Pat Metheny: Discovering Spontaneity in Music and Everything Else

Pat Metheney
I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating
To me listening is the key. And whether that manifests itself in the realm that I deal in, or in our everyday interactions, the way that improvising as we put it in this exalted sense of a guy who’s standing up on stage and playing with a bass player and drummer connects to just listening is central.
Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is an improvisor par excellence. And he does it up on stage, often with just bassist and drummer, night after night, sometimes 100 nights in a row. As regular C+V listeners know, improvisation is my life blood, so I was eager to meet with Pat and compare notes. As it happens, he lives close to my apartment in Manhattan, so I asked him to drop by. We plunged into a conversation about improvisation even before we remembered to press the record button… Here’s Pat…

Alan: 00:00:00 What interests me an awful lot is what you said about context. In one interview, I heard you talk about the importance of context. What did you mean by that?
Pat: 00:00:11 Well, the relationship between sound is what makes music, right? I mean, just a bunch of frequencies in the air may or may not be discovered to be musical unless somebody’s putting them in the context of their life, as a listener, or as a fellow musician, or … you know. The frequencies themselves could be generated in a whole lot of different ways. I mean, we’re obviously in the era of computers being able to generate all kinds of sounds. I know musicians who are quite happy to knock a bunch of trash cans down a flight of stairs and transcribe that and call that a piece of music, and actually, it kind of is if they’re looking at it in a context that allows it to have a musical function.
Alan: 00:01:07 When you talk about context, are talking about it in a very broad sense, or a narrower sense? For instance, the context when you improvise on a song, part of the context is the melody of the original song. But then, as you move out from that there’s the room you’re in, the air conditioning in the hall, the people in their seats. And as you move out from that, there’s what happened that day or what happened three weeks ago. If 9/11 happened three weeks ago, that affects everything. So do you see it in all those broad ways?
Pat: 00:01:42 I think that like many things, there’s sort of you can zoom in and zoom out to the most macro level, to the most micro level. For me, there are interesting aspects of living a life as an improviser. I mean, in many ways, being an improvising musician has an exalted status somehow. I mean, it’s if you’re well known as an improviser, there’s things that are acknowledgement of your skills. But the truth is we’re all improvising all the time. We’re improvising right now. You knew I was coming, I knew I was going to be here to talk-
Alan: 00:02:21 But we didn’t know what was going to happen-
Pat: 00:02:21 Exactly.
Alan: 00:02:22 … when we turned on the switch.
Pat: 00:02:23 Exactly. But we have a sense of the context of it. It’s going to be an interview, we’re going to talk roughly about things that maybe we share in terms of our experiences, you have this great podcast and I’m a musician. So we have a little bit of a frame for it. But the truth is, somebody could come in here that needs to fix the refrigerator, and his context is going to be different than ours, but we can still keep going, talking about whatever we’re going to talk about.
Alan: 00:02:52 So do you take that context into consideration at some level of consciousness? Do you find yourself more and more aware of the things that contribute to the music you’re making? Or is it unconscious?
Pat: 00:03:09 Well, the area of consciousness is extremely interesting to me, because the musical parallel to that is so … and I’m sure that’s true in acting too. There’s words on a page, there’s chord symbols like you mentioned, there’s a melody, there’s a tune. There are these aspects of context that allow us to have a platform to be. But in fact, as much as you could teach an acting class for two years, or I could break down harmony and rhythm into endless subdivisions of college course level material. The truth is, none of that adds up to music, nor does it necessarily add up to a successful performance for an actor having heard, “I should do this. I should do that. I should move from here to there. I should do all of these things.”
Alan: 00:04:06 Or even just the words on the page.
Pat: 00:04:08 Or even that.
Alan: 00:04:08 It’s like if you just play the notes, you’re not necessarily making music.
Pat: 00:04:14 I’m sorry.
Alan: 00:04:16 Oh, is that your agent?
Pat: 00:04:19 “You’re allowed to talk about improvisation.” What is also interesting … and I bet there’s a parallel in your world of activities with this, is the idea of improvising over the longterm. For instance, I’ll go out on a tour, and I’ll do 250 concerts. And yes, it’s improvised, but we have a set of tunes that we’re going to do. And not John Coltrane, not Charlie Parker, not Art Tatum. There is not a musician in history who stood up there set after set, after set and completely reinvented their entire language every time.
Alan: 00:05:00 There’s this misconception among some of us I think, that improvising means total freedom with no boundaries, no discipline, you just make stuff up somehow willfully.
Pat: 00:05:11 And at the same time, I think there are probably many, many levels of subtlety involved in say, for instance, you doing a show where you’re going to do it 100 nights in a row, you have to make it new each time, you have to make it real each time with the materials that you have available. And it’s the same, for me, what I need are musicians who can tell a story because it’s all about that for me. It’s all narrative, expositional type improvising, is what I need.
Alan: 00:05:49 I want to hear more about that in a minute, but finish this sentence.
Pat: 00:05:52 But I need people who can tell a story about particular subjects. Stay on the subject, but tell a different story about it each night. So in other words, this song is about Brussels sprouts. You can say anything you want, you can make up a story about Brussels sprouts your mom used to make, or Brussels sprouts from Mars. But you got to talk about Brussels sprouts in that tune. If you start talking about green beans, I might have to get another bass player.
Alan: 00:06:20 It just reminds me so much of what people when they come backstage after play, they say, “How do you do it? How do you do the same thing every night?” And I say, “I don’t do the same thing every night. It’s like dancing. If somebody says, ‘Do you want to dance?’ You wouldn’t say, ‘No, I’ve done that.’ It’s different every time you do it.”
Pat: 00:06:39 Exactly. And for you, what do you draw on? I mean, obviously, you have some very particular events that must happen in order to move the particulars of the plot along.
Alan: 00:06:51 Right. But what I drawn on is exactly what you said before, that we’re looking at each other in the eye, we’re sensing whether the other person is getting it, we’re sensing if the other person is drifting off. Or now I see you smile, I know we’re connected in a different way. All of that stuff happens, and it happens a little differently every night. So to some extent, even though we say the same words, we’re standing in the same place, it’s an improvisation to some extent. And if it isn’t, it’s not very good.
