Pat Metheny's musical wanderlust is as untamed as his Einsteinian hair. America's foremost jazz guitarist was one of the first players to use a guitar synthesizer and his dextrous digits have scuttled over his customized 42-string Pikasso guitar. His music has covered pastoral and ambient territory; he has delved into Latin music and employed hip-hop loops. He has anchored the Pat Metheny Group since 1978 and played with Jaco Pastorious, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, and Chick Corea.
Metheny's latest adventure is a collaboration with young pianist Brad Mehldau, a fellow jazz nonconformist who is renowned for his radical reinterpretations of songs by Radiohead, Paul Simon, and Nick Drake. United by their desire to tug jazz into the 21st century, the two have just released "Quartet," their second album in six months, and have just begun a US tour.
"The musical dialect that I have inhabited for the last 35 years or whatever, is actually [made up of] quite a small community of people," says Metheny, on the phone from New York. "I'd almost characterize it as a tribe that is interested in a certain area of harmony and a certain way of improvising. They have a particular sense of jazz history. They know what needs to happen in order for it to progress and also stay true to the actual roots of what jazz is. When I heard Brad, I immediately recognized there was a new member of the tribe."
Metheny says that with Mehldau, he may be playing the same role older musicians like Jack DeJohnette and Gary Burton played for him when he was younger. In a separate e-mail interview from Amsterdam, Mehldau says, "I really feel no generational difference. He's simply a very hip, up-to-date person in all aspects.''
The musicians first crossed paths many years ago. "There's a common way that musicians often close their conversation," says Metheny. "Like regular civilians say, 'Let's have dinner.' The musician version is 'We should play some time.' Whenever we said that, we'd lock eyes like, 'We really should play together. We have some stuff to talk about.' That was an unspoken thing between us for a number of years."
In the summer of 2005, they met in Europe and booked studio time later that year. According to the guitarist, the pair found that they shared the nuts and bolts of music itself: melodic development and a certain rhythmic feeling.
Mehldau, a self-proclaimed fan of Pat Metheny since the age of 13, offers up kudos aplenty. "I love his sense of harmony, the emotional immediacy of his music, the intensity of his playing and the way he writes for an ensemble."
The first album, "Metheny/Mehldau," was recorded primarily as a duo. "Quartet" is more expansive and includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, both of whom are joining Metheny and Mehldau on a tour that began last Wednesday in Mesa, Ariz. Mehldau says they led the album off with a sprightly shuffle called "A Night Away" because Grenadier and Ballard are "grooving so hard. It gives the message that this record, in contrast to the first one Pat and I released, is much more about a group of four musicians together."
A few tracks are pared back to the duet of piano and guitar, and the pianist observes that the record has an arc that winds up becoming more calm, more poignant toward the end.
Jazz aficionados often talk about the "risk" of putting piano and guitar together, since both instruments are capable of playing chords and can end up tripping over each other.
"One of two things has to happen: You have to agree beforehand on every single voicing so you don't clash, or you have to be really good listeners," admits Metheny. "In this case, there was a little bit of the first, but mostly the second. Neither one of us are thinking in terms of guitar/piano – we're thinking orchestration, the details of harmony. We share one very strong sensibility as improvisers – a narrative storytelling thing. The idea is to move the plot along."
"Basically, what it means," writes Mehldau, "is playing less at any given moment, and finding the most important notes to play. By playing less, in a very cool way, you wind up playing things you've never played before."
For Metheny, that's the point of the collaboration. Not content to reflect on his accomplishments or the numerous Grammys he's won, he hopes to create forward-looking music that forges "a connection to the actual culture we're living in, as opposed to constantly referencing other moments in our culture."
The result is a form of communication that, for the guitarist, surpasses the power of words. "The nature of the description you can offer through music is transcendent, relative to the earthbound quality of words," says Metheny. "The temperature that words function at is a much cooler temperature than music."