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Year of the Pat

With its leader's distinctive sound, unique guitar tone, and signature improv stylings filling concert halls since the late 1970s, the Pat Metheny Group (with longtime keyboardist Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby) has built a loyal and eclectic following that defies easy categorization.

"It can be a 50-year-old jazz buff and his wife sitting next to a couple of Phish fans sitting next to a bunch of guitar heads sitting next to somebody who heard 'Last Train Home' on [defunct radio station] Love 94," laughs Metheny, commenting on the diversity of his fans. "It seems like our audience is even more racially diverse than ever these days. I look out there myself and just kind of go, 'Wow.' You'd have a hard time making a demographic of this group."

But as falls his audience, so falls his music.

With lengthy, sophisticated songs steeped in a fusion vernacular, his music easily appeals to the hard-core jazz fan. Yet his sound remains forever accessible and open, allowing for a neophyte to grasp and appreciate the melodic structure and rich harmony of his tunes. Then there's Metheny's virtuosic playing on display throughout many of his song's prolonged improvisations, to the delight of many a guitar wonk.

Along with the many facets of his music, the sheer volume of work that he and his group have assembled after 25 years of playing and recording makes for a musical pantry long on variety. "The band's book is so deep now," Metheny says of the playlist options.

But while the audiences keep coming to his shows in large numbers rare for even the most revered jazz musicians, Metheny continues to do what he does, with no pursuit of a hit record.

"Basically, the primary relationship that I have to music is extremely personal. Whatever success I've ever had doing anything has always been generated from trying to follow through as completely as I can with musical ideas, and how anybody else perceives it is fully out of my jurisdiction," explains Metheny. "I think as soon as you start putting any weight in those areas, you've crossed a line that's difficult to return from. You don't really know what anybody else hears or what they like or anything like that. I mean, I always try to play what I like, and however anybody else perceives it -- cool."

The perceptions of others continue to perplex Metheny. Like a group of people describing what shape they see in a passing cloud -- Lincoln's profile, Lake Michigan, a bunny -- Metheny's colorful palette of sound has enough substance to satisfy all points of view.

"I've gotten lots of comments from people about what they hear in the music. Some people want to talk about the details of how we voice chords, how we modulate from this key to that key, and other people want to talk about how much they like that section where everything turns all purple," says Metheny with a laugh. "I observe all this and try to take it all in and kind of scratch my head, like, 'Well, that's great,' but my own connection with it is almost fully in the syntax of the music itself. I'm completely immersed in just trying to figure out the best way to get from F to D. It's very unromantic in a way."

With a pile of Grammys as testament (an unprecedented seven awards for seven consecutive releases), Metheny must be doing something right. Which is not bad for a guy from Lee's Summit, Missouri.

As something of a prodigy, Metheny picked up the guitar at age 12 and was playing with the top jazz musicians in Kansas City by the time he was 15. In the audience for one of those gigs was Bill Lee, dean of the music department at the University of Miami, who offered Metheny a full scholarship. That's how Metheny found himself in Miami in the fall of '72 as an overmatched 18-year-old college student.

"I basically had just finished faking my way through high school and had no business whatsoever of even thinking of going to college," says Metheny. "After about two weeks, it was clear there was absolutely no way I was gonna be able to fake my way through college English classes at the University of Miami."

Fortunately for Metheny, who started working immediately in bands upon his arrival, the university had just recognized the electric guitar as a legitimate instrument, one of only three schools in the country to do so; and a department with four guitar majors suddenly swelled to 90, with only one instructor.

"They needed another teacher, and I probably was at least the most experienced student there," Metheny says of his sudden switch in occupations. "So they offered me that gig, and it allowed me to continue the mythology at home that I was actually going to school and got me a little income too."

It was also at that time when a brilliant young bass player from Fort Lauderdale by the name of Jaco Pastorius began to flex his musical muscles, while a healthy score of talented jazz musicians began descending on South Florida shores. The heady mix of young and veteran players was fertile ground for Metheny to experiment and grow in.

"It was an interesting time, one of those odd things where it was sort of a convergence of people at that particular moment in time all going to Miami," Metheny says. "And then of course, there were a couple of Miami people that figured heavily into it from my standpoint, of course Jaco and Ira Sullivan, who were both around at the time. It was just a very stimulating atmosphere with a lot of people that were sort of curious about similar ideas, kind of in this contained environment comparing notes.

"When I left Kansas City, I had a lot of practical playing experience. But that year that I spent in Miami was the year that everything sort of crystallized for me into something that I think, stylistically, connected at least to the way that I still continue to play. And part of that was just sort of the environment of being around these young guys who were all really putting a lot of energy into developing their own thing."

Not long after his term in South Florida, followed by another year teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Metheny took to the road, where, since 1977, he's logged between 200 and 300 concerts a year. And though he's cut back his tour schedule a bit in the past decade, he still considers the concert as the only way to get his music out there.

"If you're gonna play music that is sort of functionally off the beaten path, you have no choice but to do a lot of gigs if you want to build an audience," Metheny admits. "There are not now, nor have there ever been, radio stations that play tunes that are nine or ten minutes long, which tend to be the average length of our pieces. So radio has never really been a possibility for us."

As the Pat Metheny Group enters its 25th year of recording and touring, the band has expanded with the addition of three new young players: Richard Bona on percussion, Antonio Sanchez on drums, and Cuong Vu on trumpet. For the latest album, Speaking of Now, the music is as full and diverse as it's ever been, offering fresh musical ideas while adhering to the group's familiar spacious and melodic sound. With the energy and excitement of a new lineup and the endless playlist options, the band has struggled to keep the concerts from lasting indefinitely.

"It's probably one of the most interesting and fun lineups that the group has ever had. We're about a month into it now, and pretty much everywhere we're going, people are really freaking out," laughs Metheny. "The challenge has been to keep the set under about three and a half or four hours. I mean, we've got so much music we want to play, and we do have a year's worth of gigs ahead of us, so I don't want to wear everybody out."

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John Anderson

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