Story-tellers in sound.
Both Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau connect with listeners because they fashion the abstract elements of modern jazz into compelling narratives. That skill has placed them among the most accessible jazz innovators of their generations: Metheny the vista-expanding guitarist/composer for baby-boomers; Mehldau the Gen-X pianist/composer who can transform a Nick Drake song into Beethoven. That affinity also makes them a good team, as their recent pair of CDs together demonstrates. Metheny performs with Mehldau’s trio at the Newmark Theater tonight.
For over 30 years, Metheny has been on the cutting edge of six-string jazz guitar as well as the new technology that expanded its possibilities. At the same time, the Missouri native has enjoyed wide popularity, winning listener and critic’s polls, 16 Grammy awards, and writing compositions for ballet and orchestra as well as the Pat Metheny Group, which itself has won seven Grammys. And he’s done it without straying from the true jazz tradition, he said in a recent telephone conversation.
In fact, Metheny thinks of himself and Mehldau as players who stand apart from jazz as it’s performed by most of the younger generation today.
I started playing professionally when I about 14 years old, he said, and learned from playing on the bandstand. I’m the last of that way, because now everybody pretty much learns in school.
That troubles the guitarist.
Individuality is an essential part of what it means to be a jazz musician. And that has fallen by the wayside. Now you have a lot of guys who are strong, fluent, improvising musicians, but it’s like a compendium of history rather than a point of view. Jazz had a mandate to come up with your own thing, he continues. I could do a pretty good impersonation of Wes Montgomery when I was 16, and it would go over with the audience, but there were guys who’d give me the freeze What are you doing playing Wes’s stuff?’
So Metheny advises young players against imitation:
If you really love and are inspired by somebody, one of the best ways to honor them is do everything you can to not ever sound like them.
Jazz, Metheny says, should steer the culture rather than respond to it, lead rather than follow, and continue evolving. That’s one reason he has collaborated with artists such as free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and new music composer Steve Reich.
And in Mehldau, who brings an understanding of western classical as well as pop music to jazz, Metheny has found a compatible partner for sonic stories that surge with propulsive drama and drift with the fluid grace of daydream music that satisfies the artist’s personal quest and provides a compelling story for others as well.