had somehow all been involved in fathering a single child, that child would grow up to pursue her master's in developmental psychology at Stanford while working as an assistant manager at Border's. Where they sell Pat Metheny CD's. How ironic is that? Not ironic enough, according to Microsoft Word's irony check, which rated this paragraph as only 34.7% as ironic as it could have been and suggested that the child grow up to be Pat Metheny. I reminded Word that the definition of irony is when things turn out opposite of or in mockery of the expected result and, since everyone probably expected the child would grow up to be Metheny, it was precisely ironic. The whole thing degenerated into a big megillah and I ended up having to finish this piece in WordPad.

Meanwhile, somewhere under the Eastern sky.

Patrick Bruce Metheny was born on August 12, 1954, in Lee's Summit, Missouri, the second son of Dave and Lois Metheny. Their first son, Mike, was five years older and had been received in a trade with the Cardinals for a utility infielder and a player to be named later (Orlando Cepeda). From the very start, the Methenys were a musical family. Lois enjoyed listening to a wide variety of music from classical to big band, while Dave had an accordionated abdomen and could be played like a concertina. Early on, Mike took to the trumpet while young Pat aspired to play the Electro-Who-Cardio-Floox from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. When it was pointed out that the EWCF was not a real instrument, his second choice was the birdaphone (made famous by bandleader Spike Jones). Upon discovering that the birdaphone was not a real instrument, either, little Pat warily selected the guitar. After receiving independent confirmation that the guitar was legitimate, he devoted himself to learning the instrument.

While most kids his age were catching frogs or skipping rocks or whatever in the hell kids that age do, Pat was discovering the Beatles (he had a summer job as an A&R boy for EMI/Capitol records, the lemonade stand and lawn-mowing rackets being glutted in his small hometown). So influenced was he by his exposure to the Fab Four that for years afterwards, he spoke with a slight Liverpudlian accent and could not bring himself to grant his drummers a full measure of respect.

After an unusually precocious passage into adolescence, Pat happened upon one of those epochal, life-changing events that are so common in stories like this where professional writers know how to give the people what they want. In 1968, while attending the Kansas City Jazz Festival, Pat heard Wes Montgomery. His parents had come to scout the Athletics for a little brother for Mike and Pat, unaware that the A's had moved to Oakland at the end of the previous season and the expansion Royals would not begin play until the next year. From that moment on, he devoted himself to playing jazz guitar.

Within a year of his fateful decision, Pat made his debut as a jazz musician at the age of 15 with a group called the New Sound Trio (after the original name, Pat Metheny and Two Other Guys, was voted down 2-1 at a band meeting). Pat used this time to gain valuable experience, performing wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. From circus bands to TV jingles to theater pit orchestras, the adolescent future icon was all but ubiquitous on the Kansas City music scene. He was also very active on the KC barbecue scene, becoming an outspoken advocate for the signature taste of slow-cooked meat with tangy, spicy tomato-based sauce. Many believe he was also responsible for the drive to call short loin steaks "Kansas City Strips" as opposed to the more accepted New York Strip, but many also believe in UFO's so there's no accounting for some people.

On a personal note, I should mention that as a fellow Son of the South, I also take barbecue very seriously. I do diverge from Metheny on the count of Kansas City-style versus North Carolina-style, preferring the primarily vinegar- and mustard-based sauce of the Eastern Carolina method.

Be that as it may.

Graduating from Kansas City High in 1972, the already-seasoned young guitarist faced a world of possibilities. I would say that the world was his oyster, but I've already used that gag in the Wynton Marsalis piece. I could say that the world was his barbecue, but then we'd have the inevitable disagreement over the type of sauce to use. At any rate, several scholarships awaited him and his future lay in front of him as limitless as the amount of Gigli jokes we're going to have to endure until the laws of random probability converge to make a more horrible film.

