PAT METHENY can play music in any style – be it jazz (the straight ahead, free and fusion varieties), rock, movie soundtracks or even pop – and put his own indelible stamp on it. He’s a musical shape-shifter who during his storied 39-year career has proved that variety really is the spice of life. Given his predilection for being unorthodox and thinking out of the box, it came as a surprise, then, that in 2012 he made a recording that utilised a conventional jazz quartet featuring contemporary tenor saxophone colossus, Chris Potter. That record – ‘Unity Band’ – won the prolific guitarist the twentieth Grammy of his career. Though followed up by a completely different project – 2013’s ‘Tap: John Zorn’s Book Of Angels, Vol. 20,’ dominated by sequencers and electronic gadgetry – the Unity Band has reconvened for a follow-up called ‘Kin.’ It’s quite different, though, from the quartet’s debut. Also, the band has expanded to a quintet via the valuable acquisition of pianist/multi-instrumentalist, Giulio Carmassi, prompting Metheny to rename them Unity Group.
The amiable, eternally-curious, 59-year-old guitarist/composer was recently in London to promote his new recording and spoke at length to SJF’s Charles Waring. He talked about his new recording venture for Nonesuch and also shared his thoughts about some of his other projects as well as the relationship between music-making and technology…
Tell me the story behind your new Unity Group album ‘Kin.’
A couple of years ago I sat back for a second and looked across all this range of recordings that I’ve made over the years and it was a little stunning to me that out of all those records that I had really done just one record that was more or less a classic rhythm section plus a horn player kind of record, which was (the ECM album) ’80/81′ (featuring tenor saxophonists Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker). I’d been so busy being involved with coming up with all these alternative type concepts and having different kinds of bands and really looking just at all the different kinds of ways I could be a band leader and conceptual things that were interesting to me. I just sort of neglected a little bit doing those kinds of records. And also, maybe, I was waiting 30 years for Chris Potter to show up (laughs). Certainly, he inspired me the same way that (Michael) Brecker and Dewey (Redman) did back then: to write a bunch of music that had that kind of central sonic destination; that thing that you can only get with a really great tenor (saxophone) player.
So we made that record (‘Unity Band’) and it was quite a successful record; it won a Grammy for Best Jazz Record but the real story is we that did a tour. The tour that followed the release of that record was about 100 gigs around the world and it just kept getting better and better and better. And as a bandleader, I’m extra sensitive to the kinds of connections that are being made off the bandstand as well as on the bandstand and this happened to be a very well-balanced group of personalities. Everybody got along really good and we just had a lot of fun together. When you get to do that many gigs by the time that you get to the last ten or so it can be a countdown: like OK, I’m almost done with this. But this was sort of the opposite. It was like we’ve only got three gigs to go and it’s going to be so sad to see it end. We all had this feeling to keep going and I had plans to do something else and was itching to write some music that was a little bit broader in its compositional range; like the stuff I did with my regular band or projects like ‘Secret Story’ or ‘Orchestrion’ – a kind of compositional sensibility that goes beyond just being a tune. Then I started thinking: well, okay, if we’re going to do this again – and I’m using the word ‘unity’ a lot, which I did feel was a good word for that band – maybe there would be a way to really broaden it out further and incorporate this bigger picture of all these different kinds of things, including the Orchestrion and including the elements of electronics that have always been a big part of my thing for the last 30 years in other settings (like synths and sequencers and all that stuff). And I thought also, if I am going to go to that bigger, broader sound I’m going to need a least one more musician, maybe two. And right around that same time I got a phone call from Will Lee, great bass player, kind of unrelated, saying: “there’s this new guy here in New York who is super-talented but nobody seems to quite know what to do with him. But he keeps saying that his main goal in life is to be in one of your bands or to be on one of your projects.” And I was like, cool! What is he? He said: “he’s a piano player and he’s a singer but he plays saxophone, trumpet, flute and cello.” I said now wait a minute, what? Who is this? It turns out to be this guy Giulio Carmassi, who’s perfect for me.
