For a guy who’s routinely credited with revolutionizing the sound of jazz, Pat Metheny sounds surprisingly detached from his mode of musical expression.
“I don’t really care about the guitar,” he tells The Japan Times by phone from his New York home, ahead of a tour with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.
Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as that blunt statement makes them out to be. Metheny thinks a lot about his playing, it’s just that he doesn’t regard himself as a “guitar freak.” In his own laid-back way, the 53-year-old Missouri native views the guitar prosaically as a means to an end. That end, however, is pure poetry.
Though best known for a 30-year-plus songwriting partnership with keyboardist Lyle Mays, Metheny’s now making news for his recent project with Mehldau, a 37-year-old American who’s regarded as one of the most significant talents of his generation. If, as it’s often said, Metheny and Mays are the Lennon and McCartney of jazz, then publicists will have to come up with an equally suitable catch phrase for the dynamic duo of Metheny and Mehldau.
The pairing has been hailed by both critics and fans as a perfect fit. To date, their collaboration has yielded two albums that have been compared favorably with the standard-setting 1960s work of guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans. “Metheny/Mehldau,” released in 2006 by Warner Music Japan, focuses on duets recorded during a 5-day session in December 2005. “Quartet,” released this year, is mostly devoted to group pieces recorded during the same period with Grenadier and Ballard, who play in Mehldau’s current trio.
Metheny says he and the pianist had been talking about the project for years, but their plans were foiled by their hectic touring schedules, other commitments and the pressures of raising children.
“Every time we would see each other, we would have a moment where we’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do something together?’ ” Metheny recalls. “That’s a typical musiciany kind of thing to do, but it was really serious. I think we both knew that this was a good idea.”
Metheny and Mehldau had never played together before, but their chemistry was instantly apparent. Were there any doubts, they were gone by the time the duo played “Unrequited,” the first tune on their duet disc.
” ‘Unrequited’ was recorded about 20 minutes into the session. We only did it one time,” Metheny recalls.
Considering the attention the project has received, it’s fair to ask why more players aren’t trying to prove themselves the worthy heirs of Hall and Evans. But guitar/piano duos are rare. Metheny offers one reason why.
“There aren’t too many guitar players who have the harmonic interests that would make them a great match for an advanced piano player,” he explains. “If you’re a jazz guitar player and you just want to play some bebop, playing a duet with a piano player is probably not the first place you’re going to look.”
But, for a guitarist willing to share the spotlight with a pianist, the rewards are potentially enormous. “It’s one of the great combinations, because you have two instruments that are capable of polyphony,” Metheny says. “But it does have some pretty high-level requirements that you have to have just to get in the door. You have to know a lot about harmony, and you have to be able to listen on a microsecond basis in a way that you’re almost able to predict what the other person’s going to play.”
The dynamics of the instruments are also an issue, especially when a guitar isn’t amplified. “A really loud, banging piano player is going to wipe out what a guitar is capable of doing,” Metheny says. “A lot of piano players — because they’re used to playing with instruments that are louder than they are — can’t really play freely at the lower end of their dynamic spectrum. It’s a struggle for them to play really soft. To play really soft but with intensity on any instrument is the rarest of rare things. That’s something that both Brad and Lyle are capable of doing.”
Because of Metheny’s long association with Mays, the public and the press have been quick to compare the latter with Mehldau. For Metheny, what Mays and Mehldau have in common is more important than what they don’t.
“They both play like composers, which is something that I look for in any musician,” says Metheny, adding, “A lot of piano players really don’t understand guitar at all. It’s kind of a mystery, an almost annoying instrument. Both Brad and Lyle have a real deep understanding and are kind of intrigued with guitar.”
When asked why his own instrument has so thoroughly dominated popular music for the last 50 or 60 years, Metheny is at no loss for an answer.
“Despite my guitar skepticism, the guitar is a pretty cool instrument,” he says. “It’s portable. It’s got infinite textural potential. It can be everything from the softest possible acoustic guitar playing in your bedroom to a guy playing at Madison Square Garden with 27 Marshall amps at 130 decibels.”
For all of the possibilities offered by guitar, Metheny is quick to point out its limitations, even as he’s saying that it’s “expanded exponentially in a 3-D kind of way.” When he talks about the guitar, he frequently refers to progress made in “compensating for” and “transcending” those limitations. He discusses the sonic palettes of the guitar synth, sitar guitar and some of the hybrid instruments that he’s helped developed. So what’s wrong with this otherwise all-conquering instrument? In the context of jazz, Metheny points to its dynamic range and the quality of the sound it produces.
“Saxophone and trumpet, because of the breath quality and the incredible dynamic range that both possess, have become excellent jazz instruments. Through the breath, they represent the voice, which is the model of all music. Guitar, vibes, drums, bass, violin and piano have a hill to climb there,” he says.
Metheny uses a variety of guitars on his recordings with Mehldau: acoustic, electric and even the 42-string Pikasso guitar made for him by luthier Linda Manzer. The Pikasso, a four-necked instrument that looks like it jumped out of a Cubist painting, is featured on “The Sound of Water.” Metheny says he’s not the one who calls the shots when it comes to which guitar to use.
“Usually the tune does,” he says, adding that he prefers composing on the piano. “The idea (for a song) needs to be able to function away from any instrument in order to do the kinds of things that I tend to like to hear.”
Not everyone approves. In September 2006, the Pikasso was slammed by The Onion, a satirical U.S. publication that included it in a list of “10 highly pretentious musical instruments.” Metheny brushes aside the potshots and wonders if those particular critics would be prepared to discuss music intelligently if he were to play for them. “Part of my job on Earth is to reveal wannabe hipsters as the idiots that they often are,” he says, laughing. “Mission accomplished.”
Listeners can judge the Pikasso for themselves when the tour kicks off in Mito on Sept. 22. Like a lot of musicians, Metheny says he owes a great deal to Japan. “To me, Japan is the backbone of the jazz world, and it has been for a very long time now,” Metheny says. “It’s my most valued audience — and not only for the support, but also for the kind of listening quality that they bring.”
Metheny agrees that Japan’s commitment to keeping music in school curricula has had a “gigantic” role in the level of acceptance of music other than commercial pop. He laments that the United States has largely chosen not to maintain a similar commitment.
“In the last 27 years or so, we’ve watched the decay of American culture on this front. We can trace it literally to the moment Ronald Reagan became president. Suddenly, education began to be considered something that was nonessential,” he says. “The deterioration of culture is self-evident in the art that America has produced in the last 27 years or so. It’s substandard.”
That said, Metheny hasn’t given up on his homeland. “Being a young country, America has growing pains that it’s going through right now. I tend to look with optimism over the long term and hope to see America rectifying its problems as time goes on,” he says.
Perhaps things will be different when the next Metheny/Mehldau record comes out. The way Metheny sees it, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
“Brad’s one of those guys I’m always going to follow. I’m always going to know what he’s doing, and I’m quite sure that it’s the same with him toward me.”
Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau perform: Sept. 22, 6 p.m. at Kenmin Bunka Center in Mito, Ibaraki (¥5,500-¥7,500;  241-1166); Sept. 23, 5 p.m. at Miyagi Kenmin Kaikan in Sendai (¥7,000-¥8,500;  296-8888); Sept. 24, 5 p.m. at Aichi Kosei Nenkin Kaikan (¥7,000-¥8,500;  957-3333); Sept. 26 & 27, 7 p.m. at NHK Hall in Tokyo (¥7,000-¥8,500;  3409-3345); Sept. 28, 7 p.m. at NHK Hall in Osaka (¥7,000-¥8,500;  6233-8888).