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45 years after the release of 'Bright Sized Life,' Pat Metheny revisits that album with new trio, Side-Eye

Side-Eye NYC is the new live recording that approaches four early Pat Metheny compositions along with new music with keyboardist James Francies and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Metheny comes to the Northwest next week to perform in 7 concerts with Francies and Joe Dyson on drums. We recently caught up with Metheny about these musicians and both his early music and the new project.

In 1976, then-21-year-old guitarist Pat Metheny released his debut solo album, Bright Size Life, featuring bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses. Metheny’s new album, Side-Eye NYC, was recorded live in New York before the pandemic. Side-Eye NYC includes early Metheny compositions, including the title song from Bright Sized Life.

Earlier in 2021, the album Bright Sized Life was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry. Next week, Metheny, a 20-time Grammy winner, kicks off his 10-month tour in the Northwest.

KNKX’s Carol Handley recently caught up with the guitarist to talk about his early days and his band’s most recent group of musicians.

Pat Metheny Side-Eye Conversation

Carol Handley So we're glad you're coming back to town and you're kicking off her tour here. You'll be at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia and then, again hanging out for another four days in Seattle at Jazz Alley.

So looking at the detail of this new recording and from a set-list perspective, and you are reaching back so very, very early in your career with some pieces to reinterpret. But I wanted to take you back to see if you remember that in 1977, when you were on the road with the first incarnation of Pat Metheny Group, You were at Bumbershoot (Festival) at the Opera House, and it was a live broadcast with a local radio station.

Pat Metheny Of course, I remember that. Yeah, that was a big deal at the time, you know, that was in the very early going. Yeah, it was it was not a usual thing, let's say, for us to get that kind of exposure kind of outside of the realm of just what a jazz station was. Like going into, you know, other areas of possibly meeting new audiences and so forth. And actually, you know, that gig in that area was kind of a bellwether in a way, of a bunch of things that ended up happening. I had no idea what's going to happen. You know, at that point, my entire frame of reference at the very, very top end was playing with Gary Burton, which I had just been doing for three years. And, you know, that was like really incredible. I mean, that was like one of the best bands of that era. And for me, joining Gary's band was like joining the Beatles. I mean, that was the band I loved. And so anything even approaching that level would have been a shock. And then, you know, what happened not too long after that, over the next 20 years or so was absolutely unexpected. And a lot of it began, you know, right there. And those gigs of that era which were broadcast and ended up with us sort of being able to continue the research, you know, and yeah, that was a very significant period, no question.

Carol Handley I think, five of the seven songs that ended up on that first album, you performed.

Pat Metheny Yeah, exactly, that was during that era where, you know, we were playing literally every gig you could possibly play. I mean, we probably got back in the van that night and drove to Texas or something, you know, and the average fee was like two hundred and fifty dollars for the whole band, you know. And if we could get a four fifty gig in Quebec City, I would say, OK, guys, we're going. And, you know, we were all, you know, in our 20s and stuff then. It’s good that I didn't know what I didn't know because it was impossible. But I was like, really, you know, determined, like to get that music out there. I had a very strong idea of what I wanted the band to be. And, you know, it was a lot of fun to. Yeah.

Carol Handley Now, for this band Side-Eye, it reminded me of something that you wrote reflecting on your many deep years of collaboration with Lyle (Mays) from Gary (Burton), that when you start a group and you have an obligation to choose the best musicians you can possibly find, and if you're lucky, once you have those great people in place, you have an even more important obligation, which is to create an environment for them to also do their best. So can you tell me about your choice of musicians for this project and also why you called it Side-Eye?

Pat Metheny Yeah, I mean, so much of you know, my thing is really informed in many ways inspired by the lessons I learned playing with Gary and a lot of his thing he got from playing with Stan Getz and George Shearing. And a lot of what those guys got, they got from playing with the people before that. You know, it is like that. And, you know, there are many things that I hear myself saying and I'm like, is that me or is that Gary talking there, you know? Yeah. I think this actually maybe a little bit more me than Gary is the thing, too. It goes in a bunch of ways when you're putting a band together. I mean, you know, and as much as I think people think of my thing, you know, the guitar thing, I mean, really, the thing for me is the band leader thing. I mean, and not just the band leader thing, but the band leader who, you know, writes 90 percent of the notes that that get played and sort of how that all goes together. But the goal for me has always been to try to find the right people for whatever my instinct is at the time and kind of what I'm interested in. And try to put together a band where, like you said, it's the right environment for those guys to do their thing. And, you know, the other side of it for me is that I want to put together bands where everybody on the band on the bandstand can be the favorite of somebody in the audience, too. And also that everybody in the band thinks that if they weren't there, the whole thing would suck. You know, that's an important one, too. And to get all those things working just right is a challenge. And that's one of the band leader things.

