Making Time for Music

Great art takes time.

Ask the painter, who studies artwork year after year for nuances of brush strokes and color combinations. Ask the sculptor who plans, and then sees, long before he or she sets chisel to stone, the finished creation in the block before them. Ask the writer, who intricately plots novel after novel from start to finish, combining multiple thousands of words into cohesive stories.

Ask a jazz musician. Ask Pat Metheny.

Innovation in jazz requires exploring and understanding the subtleties that separate average performances from extraordinary performances. An understanding of these subtleties can only come from investing significant time studying the elements of music in general and jazz in particular. Pat Metheny has, and continues to devote his life to this study.

However, his is not a cursory study; his is study that goes deep. When he uncovers new riches- nuances of performance, unique ways to use rhythm, melody, timbre, counterpoint, arranging techniques, and more – he goes deeper, wanting to uncover even more gems of insight.

Of course, this takes time, and plenty of it. This is not a 4-week night course in music composition, improvisation, and instrumentation. It’s more like a 4-decade and beyond course, with no final exam in sight. It’s continual learning and something Pat Metheny knows is all part of being a consummate jazz professional.

This study is clear in his live performances and in his recordings – no more so than his masterpiece, The Way Up, released in 2005. You have to listen to this 68-minute long composition multiple times, and then multiple times again, to recognize that a lifetime of musical experience is contained therein. Even then, you will not fully comprehend the musical genius behind the work.

Listening to The Way Up, you come to an understanding of how an investment of time is the foundation of great jazz. Pat Metheny has an extensive discography. He has also scored feature films. He continues to write and perform with his own band and with others. He has toured with vibraphonist Gary Burton, who nurtured a young Pat Metheny in the 70s.

Check out any one of Pat Metheny’s recordings and you realize that the interplay he has with other musicians could only be the result of years of devoted playing. It’s a result of time invested in understanding the performance strengths of other jazz musicians and adapting to each different musical situation. It’s also a result of consistent effort to learn from other jazz musicians.

Listen to his improvisations on any recording. Through them, you begin to understand how he thinks musically. This level of musical thought can only come from decades of experience – each new idea learned a brick placed on top of bricks previously set in place through his years of study.

Consider the musical styles explored in the extended work that is The Way Up and you understand that a work of this magnitude is something he could not have put together in the early stages of his career. Patience is certainly a virtue, especially when it comes to jazz.

Consistently building a storehouse of musical knowledge, along with patient experimentation and dedication to navigate uncharted waters in jazz allowed Pat Metheny to create The Way Up. He needed to put in the time over the years to reach the point where he could create this work of art.

Again, while he’s recorded other works since, The Way Up is the standard he has set for other jazz musicians to reach. It’s his way of saying to young jazz musicians, “Commit to making time for advanced music study.” Seeing a live Pat Metheny performance, especially with other astute veterans such as Gary Burton impressed upon me the importance of lifelong study. The combined years of experience that go into a two-hour performance by these musicians is what makes them the special musical events they become.

Pat Metheny continues to make time for music. To him, the journey is as important as the final works of art he creates. His years of study, practice, composition, arranging and performance – his time well spent – are his gift to those who love jazz. If you’re unfamiliar with his body of work, take the time to acquaint yourself with the works of a true original in jazz.