Pat: 00:07:29 Exactly. Also I know lots of classical musicians, of course, who have a very different set of things that make up their context. And at the same time, they must do exactly the same thing [crosstalk 00:07:46].
Alan: 00:07:46 I know. I have friends who are among the top classical musicians in the world, and I keep asking them because I want to reaffirm it and make sure that I’m not off the beam with that. They all tell me that you could practice hours and hours a day, but when you get out there, it’s new, it’s fresh. It’s happening for the first time. In fact, one musician said, he said he tells his students, “You study the Bach, but when you get out there, you’re playing your music.” It’s not Bach, it’s you in a way. In a way. But part of the context is it’s Bach.
Pat: 00:08:30 Yeah, there’s some very interesting elements of this issue that are particular to improvising musicians in the general zone that I hang in, which is, to me the main issue is preparation. Like you’re really familiar with the material, the context, the musicians, everything about it to the point that I can’t mess it up even if I want to. I got it. And in our case, what that means is not a particular set of words, or not a particular piece. It’s this map of a song. And included in that map, as you mentioned, is the melody, it’s the chords, it’s the different aspects that make that particular environment for improvising what it is. And in many cases, particularly in this sort of post, Charlie Parker post, John Coltrane world of harmony and melody, it’s very complicated. I often joke with people that learning the linguistics of it, the language of this particular post war thing that we draw on as improvisers it’s not unlike learning another language. And people say, “But what about so and so …”
Pat: 00:09:54 Who’s maybe like a rock guy or something like that, “… who’s also great?” I’m like, “That’s great.” And many of these qualities that we’re discussing right now are there too. But in the zone that I’m interested in, it’s like yes, I’m going to learn a foreign language and then I’m going to go give a speech in that language, but not to just a bunch of guys, to a bunch of nuclear physicists. I need to know the language at that degree. And that’s what we’re called upon in my community that I’m lucky to be a part of. It’s a very advanced kind of relationship to the fundamentals of music that we all share, and it’s really very unique.
Alan: 00:10:43 You speak that language, it seems in a way that uses what you could call the restriction of the melody when you play a song and improvise around the melody. It’s as though you’re using the melody as a launching pad.
Pat: 00:11:01 The qualities that set up what make a really fertile, robust environment to live within as an improviser, especially night after night, after night, after night, after night, are quantifiable to me. The model I always use for myself and also just to describe it, is Thelonious Monk, who has maybe 15 tunes that are indestructible, you cannot mess them up. If somebody plays the right bass notes, somebody plays the right melody, Monk is in the room. There’s infinity of things to do. It’s absolutely bulletproof. And to me, that model is one that is worth aspiring towards. And of course, the best standards have that too, the ones that we all play, All The Things You Are, The Song Is You. Those tunes in addition just being great memorable tunes for anyone, they have some things built into them harmonically and melodically that are just … you can’t mess them up.
Alan: 00:12:11 An example of that for me as I was watching the evening you did at the World Science Festival, and you played Autumn Leaves. I hadn’t heard you play that before, and I had never heard it played that way. It took me inside the melody, it took me to the heart of the melody. It was an uncanny experience for me. It was almost like floating in a dream through the melody. The things I love about that melody, and its really beautiful. The tune is beautiful.
Pat: 00:12:47 Thank you.
Alan: 00:12:48 The things I love about it, you helped me see them in a different way. They kept coming back, reflections of a melody in ways I didn’t expect. It was really an unusual experience.
Pat: 00:59:28 Absolutely. You know what was interesting also about that particular event? There’s something that … I’m not sure how how clear it was in what you heard. But there’s something I like to do because I think, again, people think … and this doesn’t necessarily … we’re just talking here. But people think of improvising and jazz is this kind of thing, but I think the entire thing you heard I was playing with one finger on one string. Which is something that to me is like when I do work with younger players, it’s mostly it’s way too much. It’s like, “Just show me the essential things that make the changes of Autumn Leaves beautiful.” And it’s very simple, actually. That was part of what that presentation was about. I remember Larry Grenadier, I think was playing some bass notes. So if you have the base notes and just the key notes, you don’t have to really do very much.

Pat: 00:13:01 Well, that’s very gratifying to hear. For me, one of the main goals as an improvising musician is exactly that, to be able to illuminate to people like, “Check this out, see how cool it is on autumn leaves. The way the bridge turns around and gets back to the top.” Because there’s a couple specific things that make that cool, and I love to illuminate those things. And at the same time for me in the realm that we’re talking about of this general area of music … and I bet this is true in your world too, once you get to a place where there’s this sense of infinity, that’s what I’m always looking for. I can show that 100 million different ways. I could do it 24 hours a day, and I wouldn’t never get tired of showing that because I love that. That’s what I love, is the way that that bridge gets back to the top. “Now, check this out you guys, because I want to show you how cool this is.” And I’m guessing that probably when we have great words-
Alan: 00:14:18 There is an experience that actors talk about where it happens rarely, but where you feel it’s a little bit like the infinity thing you’re talking about. Actors have this feeling that nothing can go wrong. It doesn’t matter where you go with it, or how it takes you. You’re still within the limits, but suddenly you’re filled with a surge of something that you don’t know where it came from. It came from somewhere in the back of your head, and it’s the product of the preparation. It’s the product of listening to the other person, listening to yourself, being aware of yourself. What about that? You talk eloquently about making contact with the other player. And that’s what we’ve been talking about a lot up till now. What about making contact with yourself? It sounds like when you improvise, and you get really good at improvising, you’re more aware of possibilities that arise from the back of your head than you were before. Does that ring a bell with you?
Pat: 00:15:29 Yeah. I mean, there are so many aspects to the life that I’ve been so lucky to live, live trying to understand all of this. Where it’s gotten to the point for me in recent years … and maybe it’s been this way for a long time. I don’t feel that personally involved in it in a way.
Alan: 00:15:55 Oh, that’s great.
Pat: 00:15:56 I feel like … I mean, sometimes somebody will come up and say … and this is completely inappropriate on my part, like, “On such and such, it was really great tonight.” And I go, “Yeah.” You’re not supposed to do that.