So at this stage of the game, I really am kind of reaping the benefits of time in the sense that when I started my first band and, you know, even in the early going there, it's very difficult for me to find people who could do what it was I was hoping to do. Took a lot of talk and a lot of describing things, you know, a lot of trial and error and so forth. And, you know, finally, the result is the result. But it was quite unusual at the time. Some of those groups, some of the just that basic way of playing. Now there is like not just one or two generations of musicians who have grown up with that as a part of what the diet is that they were almost mandated to know how to do. You know, for instance, a tune on, you know, so much of it (the new Side-Eye), it is all built on Bright Size Life, really. The tune “Sirabhorn” from Bright Size Life is something that was very difficult to describe. It's an even eighth note tune, but it's a waltz. But it's not like a jazz waltz. It's not like a bossa nova either. It's this thing. And, you know, to find people who could play that groove, I mean, I could count on one hand for twenty five years. And now literally, I had a hard time choosing between eight drummers. Now everybody can do that because they've all heard it now. And not only can they do it, they can do it with their own way, their own style. So it's really cool now for me. And that's true in almost every instrument, even, you know.

And I have a lot of things in my house where I invite people to come over and play. I keep my eye very closely on the scene who is playing, what were the new guys on which instruments and so forth, mostly because I'm a big fan of the music. But every now and then I'll hear somebody, I'll invite them up. We'll play duo, usually just me and them. And I kind of keep these tapes of kind of like what you've got of us back then. I've got millions of hours of guitar drum duo and guitar bass duo with all these really exciting, interesting new musicians. And I wanted to put together a setting where we could really go deep into that. And kind of the core of this particular addition is built around James Francies, who's really kind of much in the same way Antonio Sanchez was very difficult to put on the spectrum of drummers. James is a little like that, too. It's like you can talk about three or four people, but you can't talk about one. And really, it's not even that connected to any of those three or four. It's kind of like a distinctly new branch in the tree somehow.

And, you know, the fundamental idea of this came from actually Eric Garland, who is in every band and we all love Eric. He's an amazing guy and he and I were going to get together and, ah, actually I was going to get together with James and Eric got in touch with me and said, hey, can I come too? And I'm like, great, I'll get a bass player. And he wrote right back and said, don't get a bass player. Just you, me and James. You'll see what I mean. And that's kind of gets right to what James is. Thing is, he's got this left hand thing going on that is connected to the organ trio thing, which was a fundamental spot for me. I mean, I you know, around my early years in Kansas City. That was a kind of staple that that sound, those kinds of bands. In fact, I often joked that, like by the time I left Kansas City, I'd reach my lifetime quota of helping organ players load their organs into these clubs. But, you know, James is connected to that. But he's a completely unique guy. And when I got together with him, you know, he had a real kind of point of view on my thing, including some of those tunes that you're referencing on the new record. That was just fascinating to me. And so, you know, with him in place already kind of worked through five of the 12 or so drummers that are like heroes for me, these young cats. I mean, I could find drummers for years. And, man, now it's just like drummers, you know?

So the current guy who will be out there (on the road) with this is Joe Dyson from New Orleans, who's just spectacular. I mean, he's just an incredible musician. And, you know, it's a pretty exciting band. And actually, I've written now all new music for that band, I mean, beyond what's on the record. So I'm sure we'll be playing a lot of that, too.

Carol Handley I was wondering about that. And do you plan on doing any and even the choices of the music from the catalog? The Bright Size Life (album) is such a big part of it. So will you be recording live while you're out there?

Pat Metheny I have a feeling that this next bit of research is leading to a studio record. However, you know, for years and years and years and years with my early band, I always played the music live for a long time before we ever recorded it. That was just how I did everything. And, you know, I wanted to know how it worked and change this and rethink that and so forth.

You know, around the time I left ECM and the studio really became a viable musical instrument for me as kind of part of the process in a way that prior to that it was just strictly documentary usage. You know, you go in for two days, you record each time, you play each tune a couple of times, pick the best one, makes it on the third day and see you later. All those first 11 records were essentially that. So once I got loose from that and could kind of start my own thing and do things in a different way. I kind of did get into that thing of writing the music, making the record, doing a tour. A couple of exceptions to that, I think letter from home. I tried to play the music live a bit before we recorded it, but mostly it was that. The music, make record, do a tour, and then by the end of the tour, you really have figured out how to play it. So this time, because I've written all this new music and we've been rehearsing a lot too. I'm hoping that by the time this round of gigs is over, maybe we'll go into the studio and be able to kind of kind of informed place of reference to those tunes, you know. Yeah, and get a good record out of it.

Carol Handley So is your sense of it at this time, because I'm sure the road, for as long as you're out on it, is also an evolving process and. Is it your sense of it at this time that it will be half classics or any new or all new,

Pat Metheny Prior to this for what was going to be 50 concerts together, probably the best band I've ever had, which was Gwilym (Simcock), Linda (May Han Oh) and Antonio (Sanchez), and decided to just not give it a name because I was getting so, you know, I mean, I almost got too good at like, OK, this is the Pat Metheny Group. This is the Pat Metheny Trio. This is the such and such project. This is that. And then it gets into the thing like, well, who is going to be in that one and who? Oh, but that's different. And, you know, it's like there are all the Pat Metheny group to me. Everything is the same from the same crew. It's the same rig. It's run the same way. It's all the same. It's a different kind of vibe of presentation. But under the hood, it's it all works the same way. So right around that time, it was I thought it'd be fun to put together some people and go out and just play the old tunes, which was something I'd never done. And we were going to do these 50 gigs and it ended up being three years, like about three hundred gigs came a very popular thing. And we spent the whole time playing the old tunes in lots of different ways.

