Jazz fusion and contemporary jazz guitarist/composer Pat Metheny is the only person to have won Grammy awards in 10 different categories. And while his cache of 20 Grammys is not a record number, it puts him in an echelon with few peers.
The Missouri native was born in 1954 to two musicians. Trumpet was the family favorite – his grandmother, father, and brother played it – so it made sense for him to start there. But after he saw the Beatles perform in 1964, all he could think about was the guitar. Add to that his exposure to Miles Davis in his teen years, and Metheny had a recipe for combining new ideas in jazz with innovative guitar technique.
He got practical tutelage by gigging in Kansas City with jazz pianist Paul Smith, and cornetist and trumpeter Gary Sivils. The organist Russ Long liked to make Metheny perform tunes he didn’t know, just to challenge him. His education continued with an intensive summer mentorship with Hungarian guitarist Atilla Zoller and some lectures on jazz harmony by Gary Burton. Metheny himself started teaching right after high school, first at the University of Miami and then at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. While there, he played with Gary Burton’s band.
It was teaching that turned Metheny into a composer. The exercises he created for his students became the basis for the tunes he recorded on his first album, Bright Size Life, in 1976. He started the Pat Metheny Group in 1977, a small ensemble that’s had dozens of musicians rotate in and out over the decades. Over half of Metheny’s Grammy awards were won by that band.
In 2021, the Library of Congress named Bright Size Life a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” work worthy of preservation in the National Recording Registry. That same year, Metheny put out Side-Eye NYC, new recordings of his early compositions, including the tune “Bright Size Life.”
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Pat Metheny.
- Track: “Phase Dance”
Album: Pat Metheny Group
When the Pat Metheny Group (PMG) started out, it was a quartet with Metheny, keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassist Mark Egan (on a fretless instrument), and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Those four were an ideal blend of creative forces to invent a new subgenre of jazz. Their music was constantly in motion, shimmering with multiple layers of electric guitar, virtuosic keyboards, and Mays’ distinctive approach to strumming the autoharp. Some credit also goes to producer Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM Records, who helped nail down the band’s signature diffuse sound.
There’s something simultaneously low-key and intense in Metheny’s playing on “Phase Dance.” Like all the tracks on the group’s debut album, he and Mays share writing credit.
- Track: “Daybreak”
Album: New Chautauqua
While PMG was an important outlet for Metheny, he also continued to do solo work. New Chautauqua is a quiet, mesmerizing record, with no one but Metheny in the studio. Listening to it is like peeking at an artist’s most intimate creative moments.
“Daybreak” was inspired by a practice session. Metheny fingerpicks his electric guitar, exploring, seeing where it takes him.
- Track: “Travels”
Like many jazz ensembles, PMG quickly became legendary for its live performances. Although there are some (sonically dreadful) bootlegs and amateur recordings of their gigs – stay away from Lo-Light Records’ Stumptown ʼ77 – the EMC album Travels was PMG’s first official live release. It was a huge seller and won the 1984 Grammy for Best Fusion Jazz Performance.
The PMG lineup had changed a bit: Steve Rodby had taken over bass (upright, electric, and bass synthesizer), and Brazilian master Naná Vasconcelos added thrilling percussion. The song “Travels,” credited to Metheny and Mays, has a harmonic sequence reminiscent of gospel. Gottlieb’s brushwork in this understated arrangement is like a cloud for the melody line to roll around in.
- Track: “Have You Heard”
Album: Letter from Home
Letter from Home is another Grammy-winning album. Argentinian bassist Pedro Aznar joined the lineup, or rather re-joined it, having also played on the PMG album First Circle five years before. His specialty was usually fretless bass, but on this album he plays a range of percussion instruments, melodica, and pan pipes.
The album closer is “Have You Heard,” by Metheny. Its appealing, Latin-flavored vibe goes virtuosic at around 2:09, when he lets a full chorus of almost constant 16th notes flow from his guitar.
- Track: “Everybody’s Party”
Album: I Can See Your House from Here
Label: Blue Note
I Can See Your House from Here is a duo album with fellow guitarist John Scofield, whose range of styles overlaps with Metheny’s while also venturing into funk. This makes for a fun and highly rhythmic collaboration. Producer Lee Townsend, who has worked more with singer-songwriters than with jazz artists, made the choice to keep each guitarist strictly in his own stereo channel. The backup players are Steve Swallow on bass and Bill Stewart on drums.
Half of the tracks are by Metheny and half by Scofield. Among the latter group is “Everybody’s Party,” with its bassy, funky, almost raunchy bite.
- Track: “Resolution”
Album: A Map of the World
Label: Warner Brothers
The 1999 movie A Map of the World starred Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore, and David Strathairn. Scott Elliott directed this rough-edged, contemporary story of a tragedy in small-town America. Metheny’s soundtrack underscores the desolation of the setting and the hollowness of a community that turns on one of their own.
The dissonance in the movement called “Resolution” has an unsettling effect. The listener almost wishes for the tension to be brought closer to the surface and dealt with openly, but instead it is woven into a deceptively calm orchestration.
- Track: “Don’t Wait”
Album: Metheny/Mehldau Quartet
Pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard join Metheny for this quartet album. This followed the duo project Metheny/Mehldau, released the previous year.
“Don’t Wait” draws from a range of influences, from New Age jazz to the impressionism of Debussy. The minimal harmonic motion highlights the textural differentiation among the instruments. Listening through headphones is particularly rewarding, thanks to exceptional sound production by Metheny and engineering by Pete Karam.
- Track: “Better Days Ahead”
Album: Side-Eye NYC
Label: Modern Recordings
As mentioned above, Side-Eye NYC reconsiders some of Metheny’s early compositions. It does so through his new trio, Side-Eye, whose name was inspired by current affairs. As Metheny told DownBeat, “It’s been hard to be an American in the past few years and not have a kind of side-eye look at ourselves during this incredibly bizarre period of time.”
Musically, it is distinctive among Metheny’s many collaborations: there’s no bass player. The other trio members are pianist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland. “Better Days Ahead” has a delicate Latin sound, with the bass provided by Francies at an electronic keyboard. The trio gels so naturally that it’s hard to believe it’s their first album together.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/R. Steven Rainwater.