Alan: 00:16:12 No, no, no.
Pat: 00:16:13 You’re supposed to go, “Thanks.” But I honestly don’t feel like-
Alan: 00:16:17 You don’t feel like taking credit.
Pat: 00:16:18 I don’t at all. And same with the best tunes, I don’t feel like I wrote them. I often described music as something like archeology. It’s like in this room right now, there’s like infinity music, right? And the skill that a musician has is like developing a tool set like an archeologist would have to have, that is fine enough that you can extract it without breaking it knowing that it’s incredibly delicate.
Alan: 00:16:53 But it’s there.
Pat: 00:16:54 But it’s there. And I’ve seen a lot of musicians talk like that. I mean, music is really interesting. It’s not like anything else on our plane of existence here. And the fact that I’ve been so deeply embedded in a life as a musician since I was about 10, first of all caused me to be utterly illiterate by 17 or 18.
Alan: 00:17:19 What’s interesting is I’ve heard you say that you didn’t get any education after what? After the eighth grade?
Pat: 00:17:26 Well, maybe a little before that.
Alan: 00:17:29 That’s great. But you’re astute, you sound like you’re well read. You’re informed, you’ve talked to neuro scientists in a way that’s informed. It sounds to me like it anyway. So you educated yourself.
Pat: 00:17:47 Through music. And to me, music is-
Alan: 00:17:49 What was the connection between music and your education?
Pat: 00:17:52 Well, to me through music, I learned about science. I learned about math. I learned about history. I learned about-
Alan: 00:17:58 How?
Pat: 00:17:59 I think music if you really dedicate yourself to it … and maybe this is true of anything, actually. I mean, we’re describing the progressive education model there of you follow your passion, and it will take you to all of the things you need. But in my case, my hunger to understand … which has just grown exponentially over the years actually, led me to somehow sense I need to know like, “Okay, there’s 12 notes in the scale, and they add up mathematically in a way to meet this sound or that sound.” So that led me to math. And then there’s also the issue that I’m still fascinated with, which is just physics. I mean, why do we all like a perfect fifth? Why do we recognize octave as an octave? Why do we know when it’s out of tune, if we hear it? These are things that are fundamental to the universe really.
Pat: 00:19:04 And I really have felt more and more that music is … and I think a lot of the neuro scientists and scientists in general have a sense that music is a window into many things in terms of consciousness, in terms of physics itself, in terms of science. I mean, it’s a … as I said before, it’s something very unique in the spectrum of things that we experience as humans.
Alan: 00:19:33 Am I right that you participated with a man who’s named Charles Limb?
Pat: 00:19:40 Yes.
Alan: 00:19:40 The neuroscientists. That you got into an FMRI for him?
Pat: 00:19:45 I actually have not done that yet, but I know he’s worked in that department. I hope to do that at some point. It’s very interesting what he’s doing. We touched briefly on the idea of this sort of narrative expositional type thing. And what Charles has done as it applies to improvising, he’s also doing it with rap guys who literally are dealing with words and text as they’re improvising. I wouldn’t want to presume to understand everything that he has found. But there are really interesting similarities to what improvising musicians and word improvisers do in terms of what part of the brain is shown on an MRI machine.
Alan: 00:20:36 I’m aware of at least two scientists who are studying this, and they both seem to indicate … if I have it right, that when you’re improvising and when an experienced improviser is improvising, some parts of the brain get tamped down, unnecessarily shut off. But it sounds like some aid to concentration or something. Do you have an experience like that, that you can put into words?
Pat: 00:21:09 Well to me we’ve … this word has come up, there’s a central word, which is “listening”. And to me listening is the key. And whether that manifests itself in the realm that I deal in, or you, or in our everyday interactions, the way that improvising as we put it in this exalted sense of a guy who’s standing up on stage and playing with a bass player and drummer connects to just listening is central.
Alan: 00:21:41 So when you’re listening, what are you listening to? Who are you listening to? What are you aware of listening?
Pat: 00:21:47 This is this is where the thing you mentioned about actors having those nights where you can’t do anything wrong. There are times I think, when I’m able to sit above the whole thing-
Alan: 00:21:58 I have that experience too.
Pat: 00:22:00 … and hear the whole thing. That’s not every night. And some nights … and it’s completely unpredictable, I bet it is with you too.
Alan: 00:22:09 Yeah.
Pat: 00:22:09 You could be in great shape, having gotten a great night’s rest. Everything’s cool, and it’s horrible. And you can be sick, and everything’s wrong, and whatever, and it’s the best it’s ever been.
Alan: 00:22:24 And you don’t know where it happened, how it happened.
Pat: 00:22:25 You don’t know.
Alan: 00:22:25 There’s a story about Laurence Olivier, who after a performance in a Shakespeare play was found by his friend sitting backstage drinking in a long glass of Scotch and looking depressed. And his friend says, “You realize, don’t you? You gave one of the greatest performances of your life.” And he looks up at him and he says, “Yeah, but how?”
Pat: 00:22:50 Now that, that’s the deal right there. And this thing I mentioned earlier before we officially started, of writing everything down has been very useful for me in that respect. In the sense that, after each concert I just do four or five pages of notes and it’s mostly directed to myself. Sometimes it’s about where we played, and how the audience was, and X factor’s about the music. But mostly, it’s about every time you get to that B flat minor, seventh flat five, on the third turnaround of that fourth tune, you always play an F natural. It should be either an E natural, or an F sharp. Stuff like that. By writing it down-
Alan: 00:23:35 [crosstalk 00:23:35] so detailed memories like the boxer who remembers every time. That’s amazing.
Pat: 00:23:41 That thing that you just described of Sir Laurence, I’ve been there too many times where it’s like, “Well, I should be able to at least increase the odds of getting there.” And I would say that over the years, I have any able to increase the odds. I mean, it’s never going to be where I wish it were.
Alan: 00:24:03 It sounds like you know a little bit about what goes into it happening?
