Guitarist Pat Metheny, the artist-in-residence for the 36th annual Detroit Jazz Festival (Sept. 4-7), has never come across as your typical jazzman. With a sartorial style more Topanga Canyon than New York City, his home for some 20 years, a leonine mane, and a smile as wide as the Mississippi (in his liner notes for Metheny’s debut recording as a leader, mentor Gary Burton marveled at “all those teeth”), Metheny comes across as a kind of flower child in a time warp.
That first album, “Bright Size Life” (1976), drew attention to not one but two of the most distinctive stylists of late 20th century jazz: Metheny and fellow long-haired virtuoso, the late bassist Jaco Pastorius. It also signaled a sound that seemed to blossom, full flower, from the get-go — as spacious as the Missouri heartland where he grew up, but also dazzlingly eclectic without the technical overkill that characterized so many fusion guitarists of the period.
Metheny’s Midwestern roots very much informed his aesthetic.
“It’s not just the Lee’s Summit factor,” Metheny tells Variety, referencing his hometown, “but the Kansas City factor, too. The whole thing of western Missouri is sort of in it all in many different ways.”
If there’s a certain Americana sensibility in Metheny’s oeuvre, he’s also rangy enough to play in virtually any style or mode, with a phalanx of instruments to match, from a six-string hollow body to the Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer to his custom-made 42-string Pikasso, a double-neck that would give Jimmy Page a run for the money.
The 20-time Grammy winner’s multi-lingual fluency is underscored by nominations in 12 different Recording Academy categories, according to his website. Metheny’s styles span from ethereal to folksy to bop to free jazz in the vein of Ornette Coleman, one of his heroes. “Ornette to me is all about his inspiration,” Metheny says. “The main thing for me is fun and Ornette was just fun. The music was fun, he was fun.”
Metheny has not only collaborated with Coleman (on the 1986 LP “Song X”), but also with two key alums who came out of the Ornette school: bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman. (Their group effort, “80/81” with Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette, is one of the guitarist’s many career high points.) In fact, Metheny’s collaborators are a veritable who’s who of contemporary improvisation, from Burton and Pastorius to Dave Holland, Lyle Mays, Brad Mehldau and Antonio Sanchez, the drummer whom Metheny calls an “essential partner for me for the last 15 years.”
That Metheny has been able to master all these approaches and settings and still maintain a unique voice is somewhat of a miracle. In reviewing Metheny’s Unity band at New York’s Town Hall last spring, The New York Times’ Nate Chinen stated: “Mr. Metheny stamped every minute of an almost three-hour show with his specific brand of expedition. However far the music ranged in form and presentation, it never sounded as if it could have come from anybody else.”
“If I think about all my favorite music, the thing that is the most personal becomes the most universal,” Metheny explains. “And I see that time and time again in my favorite players. They have a kind of singular identity that is a real reflection of who they are and where they’re from in a real honest kind of way.”
When he toured with Joni Mitchell in support of her “Mingus” album in 1979, Metheny was part of arguably the best jazz ensemble (including Pastorius, Mays, Brecker) to play with a pop figure, albeit one who was taking the biggest commercial risk of her career. And yet for all the talent on stage, Metheny feels Mitchell — a fellow non-conformist and musical adventurist — stood tall all on her own. “The highlight of the night for me, was when she would pick up the dulcimer or piano or play the guitar,” he says. “My favorite part of it all was just hearing her do that; I never felt like she needed anybody or anything.”
Metheny has taken a few commercial risks of his own in the already insular world of progressive music, where he seems to occupy his own space, having sold 20 million record worldwide, the kinds of numbers associated more with adult contemporary than jazz.
While his best-known ensemble, the Pat Metheny Group, recorded more than a dozen albums between 1978 and 2005, Metheny’s explorations have been known to gild the lily now and then, such as his wholly synthetic one-man creation, “Orchestrion,” which he took on the road in 2010. Some critics cited the concept as gimmicky, but still, Metheny’s strengths as a composer cut through all the new-fangled technology.
“While it’s tempting to listen to the album to pick apart various pieces of the Orchestrion, the music doesn’t rely on novelty or gimmick to make an impression,” cited Jazz Times about the follow-up recording “The Orchestrion Project” in 2013. “The melodies stand on their own as strong works.”
For the Detroit Jazz Festival, Metheny took his assignment very seriously. For those unfamiliar with the city’s jazz tradition, Metheny is quick to point out a musical signature that reaches far beyond Motown. “I don’t know if I can name another city that has as many incredible musicians that come from there,” he says. “We’re talking Kenny Burrell, Elvin Jones and his two brothers, Hank and Thad Jones. As far as the bass goes, between Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, that defines the low-end of the music for the last 60 years.”
As the jazz festival’s featured artist, Metheny will be playing in four different settings: an acoustic duet with Carter; a reunion with Burton; a trio with Sanchez, including a guest appearance by another Detroiter, Kenny Garrett; and leading the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, which will unveil the North American premiere of Metheny’s 30-minute paean to German bassist Eberhard Weber.
“What makes Detroit so special is that it reflects this legacy of musicians and the quality of the musicians,” he says. “The program is incredibly diverse: It ranges from the most avant-garde type guys like (James) ‘Blood’ Ulmer to real mainstream, straight-head guys represented on the Mack Avenue label. So it’s a really full-spectrum jazz festival in the best possible way.”