Soviets eager listeners to American jazz. Pat Metheny is impressed by open-mindedness, warmth during his group's tour
New York — JAZZ guitarist Pat Metheny's recent concert at Radio City Music Hall here was the kind he's used to playing in the United States - to droves of appreciative fans who know every note on his album. But lately his thoughts have been on another kind of audience - the one he just left in the Soviet Union. ``It was just the best experience I've ever had as a musician,'' Mr. Metheny said in a recent interview. ``Culturally and musically, it was the most exciting three weeks of my life.''
The Pat Metheny Group was invited to play in the USSR by the Soviet government - and the government paid them in American dollars. This in itself was a rare occurrence, since most musicians who play in the USSR are sponsored by the US State Department. But what was most unusual was that all 13 concerts (representing about 100,000 people in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev) were sold out. Quite a feat, when one considers that Metheny is virtually unknown in the USSR and that his albums are not available there. The people who came to hear him play were unfamiliar with his contemporary jazz crossover style and really didn't know what to expect.
Although some artists, like Billy Joel, have run into hassles playing in the Soviet Union, Metheny found a gracious reception. ``It's definitely a different place, a different society, but we were treated with so much genuine warmth and excitement that it overshadowed everything else,'' Metheny said.
He was especially bowled over by the response to his music. ``It was exciting to play for an audience that was ready to hear something without knowing what they were going to hear. The main thing that affected our playing was the absolute attention they paid to the music. It was like talking to someone when they're following every word, nodding along, saying yeah, yeah, I hear you. They brought a high level of intelligence to the concerts, and a rare listening ability.''
Metheny attributes this in part to Russia's own musical history. ``Don't forget, we're talking about the home of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky - some of the deepest-thinking musical minds of the last several hundred years. The people there are very knowledgeable about their own music. I got the feeling that everybody who came to the shows had spent a lot of time listening to music - it wasn't just a thing, like, let's go to a concert.''
In the United States, most of Metheny's audiences are between the ages of 18 and 40, but in the USSR the representation was much broader. ``There were elderly people and grade-school kids, too, more or less the same representation that you'd see on the street,'' he said.
Metheny credits some of the enthusiasm to the ``magic letters `USA''' and the fact that jazz is widely recognized as one of America's most important contributions to the arts. But it was hard for him to grasp the extent of the enthusiasm shown him and his band.
``We were covered with flowers and gifts - books, records, drawings. I have two huge flight cases full of stuff,'' he said. ``It was that way every day - people wanted to give you their dog, or - it was almost funny, like, `Here, you want my shirt? Take my clothes!'''
The best part for Metheny was talking to people after the concerts.
``We'd spend about two hours hanging out - signing autographs, signing their guitars. A lot of people speak English, especially the younger ones,'' he said.
He was surprised to find out that most people he talked with could name all 50 American states and their capitals.
``My first reaction was one of anger at just how poorly the Russians are portrayed by the American press and how little we know about them as individuals, compared with how much they know about us. I didn't even know how many states there were in the Soviet Union!''
Since few jazz groups have visited the USSR, Metheny wondered what will happen now that glasnost (openness) has made it easier for musicians to play there.
``Maybe we're lucky to be one of the rare groups to go over, because who knows? - in three years, after every group has gone there, maybe they'll get jaded, too.''
But recalling his experience there, he mused, ``One thing that crossed our minds in the hypothetical department - here we were in Russia being given a hero's welcome, with these people going completely crazy over us, listening like it meant more to them than anything - and we wondered: What if a Russian group were to come to America? Nobody would be able to speak Russian; maybe nobody would even come; and there might even be anti-Soviet demonstrations. We didn't see anything like that over there - not one thing.''
What they did see was a lot of people talking about peace.
``They'd say, let's try and have peace. I got a lot of compositions from Soviet composers, who said here's a song that I've written. Let's hope that we can get everything straight so we can play together someday. One night we were playing in Kiev, and these kids put up a huge banner that said, `Ukraine Youth for Peace - Welcome Pat Metheny Group.'''
They did see some remnants of the Stalin era, though.
``There was a disbelief among some people that all of this was really happening - that we were there playing, that we could hang out with them, that they could come and buy tickets, and there was no problem, Metheny said. ``People were beside themselves with joy, kind of looking over their shoulder as if to say, `Is it OK?' There were police around, but not many. They were hanging off to the side and usually really digging the music.''
Metheny is working on a deal right now with Melodiya, the state-run and only record company in the USSR, to release his latest album, ``Still Life (Talking).''