Pat: 00:24:07 Well, I think … and also having been around many of the greatest musicians of our time, it’s also very interesting to me … and I bet you would have similar things to say, how different everybody is in terms of their preparation. In terms of their perception of what happened, or even their perception of how it’s going while it’s going on. I mean, I can be standing here with my eyes closed and say, “Wow, Antonio on drums is playing the best. Man, it sounds great.” And then I’ll look over there and he’s like, “Man,” He’s like, “Wow, okay. I wouldn’t have thought that.” Although I can’t say that about Antonio. He rarely gets mad, the drummer that I play with a lot. But, for instance. But I know musicians who before they walk out on stage eat a giant steak dinner, and can go out and just burn. I mean, for me, I don’t eat anything all day.
Alan: 00:24:58 I don’t either. I don’t either.
Pat: 00:25:00 I found through my notes over the years, I just play a little bit better if I’m hungry.
Alan: 00:25:05 I like to be a little hungry.
Pat: 00:25:06 Yeah. But everybody’s different. My notes wouldn’t apply to anybody.

Alan: 00:25:12 What about story? You were telling me about story. In what way do you tell a story?
Pat: 00:25:18 Well, that’s a tough one because the general abstraction of what music is and how it connects to this narrative example that I have mentioned a few times, is difficult to do. It’s hard to say, “Well, that part where I went, ‘Da, da, da, da.’ That was when Little Red Riding Hood went to the woods. And the part where …” it’s way more. It’s like three or four dimensions past that.
Alan: 00:25:48 It’s not a story you could put into words, which is why it’s music. I guess.
Pat: 00:25:53 Although, I am constantly getting things from people who take the various improvised things that I’ve done.
Alan: 00:26:02 And they hear a story.
Pat: 00:26:03 They write words to them. In my case, my range of interest goes from the simplest of the simple, and the quietest of the quiet to beyond noise. And to me, that’s all … I’ve never seen any of these aspects to be independent of the others. To me, music is something that should reflect creativity. And creativity to me comes before music. It’s like when I think of my favorite musicians, The Beatles, or … I’ve mentioned train a few times. There’s endless Bach, endless examples. To me what I … I mean of course, I admire the content, but I admire that creativity. It’s like, man, these are musicians who really looked to music to expand what their world could be. Music was a tool for them to find creativity throughout the culture that they’re in, to express that creativity in a way that was very particular to their thing. The narrative aspect of it for me can show up in many different ways therefore.
Pat: 00:27:35 I mean, there are improvisers like Lester Young or Stan Getz would have been a great example of this where it’s really almost literally a narrative. Beginning, middle, and end kind of thing. And in many ways, that is still the model for me even if there’s serious abstraction going on. Because I … and this I think connects with the purpose of your podcast as I understand it. For me, the communication aspect of all of this is central. The materials that I’m dealing with are often very complex, but I consider it part of my gig to illuminate those things. And again, show like, “This is really cool. You may not have run across this before.” Although I try not to presume that, I try to presume everybody’s hipper than I am. That was easier before the internet because I could just imagine that every person out there was a Clifford Brown fanatic.
Alan: 00:28:42 And now you read the snarky comments.
Pat: 00:28:44 Well, or the snarky and just like, “Wow.” There’s not a whole lot of insight to the details like I’m talking about right now often. But there can be beyond what you think too. I mean, I’m always reluctant to presume anything about an audience. But to me, because I like so much stuff in music as a fan of music, which is why I became a musician. My natural impulse has always been to represent what I love about music and that includes many, many things. But I feel like I also have a mandate to be very clear about it, like to try to say, “Look, check this out. This is really cool.” And do my best to-
Alan: 00:29:32 It’s so interesting. It’s so much like … I think it was Michael Tomasello who was on the show, talking about the origins of language as the act of pointing. First we might have pointed as if to say, “Look at that sunset.” We still do it. I’m driving in the car with one of my grandchildren, one of us will say, “Wow, look at that.” You’ve said that a couple of times today, that sounds like what you’re doing with the music. You’re saying, “Listen to this.”
Pat: 00:30:10 Yeah. Do you feel like that’s what you’re doing? When you have a role that you really feel like you have something to say about what that character is.
Alan: 00:30:24 I’m aware of … to some extent, aware of what the what’s happening, what might be happening in the audience. I’m more aware of what’s happening in the other actor.
Pat: 00:30:35 Interesting. I would say the same.
Alan: 00:30:40 I actually am aware of pretty much everything that’s happening to some extent. When I was a young actor and I needed money, I was paid $25 to be hypnotized by a psychiatrist who was doing a study. I had never been really hypnotized before, and he said it’s really self hypnosis. It depends on your ability to concentrate. He said, “Don’t try to block things out. Noises in the street, noises in the next room, let them in. But keep concentrating on what’s important of going into this trance.” And that sounds to me a little bit or a lot like what I go through when I’m on the stage. Is it something like what you go through?
Pat: 00:31:31 Exactly that, yeah. That’s really interesting. And the way you described your first set of awareness, molecules being activated by your fellow actors, and maybe what’s happening on the stage, is the same for me. Also because … especially if it’s great musicians, I know they’re hearing it. I know they know. You hope that there are many people who know, but I know that they know. Not only that, they’ve heard me play a lot. So I feel like an obligation to play well, also to keep them interested.
Alan: 00:32:16 So that’s like a back and forth, even though it’s to some extent in your head. Do you know because you have evidence that leads you to know it? And that sounds like it’s spurring you on stay in the zone.
Pat: 00:32:31 And I wonder if it’s the same for you on stage? Like you have a fellow actor that you respect and admire, and you’re going to do eight shows a week for six weeks?
Alan: 00:32:41 Oh, it’s all in the other person. The phrase actors use a lot is, “My performance is in the other person’s eyes, not in what I do.” And when I work with an actor who only is considering what they have to do without regard to me or anybody else, it’s a disappointment. I feel like I’m alone up there.
Pat: 00:33:02 Yeah, I can imagine.
Alan: 00:33:03 I want to be together.
When we come back, Pat Metheny and I, sitting across the table from one another, practice getting in contact with each other through one of my favorite exercises in improvisation. It’s fun… worth the wait..
