Friday, February 25, 2005

Pat Metheny: An Idealist Reconnects With His Mentors

My older brother turned me on to Pat Metheny when I was in high school. His weird and mellow but technically amazing guitar playing still blows me away. For a while there, I was pretty obsessed with him, buying six or seven of his records over a three year period back in the 80s. Of course, after taking a jazz appreciation course at UT, I eventually moved on to Ellington, Coltrane, and others, but Metheny still has a special place in my personal musical aesthetic. He was also the first jazz artist who I saw perform live--it was my freshman year in college, with my old pal Matt, who sometimes comments here at Real Art; what we experienced was one of the better performances I've seen, ranking up there with Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead.

Anyway, all this reminiscing is because that same older brother, out of the clear blue sky, sent me a link to a New York Times Metheny interview focused on some of his musical influences and how he has responded to them:

Mr. Metheny took a deep breath. "Yeah. You know, that word swing is almost a political buzzword. To me, in the language I'm using here, that's the glue I'm talking about. The connection of ideas.

"But there's another way that music connects: with who the person is, the time he's living in, how he's able to manifest a sound that represents all that. To me, that's swing, and it doesn't have anything to do with jazz." (His accent renders the word "jee-azz.")

"Swing is kind of this quality? It exists in human interaction. In the way somebody talks and moves. I find its resonance in architecture, and literature."


"Yeah, acting. And refrigerator repair."


"Yeah," Mr. Metheny agrees. "It's like when you first wake up in the morning and you don't really think about what you're doing, and maybe you write your best stuff. You're not in the way. When talking about writing, I often use the analogy of archaeology. There are these great tunes all around. Your skill as a musician allows you to pick them out without breaking them."

Click here for the rest.

I'm not sure if that refrigerator remark was a slam at the huge crop of bad actors currently populating television and the movies, or at actors in general, but what hit me while reading this is how much jazz and acting seem to have in common as art forms. Actually, I've been making this comparison for years. For instance, both jazz and acting have a set form. For jazz it's sheet music; for acting it's a script. However, within the restrictions of that form, each artist seeks freedom and spontaneity: ideally, no single performance of a given work, for both jazz musicians and actors, is ever quite the same. Furthermore, jazz artists and actors are at their best when they have attained a very high level of non-verbal communication with one another during performance: this kind of almost animalistic interpersonal connection distinguishes jazz and acting from all other varieties of art. Indeed, Metheny's comment about not "really think(ing) about what you're doing" is one of the key factors when pursuing this kind of artistic connection--it's also something I'm working hard on in my MFA studies as an actor.

Really, this interview is not about my own art form, but it's nice to hear some echoes of my ideas about the theoretical links between jazz and acting. My point here is that Metheny's thoughts have value for anybody who is interested in art at all--this article isn't just for his many fans. So check it out, even if you've never heard of him or don't know who the hell he's talking about. You'll get some keen insight into how one of America's great artists approaches the act of creation.