We got to the point that there were like 50 of them in the book and right around then I did a duet tour with Ron Carter, and besides the joy of getting to play with Ron, I also got to ask him every question as a fan that anybody would want to ask. And one of them is that mystery question you guys are making Nefertiti and E.S.P and all these records. But you're still playing “Walkin” and “Joshua” and you know those two “All Blues”. You know, we all know them “Autumn Leaves”. They continued to play all that live even while they were making those records. And his thing was that Miles wanted them to keep playing that stuff so they could apply the code that they developed with that onto the new music. And I have this light bulb moment and all of that led to the record From This Place (album). I took that unnamed band, which I'm still kicking myself for, and we made that record and then it became this whole other thing that emerged in the process of it all. So the answer to your question is, I did do that for a couple of years where it was really focused on the older music. I'm kind of thinking of this as something we certainly would have the possibility of doing that. But I'm kind of hoping to get to the point where it's going to be a new book of music or at least, you know, half or more of the presentation. And as people know, the concerts tend to be two and a half. Three hours, in my case would be new music. Because you never really know, actually, until you play stuff live how it is, really. And so we all know pretty early on and you guys are early, so.

Carol Handley Yeah, right. A couple of things. One, I just wanted to say thank you for putting a “Timeline” on Side-Eye. I've always loved that tune. The (Michael) Brecker album is fantastic and it was really killer. I mean, this swings hard.

Pat Metheny Yeah, that's a tune, you know, I wrote that because we knew we were going to it was going to be with Elvin (Jones). And that particular tune is really the Elvin three against four thing. And I thought, well, what if there were chords on that? That was kind of the strategy of that tune in. And of course, I played it with Brecker, but I never really did it on my own. So it's fun to do that.

Carol Handley And the breadth of the sonic approach I think on this album is something that fans have come to appreciate from you. But those were just snippets of sort of the DNA. I think that I was hearing and maybe that you were talking about a little bit earlier in terms of Ron Carter. But tell me about the lead track “It Starts When We Disappear” and if you want to elaborate on that piece.

Pat Metheny Titles are rough for me (laughs), especially now, I mean, on five hundred or so tunes in and any ideas that I had about words and anything, I probably had exhausted by about the third track of Bright Size Life. I have no idea where that even came from. But, you know, I always feel like the best thing about that you can hope for with a title is that it doesn't get in the way and it helps a little. And it's a struggle for me, honestly. Somehow that title kind of works for that tune. You know, I don’t know because I do struggle with it so horribly. I keep anything anybody says that could be a title. I write it down and I've got like hundreds and hundreds of those. So I've always got lots of new music. And I've really now tried to stop, you know, usually in previous eras. I just remember number one. Number two. Number three, number four. Number five, as I'm writing and I wind up with, you know, I've got probably twenty three, number 14’s. And it's like so now like as early as I can, I try to get a title, some kind of working title on things for better or for worse. And somehow that one just kind of stuck.

Carol Handley I like it and I've heard you say that before, you know, from the stage or something like this is number fifty seven.

Pat Metheny Yeah. And honestly there's lots of times whatever wound up as the title on the record, you know, it's still number fifty seven to me.

Carol Handley So looking forward to having you come through back to the Northwest, looking forward to kicking off your tours, which is about 100 dates on it or something for the next 10 months.

Pat Metheny I only look like a couple of days in advance and take them one at a time.

Carol Handley Well, you know, you were talking about this in your 20s saying like, you know, the road (was easier).

Pat Metheny Honestly, for me, every chance to play is a real privilege. And, you know, it doesn't matter what it is. Every gig for me I play, I like it's the last time I'm ever going to play. And actually, it turned out in Auckland, New Zealand, last March. I was right. You never know. But, you know, I didn't at the time. It's like, you know, but that was it. You know, that was the last time I played.

Carol Handley Yeah. And we've all been jonesin’ to hear live music. So we're opening up. And I'm sure you just to have to be ready to pivot at any point. That's kind of where they're all at right now. Right.

Pat Metheny Well, anybody that's listening to this, if you like music and you're not vaccinated, go get vaccinated, because otherwise we're not going to be able to keep doing this. It's as simple as that. And doesn't matter what kind of music you like. If you ever want to see concerts again and you think it's a good thing to be able to do, please go get vaccinated because otherwise we're done. You know, it's as simple as that. And, you know, that would be a drag for everybody. And, you know, fingers crossed, I'm hoping we're going to be able to get some good notes out into the world. You know, that's the goal here.

Carol Handley Yes, absolutely. Thanks for your time, Pat, I appreciate it.

Pat Metheny My pleasure. Great. After all these years, man, that's adding up.

And the good thing is we're both still here to talk about it.