This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Pat Metheny, and the importance of connecting
That contact to me, that ability to make contact that I’ve learned as an actor is what I think is at the heart of all communication. So when we train scientists to be better communicators, we start with improvisation exercises. Well the most fundamental one, I think, is mirroring where they stand across from each other. And I would I move my arms and you would move your arms in exactly the same moment, as if you were my mirror. And then we trade places and I am your mirror. And then when you get good at both of those, you do it where neither one knows who’s leading. That sounds a little like what you go through in a jazz composition.
Pat: 00:33:51 It can absolutely be that. Now how about this, how about is there an exercise where you do the exact opposite of that? Which is to completely do everything you can do to mess up the other person?
Alan: 00:34:04 No. There aren’t improvisation exercises where you do that, where you disagree entirely with what the other person-
Pat: 00:34:11 Because that comes up in our zone quite a bit.
Alan: 00:34:14 That’s interesting.
Pat: 00:34:14 There’s a kind of … especially in the world that I function in, the drums are … whoever’s name is on the marquee, the drummer is the leader. The drums are the center of the universe. I would say that in a general sense, any music that’s got drums, it’s about the drums.
Alan: 00:34:32 What happens if you want to slow everything down? Do you push him somehow?
Pat: 00:34:37 Well, it’s a very interesting relationship with drummers in general. My sense of how to play with drums … and I think this is true with most of the really good players, is built upon a kind of knowledge of what drums are, and what they do, and also with the history of drumming is that has led us to this point in America in the 21st century. But part of the general style that has evolved in, again the post war thing, has been a combative drumming style that I love where you’re playing [crosstalk 00:35:17] along and the drummer is like somebody Jack DeJohnette.
Alan: 00:35:22 Oh, smashing the drums.
Pat: 00:35:25 He’s was just like, “Oh, yeah.” And there’s a kind of mechanism of survival that gets in that when you’re going to play with a very aggressive kind of drummer, you have to be able to hang with that. I’m sure that there are certain types of theater that invoke that more than others, but-
Alan: 00:35:47 You remind me of when I grew up. My father for a while was in burlesque and played on builds with Gene Krupa. So I would stand in the wings and listen to Gene Krupa.
Pat: 00:35:59 Man.
Alan: 00:36:00 And to me, that he could play melodies on the drums-
Pat: 00:36:05 Absolutely.
Alan: 00:36:07 … just with his touch-
Pat: 00:36:08 Absolutely.
Alan: 00:36:10 … was an amazing introduction to a kind of drumming I’d never heard before. But just listening to other people and picking up from them.


You know what it would be fun to do? If you can do the mirror exercise vocally where we both talk at the same time. I’m curious to know because you improvise hours a day.
Pat: 00:36:40 I bet I would be terrible at it.
Alan: 00:36:42 Let’s see. You’re probably better at it than me.
Pat: 00:36:44 Okay, but if it’s really bad don’t put it in.
Alan: 00:36:46 Okay. So I’ll start.
Pat: 00:36:49 Okay. So what are we going to do?
Alan: 00:36:51 You have to be my mirror.
Pat: 00:36:53 So as your hands on talking?
Alan: 00:36:54 As I’m talking, you speak at exactly the same time.
Pat: 00:36:57 The same time.
Alan: 00:36:57 That’s right.
Pat: 00:36:59 That’s right.
Alan: 00:37:00 For instance.
Pat: 00:37:01 For instance.
Alan: 00:37:03 It’s an echo.
Pat: 00:37:03 It’s an echo.
Alan: 00:37:04 Keep it at the-
Pat: 00:37:04 Keep it at the same time.
Alan: 00:37:06 … same time. So-
Pat: 00:37:08 So.
Alan: 00:37:09 For instance.
Pat: 00:37:10 For instance.
Alan: 00:37:11 This morning.
Pat: 00:37:12 This morning.
Alan: 00:37:14 I had.
Pat: 00:37:14 I had.
Alan: 00:37:15 Oatmeal.
Pat: 00:37:16 Oatmeal.
Alan: 00:37:17 And I loved it.
Pat: 00:37:19 And I loved it. I’ll tell you why I’m not good at this.
Alan: 00:37:22 Why?
Pat: 00:37:24 To me speaking in general, talking, is extremely difficult. It feels-
Alan: 00:37:30 Boy, it doesn’t sound it.
Pat: 00:37:31 I know. Everything about language it feels like I’m used to dealing with this incredibly fine, infinitely expressive brush. And this is like picking up an anvil for me to talk. I’ve always struggled in a lot of ways with language, it seems cumbersome to me. Relative to the infinite malleability of music. People often say to musicians, “I bet you’re great at languages.” It’s like I’ve been married for 25 years now to my wife who’s French, and I mean I’m still at [French 00:38:20] pretty much. Languages are almost impossible for me.
Alan: 00:38:22 Well, you lead me now and let’s see if I can follow you. Now, leading you have to listen more than you do when you’re following because you got to know where I am all the time. So you lead.
Pat: 00:38:34 On the third of April.
Alan: 00:38:37 On the third of April.
Pat: 00:38:37 I went to the dog store.
Alan: 00:38:39 I went to the dog show … dog store. Sorry, I thought you were going to say dog show. Okay, go on.
Pat: 00:38:45 And bought.
Alan: 00:38:45 And bought.
Pat: 00:38:47 Dog food for my cat.
Alan: 00:38:48 Dog food for my cat.
Pat: 00:38:53 You’re way better at it than me.
Alan: 00:38:56 No, but I’m only as good as you make me.
Pat: 00:38:58 Now, let me ask you this, in that exercise is it about sound or is it about meaning? I mean, for instance, I threw you a couple loops by saying, “I bought dog food for my cat.” When you’re responding, are you responding to the sound of it or the meaning?
Alan: 00:39:19 Partly to the sound, and partly to what probably is coming next. But I can’t be too sure of what’s coming next because you’re a jazz improviser and you like to take my expectations and put a turn on them. Right? Isn’t that one of the wonders of jazz, that you can do that?