Deciding on the University of Miami, both because of its above-average music department and its willingness to go to whatever measures were necessary to insure a football team that would not embarrass the alumni, Pat commenced towards his inevitable rendezvous with the remainder of this article.

Not long into his college career, it became obvious that Pat was not your ordinary freshman music major. Already accomplished as a performer and composer, he made a stunning transformation from student to teacher (with the use of make-up techniques first pioneered by the great Lon Chaney) and, at 18, was the youngest teacher in the school's history.

At the end of his first year at Miami, he was discovered by vibraphonist Gary Burton who quickly offered Pat the chance to teach at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Ironically, Pat had originally wanted to attend Berklee, but was dissuaded from doing so by his father, who convinced him that attending a college with no athletic program would cause him to be one of those embarrassing bandwagon fans who latch onto a successful institution with fanatical devotion despite the fact they probably couldn't find the actual campus with a GPS.

So then.

Once in Boston, Pat's music career kicked into high gear. He was gigging left and right, making important connections, and most importantly, learning how to walk in those ridiculous Earth shoes that jazz fusion musicians were expected to wear back in the '70s. It wasn't long before Pat was in New York, joining his friend Jaco Pastorius in Paul Bley's band. Now, see if you can say "Jaco Pastorius in Paul Bley's band" five times in a row without grinning like Buck Owens.

Funny I should mention Buck Owens (is it?), since he and Pat both share the same birthday. Which happens to be the very day I'm writing this stretch, August 12. Freud said that there are no coincidences, but he died 30 years before Hee Haw premiered, so what the hell does he know?

Finally, in 1974, Pat joined Gary Burton (remember him, from earlier?) and his band of veteran musicians who he had recruited from VFW halls all over the tri-state area. It was here that Pat's style began to coalesce, playing with the talented guitarist Mick Goodrick. Pat also gained valuable experience in the processes involved in recording an album, such as where to stand during the cover photo shoot so as not to be obscured by the title graphics. This was of critical importance in the '70s, when staring at the album cover while listening to the record was a popular pastime and greatly influenced an artist's popularity. In fact, much of Linda Ronstadt's esteem among males can be traced to the cover of her Hasten Down the Wind album, which was responsible for the occurrence of more carpal tunnel syndrome among members of my generation than any album in history with the possible exception of the Go-Gos' Beauty and the Beat.

Moving along.

While performing with Bley, Pat formed a trio with Jaco and Bob Moses and recorded his first solo album, Bright Size Life (after the original title, Pat Metheny and Two Other, Different Guys failed to carry the vote with 1 for, 1 against, and 1 abstention). The album was well received, by Steelers' wide-out Lynn Swann who caught it for a 26 yard gain and a first down on the Browns' 35.

No, wait.

Following the success of his first solo album, Pat contemplated leaving Burton's band and starting his own. The sentiment grew in urgency when he met pianist Lyle Mays, with whom he formed an immediate artistic bond. Well, almost immediate. It's always a good idea to let artistic bond stand for 24 hours to insure maximum adhesion. It is also important to make sure that both artists are clean and the surfaces to be joined are free of any impurities (tattoos, etc.). Artistic bond may be removed with acetone or the right amount of money. Leftover artistic bond must be stored in a well-ventilated area, away from open flames. Use only as directed, keep out of reach of children and/or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

Finally leaving Burton's band in 1977, Pat formed the Pat Metheny Group with Mays, drummer Danny Gottlieb, and bassist Mark Egan. For the next two years, the group toured constantly. Racking up over 150,000 miles per year in their van, they played anywhere and everywhere they could. Leaving no corner of the nation ungigged, no venue was denied. From enthusiastic crowds of hundreds in clubs and colleges to a stone-faced audience of four at Mt. Rushmore, the PMG (as they are still known among the hip set, and the remaining members of the Hapsburgs) performed constantly in a valiant attempt to keep the American peoples' minds off of the fact that Jimmy Carter was at the switch.

