Guitar legend and 20-time Grammy Award-winner Pat Metheny earned an enthusiastic ovation for his insightful 2018 keynote address at the annual Society for Neuroscience Conference. But he was left speechless by what happened as he ate lunch barely 30 minutes later in an adjacent VIP lounge at the San Diego Convention Center.
“You drew more people than the Dali Lama!” a beaming society honcho said. “He was our keynote speaker last year.”
Metheny, who was dining with his Brazilian-born wife, Latifa, San Diego guitar great Peter Sprague and this writer, was understandably surprised and flattered. He had no idea how to respond, as he reaffirmed during a recent interview from his country home in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
“There have been a couple of moments in my life that were so far outside of my jurisdiction that I was like: ‘What?!’ That was definitely one of them,” said Metheny, who performs here Thursday at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park with his latest band, Side-Eye.
“Giving the keynote speech to 5,000 neuroscientists? My impulse is always to do things where I really don’t know what I’m doing, so I said: ‘Sure.’ It was kind of terrifying, but it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had.”
Close behind is Side-Eye, the band he formed a few years ago as an adjunct to his long-running Pat Metheny Group.
The 67-year-old guitarist and composer launched Side-Eye as a vehicle for him and a rotating cast of young musicians to play new music and revamped Metheny classics. And that is exactly what he does with keyboard marvel James Francies, 25, and drum dynamo Marcus Gilmore, 34, on the newly released “SIDE-EYE NYC (V1.IV).”
Futuristic and rooted in tradition
The live double-album was recorded at Manhattan’s Sony Music Hall over two nights in September 2019. It offers a heady display of Side-Eye’s electrifying instrumental skills and near-telepathic interplay. The group’s songs sound alternately futuristic and rooted in tradition, like a 21st century iteration of a 1960s jazz guitar, organ and drums trio.
What results is one of the most inviting and enjoyable albums of Metheny’s career, thanks to its refreshing, cross-generational exchange of ideas and approaches. The opportunity to collaborate with artists half his age appeals to him on several levels.
“When I was 14, I started playing in bands with people much older than me in Kansas City,” recalled the guitarist. His early years in music are chronicled in the new book, “Beneath Missouri Skies: Pat Metheny in Kansas City, 1964-1972,” published by University of North Texas State Press.
“When somebody goes ‘one-two-three, one-two-three-four’ to count off a song on stage, all bets are off,” he continued. “You don’t get any notes from home; at that point, we are all in the same boat.”
Metheny’s lifelong musical boat ride began in earnest in early 1964. The Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and things would never be the same for him again.
“At 9, I was still throwing rocks at girls and playing baseball. I did not have a guitar yet at that point,” Metheny said. “To the people in Lee’s Summit, the Missouri town where I grew up, my starting to play electric guitar was like I was joining some cult!”
Instead of a cult, Metheny joined a pre-teen garage band, The Beat Bombs. Its repertoire consisted of “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen and “Hang On, Sloopy” by The McCoys.
“I started off on trumpet and then, a year later, my Christmas gift was that my parents gave me permission to buy, with my own money, a guitar. When I was 11, my older brother brought home the Miles Davis album, ‘Four and More,’ and that was it for me. I was like: ‘(Screw) this rock ‘n’ roll stuff — I want to play whatever this is on the Miles Davis record!’”
Metheny has led an array of bands of different sizes, styles and instrumentation since his landmark debut album, “Bright Size Life,” came out in 1976. He was 21 at the time and his criteria for choosing musical partners has stayed constant ever since.
“I have never hired anybody who didn’t know stuff that I don’t know,” he stressed.
“That is super important to me and is kind of a gig requirement. You have to find people who are at least on the same level as you, or better. I know I’m known as a guitar player. But my main thing is as a band leader who will write 90 percent of the material and then, hopefully, get the right cast of people to play it.
“Everybody in my band should be the favorite musician of somebody in the audience. And I want bands where everybody on stage feels that — if they weren’t there — it would suck.”
The ‘benevolent dictator school’
Side-Eye’s repertoire on its “NYC” album mixes ingeniously updated versions of such Metheny fan favorites as “Better Days Ahead” and “Bright Size Life” with such absorbing new songs as the guitar-synthesizer-led “Zenith Blue” and the electronica-tinged “It Starts When We Disappear.” The later song clocks in at nearly 14 minutes but doesn’t have one extraneous note.
Metheny recently wrote 13 new pieces for the constantly evolving Side-Eye, which has featured a number of impressive young drummers over the past few years. For its recently launched world tour, which will visit more than 100 cities in a dozen countries, the drum chair is being filled by Joe Dyson. At 31, he is perhaps the youngest music faculty member at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Metheny laughed when asked if he gives his bandmates carte blanche to interpret his music.
“‘Carte blanche’ is not a term that gets thrown around too often! I’m from the ‘benevolent dictator school’ of band leaders,” he said.
“There’s lots of discussion about what each song needs: ‘This song needs this; that song wants that.’ It’s not me saying this; it’s based on my friendship with each piece of music and my knowing what it likes. With anyone I hire, the goal is to get to the point where all that has been discussed and digested. And, then, you be you.”
Metheny’s concert tour with Side-Eye kicked off Sept. 16 in Seattle. It concludes next June in Valencia, Spain. At a time of continuing global pandemic, he is keenly aware the tour could come to an abrupt halt at almost any point.
“I’ve always tried to play every gig like it’s the last I would ever play,” Metheny said. “That’s always been a thing with me and I’ve communicated that to the people I’ve invited to be in my different bands. What I didn’t realize last March, after we played in Auckland, New Zealand, was that was it. We’d flown to Argentina to do a bunch of gigs that didn’t happen.
“The main headline for me is that my immediate family has been OK, but the music community at large has taken an unbelievable hit. I’ve played a lot of gigs in my life and feel so lucky about that. But there are a lot of younger guys and mid-career guys whose careers have just been obliterated by the pandemic.
“So, right now, we’re about to give it a shot and go back on the road, and fingers crossed. I’m just hoping to get to San Diego, to tell you the truth.”
Did you know?
Pat Metheny is the only musician ever to earn Grammy Awards in a dozen different musical categories. They include wins for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Rock Instrumental, Best Contemporary Jazz Performance, Best Jazz Fusion Performance and Best New Age Album.
Pat Metheny Side-Eye, with James Francies & Joe Dyson
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804