Pat: 00:39:39 Well, yeah. But there’s another way that this comes up, and I know you’ve been in this situation a million times too. You’re in a foreign country. You have to give an interview. And while you’re giving the interview, there’s somebody doing what they call a simultaneous translation of what you’re saying, I can’t do that. For me, it’s if I start talking and then this person says, [inaudible 00:40:02], it feels first of all kind of rude for me to keep talking. And also, I just feel like from the listener’s standpoint, that’s too much. That fights with my improvising, clarity, illumination mechanism of the idea is to make this clear to people. And to me, it’s like, what about the person here who can speak English and Slovenian? How can they take both of those things? So I always say, “I’ll talk in short bursts. But let me talk, and then you translate.”
Alan: 00:40:36 Yeah. It’s hard to believe they’re actually able to do it, and it’s a little distracting. But then if could talk forever, you could make this long statement where you pour out your heart talking-
Pat: 00:40:50 [inaudible 00:40:50].
Alan: 00:40:50 And they go, “[Foreign language 00:40:51].” And that’s the end of It.
Pat: 00:40:54 I’ve had that happen too.
Alan: 00:40:59 Let me see. Where were we? I know what I wanted to ask you about. I feel that improvising has changed my life. I’m a different actor, certainly since I learned improvising early on. But I’m a different person too, and I think that changes gets more profound as the years go on. Has it changed you in any way? Are you aware of it? Because you started so young, are you aware of continuing change in your life?
Pat: 00:41:43 Absolutely. Particularly in the sense that it’s my gig too. It’s like my livelihood in a way is dependent upon being able to keep coming up with stuff night after night, after night. I mean, that famous Babe Ruth’s line about yesterday’s home runs don’t win tomorrow’s game is infinitely magnified for an improviser, because there is the tendency of like, “Oh man, last night, finally I broke through on that tune-
Alan: 00:42:15 No bullshit.
Pat: 00:42:16 … I got it.” No.
Alan: 00:42:17 You never got it.
Pat: 00:42:18 You never got it. And also, it’s Bakersfield tonight. They don’t know what I played last night. It’s a little different than if you are playing written music or maybe in a play situation where you have … I mean, we do usually have a context and environment for the improvising to happen. But that in our zone, I would say is significantly less scaffolding than you would have in classical music, or maybe in a meter piece, or something. I mean, it’s usually a little bit at the beginning, and a little bit at the end, and a whole lot in the middle that may be based on elements of those things. But the vast majority of what’s going to happen is on you to come up with. So having lived with that as a reality, I would say absolutely has affected the way I carry myself and the amount of risk that I’m able to bear in other areas, sometimes for better or worse. It’s been unbelievably instructive for me to be around a lot of other great improvising musicians just see how they hang on a day to day basis.
Alan: 00:43:35 It sounds like you’re saying something that’s close to what I’ve experienced, which is that improvising has given me a sense that the uncertainty of life is not something you can avoid, or should avoid, or should try to avoid because it’s going to be there and no matter what. And to play what to play what comes your way.
Pat: 00:43:58 Yeah. I have to admit I wrestle with that, that aspect of it.
Alan: 00:44:03 How is that?
Pat: 00:44:03 Well, in addition to just being an improviser, I’m also a bandleader. I write 90% of the music that I play, and have for my whole career. So, in that sense, I’m also the playwright to a degree. And I’m also the director kind of. I have these other aspects to my existence on those 300 nights in a row that I am also an improviser. But there’s a point where I have to go, “Hey, you guys, we’re getting too far off topic here. You’re starting to talk about corn now, you’re supposed to be talking about Brussels sprouts.”
Alan: 00:44:46 Well, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say, is that you don’t establish a relationship among the people on your team, and it doesn’t stay that way. It’s going to change because uncertainty is one of the givens. So how you cope with that is going to be different from what you might have expected.
Pat: 00:45:07 And I guess the degree of coping to the degree of reestablishing norms, that’s the tricky part. Because also again, now we’re in a slightly different area, which is the area of more like being a director or something like that. You don’t want to quash people [crosstalk 00:45:36] because then it’s like people are not going to do their best.
Alan: 00:45:41 That’s one of the things that I think improvising gives you, is the empathy to be able to deliver bad news to somebody without bringing them down.
Pat: 00:45:53 Absolutely. Yeah, that’s a bandleader skill that I have wrestled with a number of times over the years, and sometimes with better results than others. It’s like, at what point are you maintaining, let’s say, control? In other words, you’re fighting against what you were describing before of just accepting bad things can happen. And at what point are you just letting it be?
Alan: 00:46:27 No. The idea idea that you’re always trying to figure out the way to cope with the unexpected in a way that doesn’t step all over the people and hurt them from doing their best, is not like some people who don’t bother to worry about that. But try to exercise authority in a way that’s not really helpful. I worked with a director once we used to say to actors, “Jughead, don’t do that.”
Pat: 00:46:57 I bet that one went over really well.
Alan: 00:47:00 Yeah, it really-
Pat: 00:47:01 Inspiring.
Alan: 00:47:01 … boosted everybody’s morale.
Pat: 00:47:04 I have to say I really enjoyed listening to your podcast of the MASHCast.
Alan: 00:47:09 Oh, I did too.
Pat: 00:47:10 But also hearing the way you guys worked, about how much preparation there was, and how much discipline there was.
Alan: 00:47:19 Yeah, even when there didn’t appear to be.
Pat: 00:47:20 Well, that’s the key. That’s the thing. I heard that and I’m like, “Yeah.” It’s like, you want it to be like it’s real. It has to be real to be good.
Alan: 00:47:31 That’s right. Yeah.
Pat: 00:47:32 And maybe that’s take 49, or-
Alan: 00:47:35 Exactly.
Pat: 00:47:36 … just take one. You don’t know.
Alan: 00:47:37 Yeah, exactly. So often people would say to us, “You must have improvised all those things.” And, on the contrary. There was an improvisational flavor, which we sometimes only achieved on take 20.
Pat: 00:47:52 I love the thing you said when you and one of the other actors had done this scene and then went to the trailer and did it again.
Alan: 00:48:04 And we were never going to do it on film again. But we wanted to do it again until we [crosstalk 00:48:08].
Pat: 00:48:08 See, to me I’m like, “Yeah, my brother.” I’m like, “We’re in the same drive there.”
Alan: 00:48:14 I like that. We never met before, but this conversation has made me feel even more that way. We have to end it now unfortunately, it’s one of those things that I’d love to go on for hours with. But as you know, probably, we end our talks with these seven quick questions. Are you game?