Ending up in Oslo, Norway, in January of 1978 (those gas station road maps are notoriously unreliable), the boys decided to record their first album after a brief debate as to whether or not to record their Mediocre Follow-Up album first then record the Brilliant Debut. While that sort of outside-the-box thinking is now recognized and rewarded, in those unenlightened days it was just considered stupid. Their Brilliant Debut, the self-titled Pat Metheny Group, was released to predictably rave reviews while the critics sharpened their knives in anticipation of the Mediocre Follow-Up. Pat was one step ahead of them, though, and circumvented their expectations by following up with the solo New Chautauqua, which still holds the record for most U's in an album title.

By skipping the Mediocre Follow-Up in favor of the A Break to Explore Artistic Ideas Outside of the Group Dynamic Solo Album, which usually comes after the Commercial Disappointment but before the Box Set, Pat short-circuited the customary cycle and left stunned critics to write generic denunciations of whatever it was they were heaping praise upon last week. In the resultant chaos, New Chautauqua was named Best Album of the Year by several magazines.

While a lesser man would have used this opportunity to pound out several lightweight efforts that fans would be obligated to buy at an inflated price later on just so they could say they had all his albums, Pat and the PMG released American Garage which is credited with helping to rehabilitate victims of disco music and for many years, because of its 35-minute length, was used by Domino's delivery drivers to insure timely pizza arrivals. "There by 'Epic' or it's free," went the motto, until corporate efficiency experts discovered that listening to the PMG was acting as a "gateway" jazz experience and leading to harder stuff. Drivers getting hooked on Coltrane were taking hours to deliver the pies, while those freebasing Cecil Taylor were sometimes ending up several states away seemingly incoherent yet oddly exhilarated.

Later that same day.

Firmly established now in the hierarchy of the jazz elite, Pat spent the '80s like most of us, working on having really good hair and trying to avoid a social disease. He also found time to tour relentlessly and lay down a track with anyone who was standing anywhere near a recording device. Pat was everywhere in the '80s from backing gigs with Joni Mitchell and David Bowie to collabora ting with Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden to his legendary live performances with Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (who took up jazz drumming after making his fortune in the cutthroat world of fancy mustard). He is also known for his guest appearance on a very special Facts of Life as Natalie's itinerant musician Uncle Raoul, who teaches the girls an important lesson about what sort of things go on in the back of tour vans.

As close as Pat came to rock star status in the '80s, though, he remained true not only to his own creative voice but to creating a bridge to jazz for rock fans who may have already ventured onto the Miles Davis peninsula or the Steely Dan isthmus. His fluid, melodic guitar was like the Pied Piper's flute except that A) It lead people to jazz, not away from small German towns, and B) You don't blow into a guitar if you're serious about getting anywhere with the instrument.

The '90s and into the new millennium have found Pat, like yeast, active and an integral part of any decent pizza crust(?). He continues to record and perform tirelessly (following a dispute with Goodyear), as well as serving as a de facto elder statesman for the Fusion movement. His legion of fans stretches around the world, from the most desolate corners of Indiana to the heartland of India. Or vice versa. From Bright Size Life to his most recent One Quiet Night (which features Pat alone on the distinctive baritone guitar, one of which I must add to the Geniusdome guitar collection or else my life will seem hollow and empty somehow), he has expanded the lexicon of jazz guitar to include such previously unheard-of possibilities as amp feedback and commercial success.

In closing, I will mention that this is the first time in the storied history of the Guide that I have subjected an unsuspecting figure to a Geniusing at the behest of an admirer of both the artist and the Genius. The Red Queen (La Reina Roja), a Hoosier of distinction and recovering applebutter addict, was the impetus for this month's dose. Just so you know who to blame.

Till next month, kids. exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

Jeff Fitzgerald first published this article (?) in AllAboutJazz.

C o m m e n t s

No comments yet. You can be the first.
[<<] [<] [>] [>>]