An Evening with Pat Metheny

Lucas Weals ‘19

Music Correspondent

Illustration by Richard Farrell ’22

On a June night in 1965, Wes Montgomery took the stage with the Wynton Kelly Trio at the Half Note Club in New York City to play a jazz set. Listening to a live record of that forty-minute performance now, in 2019, it’s still easy to feel the way the crowd that night probably felt—that the guitar had never been played quite so well, and maybe never would again. I only know about Smokin’ at the Half Note because of Pat Metheny—a guitar soloist, composer, and general musician so legendary it still blows my mind that I saw him play last week—who once told the New York Times that the solo on “If You Could See Me Now” is his favorite of all time. If only Wes Montgomery could see Pat now.

Metheny is the latest (and for my money the greatest) in a stunning cavalcade of jazz greats to play Davidson’s Duke Family Performance Hall in the last few years—Delfeayo Marsalis, Anat Cohen, Chick Corea(!). When he takes the stage the air changes, like it all got sucked toward him and blown back in our faces. We stand because it seems right to stand.

He’s tall but he slouches in a kind of ’70s-movie-stoner way; he’s dressed in all black except for his pure white basketball shoes, and he’s carrying a very large and profoundly distressed yellow hollow-body. He’s also got an enormous mane of bushy grey hair, which if you haven’t seen a picture you really should.

The 64-year-old son of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, gave a bow, mouthed some “thank you”s, and flashed an award-winning grin to his pre-set standing ovation. Then he counted the band in and they were off and running. Metheny played solo after mind-altering solo over pieces from across his diverse ouvre, alternating between his well-worn jazz guitar and a smaller guitar synthesizer, whose trumpet-like wails had audience members literally jumping out of their seats to cheer.

The Davidson College Jazz Ensemble performed exceptionally, both as Metheny’s backing band and in their three opening pieces—“Tutu” (Miles Davis), “The Southeast Sixstep” (Eric Richards), and “A Hymn for Her” (Fred Sturn), the latter ballad a rare, though much appreciated, programming choice by Director William Lawing. Andrew Wright ’20, Ken Lee ’19, and Andrew Fay ’19 all turned in fantastic solos in the concert’s opening movement. Backing up Pat, the Ensemble demonstrated an especially fine sense of rhythm, evident on strangely-metered tunes like “Have You Heard,” which was my pick for the highlight of the evening. (In all fairness, it’s been one of my favorite Metheny compositions for a long time.) Set drummer Brendan Cassidy ’19 deserves special commendation for his consistent and flavorful treatment of some truly difficult percussion.

In a long conversation that took the place of the traditional “master class” offered by visiting musicians, Pat told the Jazz Ensemble that songwriting is “like riding a public bus. You have to go to the bus stop to get on. The bus may never come, but you still have to go to the bus stop to get on.” Talking to students after his visit, and even just gleaning impressions from the way he plays with an ensemble and feels a crowd, I’m struck above all by Pat’s generosity: as a musician, as a mentor, as a massively influential figure in the music world.

Part of Pat’s genius comes from just what he told the Ensemble, which is the sensation of the bus stop—public space, street noise. When he plays, he blends the slang, the vernacular, the purposely casual bends and lilts of blues melody and brass experimentation with the extraordinary rhythmic precision and tonal exactitude of progressive rock, Steve-Reich-inflected electronic composition, and Latin polyrhythm. His guitar style bears an influence from everyone on every instrument—Sonny Rollins’ sax, Miles Davis’ trumpet, Glenn Gould’s piano, Wes Montgomery’s guitar—and yet it’s totally his own, unmistakable from the first lick of Bright Size Life (1975) and on through to last Friday’s show. (Sorry, last Friday’s “gig.”)

And he talks sort of like he plays. His comments on music express the remarkable fusions of style that you hear in his improvisations. In a 2018 keynote speech at a conference of the Society for Neuroscience (isn’t it telling that he was the keynote speaker at a neuroscience conference?), Pat oscillates between profound psychological and technical insights—“In that place, where the goal of maximum consciousness is an essential component of what it takes to be a great musician, that same sense of consciousness is also paradoxically the thing that you find disappearing completely”—and high-school-truant, shooting-the-shit clarity—“[The] number one key skill that is required for the gig is being a great listener.”

It’s profoundly apparent that Pat Metheny is a great listener. He’s all about communication—music as language and improvisation as similar to extemporaneous speech. He called rhythm and groove “the core of everything.” As Matt Bell ’19 puts it, translating Metheny’s wisdom from a private lesson, “Harmony can be taught or read about in myriad different theory books, but groove communicates to people. Melody is ‘the mystery of music’ that ‘holds harmony and groove together like glue.’”

In these wide-ranging and expressive metaphors, Metheny is getting close to describing something we all felt on Friday: that he is, in his words, “a musician before a guitar player,” and that music is a communicative thing, a place where people come together. All I know is that when I leave here in a month or so, watching Pat Metheny solo with Davidson’s Jazz Ensemble is a memory I’ll be especially thankful for. Next time I put on “Have You Heard,” I can answer, “Yeah.”

Lucas Weals ’19 is an English major from Bethesda, MD. He can be reached for comment at luweals@davidson.edu.

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