Pat: 00:48:35 Of course. And I heard you do it with the MASH people.
Alan: 00:48:39 Yeah. These are this is our new set of questions. Some of them are new. Some of them are old favorites. Some have been suggested by the audience.
Pat: 00:48:46 Cool.
Alan: 00:48:47 But they’re only seven. Number one, what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever tried to explain to someone?
Pat: 00:48:57 I’m not a good explainer to people who do not seem to have the empathetic response to music as I do, and that’s sometimes been a little bit of a problem for me. Every now and then I’ll meet somebody … it’s rare, but somebody who will just say, “You know, I just don’t like music.” And it’s like, “Man, I don’t even know what to say.”
Alan: 00:49:26 It’s like trying to explain a joke.
Pat: 00:49:28 Exactly.
Alan: 00:49:29 Even even if you explain it, they say, “But what’s funny about that?”
Pat: 00:49:33 Yeah. So I don’t think I would be a good person to be able to explain things.
Alan: 00:49:41 Well, that’s a hard thing to explain. Number two, how do you handle a nosy person?
Pat: 00:49:48 Well, I immediately go to the musical on the bandstand version of that. Like where there is another musician who’s getting in your space, right?
Alan: 00:49:59 Yeah.
Pat: 00:49:59 And to me, the the response to that would be let them have some room. Like, “Go ahead.”
Alan: 00:50:06 Oh, that’s interesting.
Pat: 00:50:06 And see what it is they’re so curious about. I mean, for me, it’s always interesting to get people’s responses to things because I guess I’m so tuned into that anyway. If somebody is like that, I just give them a chorus.
Alan: 00:50:31 It sounds like you’re ready to dance when they come up and start moving towards you.
Pat: 00:50:37 I try to be open to what could happen, because that’s the place that I found so much of all the good stuff, is being ready for, “Wow, what’s this going to be?”
Alan: 00:50:57 If you’re ready for an unexpected response to something that’s intrusive like nosy, it might get you someplace that you don’t expect. That’s why improvising is so interesting. The guy who wrote MASH for a long time, Larry Gelbart came home one night, late at night, and a guy came out of the bushes with a gun and said, “Take me into your house and give me your money.” Now, he didn’t say no, which would not be a good idea. Brought him into the house. But he didn’t say how … “This is terrible, what you’re doing.” Instead he said he took the measure of the guy. And he said, “You know, you’re too smart to do this. Why don’t you let me help you get a job, and you won’t have to do this?” The next day, he got the guy a job. And that’s unexpected, and it’s connected. Now, it wouldn’t always work. But it sounds … I’m reminded of that by what you said about how you react to a nosy person because that is intrusive, and yet you let them in a little bit.
Pat: 00:52:01 I am always trying to do my best to understand, because as I mentioned before, having been around so many musicians and seen how different they are, how different people that are really great musicians just respond to different situations. And more and more I find that whatever I’ve learned as a musician actually applies to everything. It’s almost getting to the point. I mean, I hope to continue to play forever. I love playing, it’s the greatest for me. But it’s it’s getting close to the point where I don’t even feel like I have to play anymore. It’s like just sitting around being, it’s like that’s what-
Alan: 00:52:44 Doing the music of life.
Pat: 00:52:45 … music is.
Alan: 00:52:45 Yeah, I know. I have that same feeling. These are supposed to be seven quick questions. I’m more guilty of it than you. Number three, how do you tell somebody that they have their facts wrong?
Pat: 00:53:02 I’m pretty blunt. If something’s really wrong, I’ll just say, “No, that’s really not what it is.” I mean, we live in an era at the moment where there’s a lot of that going on. I have real problems with that, I have to admit. It’s like … I mean, there’s a musical version of that too.
Alan: 00:53:24 Which is what?
Pat: 00:53:26 People playing wrong notes.
Alan: 00:53:27 Oh, yeah. Right.
Pat: 00:53:28 People just saying, “No, I really hear that man.” It’s like, “No, you don’t. You just don’t know the notes in the chord. Don’t say you do when you don’t.”
Alan: 00:53:37 It’s great.
Pat: 00:53:37 So I have trouble with that too. It’s like to me there are fundamental laws of nature involved in just what’s true, and what isn’t.
Alan: 00:53:49 Gravity does exist.
Pat: 00:53:50 Exactly.
Alan: 00:53:52 What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Pat: 00:53:57 Well, it’s a little bit reminiscent of something you said, which is I can play a concert with just a bass player and drummer playing like three hours and somebody will come up afterwards and say, “Were you improvising it all?”
Alan: 00:54:13 At all?
Pat: 00:54:14 And I’m like, “Oh, do you …” I mean, I just try to put myself in the head of somebody who could imagine that all of that was written out and we’re going to do that tomorrow. Wow.
Alan: 00:54:29 That’s a pretty strange … what brought them there to the evening in the first place?
Pat: 00:54:33 Well, and at the same time, I’m glad they came. Those are the kind of people that you’re happy made it to the gig.
Alan: 00:54:43 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Pat: 00:54:49 Again, I immediately in my mind, go to a jam session where there’s a tenor player who just won’t stop playing. He’s played his four choruses, then he’s going to dig in for another four choruses, and the bass player is getting tired, and the drummer has already gone full Jean group, or whatever.
Alan: 00:55:10 Right. Signaled an ending.
Pat: 00:55:12 Yeah. And to me the response at that point would be, again, let him have it. Everybody stop and let the guy play. And after a couple of choruses by himself, he’s going to go, “Okay.”
Alan: 00:55:27 “Where did everybody go?”
Pat: 00:55:29 Yeah. And somehow that fits, I think with civilian life as well.
Alan: 00:55:36 If you were at a dinner party, how do you start up a real conversation with someone next to you who you don’t know?
Pat: 00:55:43 Well, I love asking people questions. To me, I’m always curious about how anybody got to where they are that brought them to that moment in time.
Alan: 00:55:56 It’s so interesting to me, because it seems to me that connection is so important in everything we do. The basis of real connection is probably curiosity more than anything else.
Pat: 00:56:09 Absolutely. Absolutely.