He’s not exactly an improviser but I don’t really need another soloist. I’ve got Chris Potter, so I really just needed somebody who was a great musician who really understood this dialect within the music. So with Giulio and all these other elements and this slamming quartet thing right in the middle of it, that had evolved over this time, it really seemed a really great palette of things to try to build into something altogether. The result is this record (‘Kin’) where I shifted the name over to Unity Group, to imply this broader thing somehow. So I’ve got these two records with essentially the same core group of people but they are very, very different kinds of records. I’ve been describing it – and maybe you’ve seen this in the press too – but I think it’s a good way to look at it: if the first record was like a black-and-white documentary – which it kind of was, a group of guys in the studio playing tunes down – this one is kind of really more the 3-D, IMAX, Technicolor version of that.
It’s got a lot of texture to it as well.
Yes, texture and the kind of dramatic type stuff which I felt very comfortable with in other areas but have never quite reconciled with this kind of thing.
What does Giulio bring that you didn’t have before?
Well, I write everything on piano. It’s just easier for me to go on the piano. It’s an instrument that is designed to develop ideas in a way. The guitar has a lot of idiosyncrasies that are great but with piano it’s a much more neutral environment. So for me there is always a process of once I write something on the piano I have to transfer it over to the guitar and the guitar, bass, drums sound of the rhythm section has one thing that’s really cool about it: it’s very open. But it doesn’t have the same kind of richness and density. It doesn’t take up the same kind of space that piano does so just kind of right off the bat, Giulio’s a very good piano player so those things that I’d written that were very dense and thick could remain dense and thick: they didn’t have to get reduced down to a guitar version of that. We’re talking about a guy who can play all these different instruments and also he’s a great singer, which has been an element that I have kind of utilised fairly often over the years as an ensemble sound so he’s a bit of a natural fit for the kind of things that I write.
How would you describe the recording process for the new album? How did it evolve in the studio?
The ‘Unity Band’ record was the classic I wrote a bunch of tunes, we’ll rehearse for a day and tomorrow we’ll go into studio and record half of them on the first day, half of them on the second day and then take a day or so away and mix it and that’s it. This record took two weeks just to record the parts. It’s a totally different kind of process to get this result. It was also a matter of discovering the music as we went. It wasn’t the kind of thing where we could just rehearse it down and then play it. We really had to fine tune it as we were recording it, just to find out what it is. There are several layers of technology involved in this that were not there on the first record at all – I mean in terms of sequencers and all the materials that for me I’m very familiar with and which I’ve used on many of my other projects and which I’ve always kept a little bit out of the realm of what I might do on a project with this kind of instrumentation. This time I not only utilised them but I went at them full force. So it’s a different kind production.
So it’s a hybrid of different things…
It really is. And that was the challenge and also the fun of it. I think that the result of it is something that it’s hard to place it on the spectrum of stuff. It’s already carved out its own little vibe in the panorama of the things that I’ve done.
Do you come into the studio with notated lead sheets to give to your players?
Oh yeah. (Laughs). The first tune I think is 34 pages of written material. It’s a massive thing. This kind of thing is not the sort of thing that you say “Ben (Ben Williams, bassist), okay, you play in F” and “Ok, now Tony (drummer, Antonio Sanchez) you do a little groove” and turn on the tape and let’s go. I’ve certainly done records like that but this is a very detailed thing and the whole idea of putting a lot of written material side-by-side with a lot of space for people to improvise is a challenging thing that has been a subject of interest for me right from the beginning. When I decided to start my own band that was one of the things I particularly wanted to investigate: what could you do with a small group of people now that’s different than in any time in history? Some of that had to do with the technology that was available and which I have never had any fear of. To me it’s really, absolutely, a worthwhile destination to try and find a way of making all these things compatible.