Alan: 00:56:10 Real curiosity, not pretend.
Pat: 00:56:12 I had a funny thing happened the other day. There’s a really great singer named Kurt Elling, who I’ve known for years. I don’t see him a lot, but I see him … we will play a jazz festival in Finland and see each other backstage every five years, or something like that. We just got a dog, our family, and I was taking our puppy out on the street trying to get him to do his thing. And this guy came up to me and started talking about the dog. And we talked for about 10 minutes about the dog and everything, and we were both looking at the dog, and then we both looked up and it was like, “Kurt?”, “Pat?” It’s like we didn’t even know that it was each other.
Alan: 00:56:55 Oh, that’s funny.
Pat: 00:56:58 To me, and Kurt’s also a great guy. And it was just hilarious. It was like, “Well, I guess we don’t care that much about music, or whatever, that we have to talk about music. We were talking about a dog for 10 minutes.”
Alan: 00:57:13 So last question. What gives you confidence?
Pat: 00:57:22 The confidence degrees that I have vary from situation to situation, of course. To me that famous saying about luck is where preparation meets opportunity. For me, that’s been an absolute manifesto for my life. But at the same time, living a life as an improvising musician, there’s only so far that will take you. And then there’s my entire life outside of being an actual musician, which has been more difficult than the life that I’ve had as a musician. Not that it’s been that difficult, but it’s always been a little bit hard for me to negotiate the civilian world, relative to the the more abstract world of music. But again, to me that that issue of preparation meeting opportunity, another way you could say that would be understanding. The pathway to understanding will always come from listening. So I would say what the degree of confidence that I have in any situation is built entirely upon my listening skill that I can bring to that situation. And I definitely do better sometimes than others. I’m always working on improving in that department.
Alan: 00:58:44 Well, you did great today. I love talking with you. Thank you so much for coming by.
Pat: 00:58:48 Thank you. What a pleasure. What a pleasure.
Alan: 00:58:49 Just great.
Speaker 3: 00:59:00 Pat, since you’re here, would you consider playing [inaudible 00:59:01]?
Pat: 00:59:01 you know … I’d be curious your take on this. I would love to be able to be the person who could do that. For me, I would have to practice for six or seven days.
Alan: 00:59:10 Straight.
Pat: 00:59:13 Then I would have to warm up for four hours.
Alan: 00:59:15 Let me ask you another question. If we use that section where we talk about Autumn Leaves, would it be okay to quote a few seconds from-
Pat: 00:59:26 Oh, absolutely.
Alan: 00:59:26 … the World Science Festival?
Pat: 00:59:28 Absolutely. You know what was interesting also about that particular event? There’s something that … I’m not sure how how clear it was in what you heard. But there’s something I like to do because I think, again, people think … and this doesn’t necessarily … we’re just talking here. But people think of improvising and jazz is this kind of thing, but I think the entire thing you heard I was playing with one finger on one string. Which is something that to me is like when I do work with younger players, it’s mostly it’s way too much. It’s like, “Just show me the essential things that make the changes of Autumn Leaves beautiful.” And it’s very simple, actually. That was part of what that presentation was about. I remember Larry Grenadier, I think was playing some bass notes. So if you have the base notes and just the key notes, you don’t have to really do very much.
Pat: 01:00:30 I wonder if there’s an acting parallel to that where it’s like, if you can find where … I mean, the way I describe it, it’s like, “Where’s the action?” Like, “Where? At what …” Maybe for you it’s, “Which word is really going to do the thing where it changes?”
Alan: 01:00:48 For me personally, it’s a little bit of finding the simplicity that says it most clearly. Because we really are so simple.
Pat: 01:01:02 Absolutely.
Alan: 01:01:05 Your tendency when you read a script and it says, “Put that down or I’ll kill you.” The tendency is to go, “Put that down or I’ll kill you.”
Pat: 01:01:16 You’re right.
Alan: 01:01:16 Which is just bullshit. Yeah. But in reality, a person might just say, “Put that down or I’ll kill you.” It depends on what evokes the reality moment.
Pat: 01:01:30 I’m just curious since I’m getting this privilege of being with you. So say you have that line, you’re going to do eight shows a week, and that wine is a key line like the character change. How close would you stick to the way you do it night after night?
Alan: 01:01:46 I wouldn’t decide one night to do it differently. But I would be able to be led to do it differently by all the things that have happened prior to that.
Pat: 01:01:56 I see.
Alan: 01:01:58 It’s essential. Let it be part of the context of the scene of what’s been happening between us, the dynamics. The person makes me do this. I make them do that. They make me do this. And it goes off in a direction it hasn’t gone before. But it’s still the event that’s in the script, but a different flavors.
Pat: 01:02:20 Now. Okay, so you’ve done it six nights in a row. On the Sunday matinee, or whatever, you do it very different than you’ve ever done it before, and the other actor is surprised. Do you-
Alan: 01:02:37 Not as often as you might think, because it’s like a joke. It might be a surprise, but there’s inevitability built in.
Pat: 01:02:46 There you go. Yeah. See, that’s a word I use a lot with improvisers.
Alan: 01:02:50 Really?
Pat: 01:02:50 Is that you have to get to the point where it’s both surprising and in heaven.
Alan: 01:02:55 That’s the structure of a joke. That’s what I love about this whole thing.
Pat: 01:03:00 Miles was that. Everything he played was … I mean, he didn’t play anything fancy, hardly ever. It was exactly what you wanted to hear, and you would never have known it was coming. And that’s what made him-
Alan: 01:03:13 That’s what’s delightful about it. It’s what’s delightful about a joke. Partly it’s what’s delightful about a poem. You say, “This is like that.”, “It is? Oh my God, it is.”
Pat: 01:03:23 Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting. I mean, I wonder if there’s a way to quantify what that is. I’m always thinking of that too whether it’s acting or jazz improvisation, refrigerator, or whatever it is. What are the things that connect these as to make them effective?
Alan: 01:03:52 Yeah, what’s-

Pat is touring right now with his Side-Eye project, which features new and upcoming artists. You can find his tour dates and link to his Spotify Channel and Apple Music channel called “PM Radio” on his web site at