Pat Metheny – Fusion Guitarists & Genre Purity

Pat Metheny
Image via Wikipedia

In a recent comment on another post, Do I Like Jazz & Big Band?, bluetwango (Our Man in Colorado) offered the following regarding guitarist Pat Metheny:

A funny & unexpected pop cult reference to Metheny was heard tonight on NPR’s “Fresh Aire.” Check it out at It was a clip from a comedy by producer Mike Judge, the interviewee. A pair of overeager music store salesmen were pitching a Gibson guitar to a fetching and flirtatious young beauty.

“It’s just like Metheny plays,” said one. “He’s the greatest fusion guitar player.”

“I… don’t know who you’re talking about. But it’s a beautiful guitar. Do you have it in another color?”
Both guys rush to the back room to fetch the instrument, while she picks up the first guitar and walks out the door.

That’s the first joke, the one most folks get. But a true Pat-head knows he stopped playing the Gibson ES-175 ten years ago, and that he hates being called a fusion guitar player. “My stuff was a reaction against that,” he writes. His music is built from melodies, not riffs. Compared with McLaughlin, Coryell and DiMeola, Pat slowed the music down to my speed of listening. And he takes most of his inspiration and style from horn players, not guitarists.

But if he’s not a fusion guitarist, he’s certainly created a wide assortment of fusion music, leaping continents to seek new musical material. Brazilian grooves mix with Asian instruments, classical orchestras with synth guitars, all seasoned with steely broad-strummed textures from country music.

So he’s an anti-fusion guitarist creating fusion music. That’s like the other paradox he’s often posed: All the members of his band must be familiar and expert in bebop, although they’ll hardly ever come right out and play it.

I am breaking this out into a new post because it brings up the whole debate about genre purity. Kevin Kneistedt had a good discussion going recently over on his “Groove Notes” page on the issue of Jazz purity. Check out  Where Is the Fine Line In Jazz? and stay to read more of Kevin’s stuff. His post came out of a complaint he received from a listener to his regular live-stream broadcast on Jazz24Live. Kevin had played Steely Dan’s Aja, and the listener complained bitterly that the track was Rock, not Jazz and did not belong on the show.

I, along with a few others, responded about the general idiocy of labeling styles and genres, especially when it leads, as it typically does, to a kind of huffiness about who “belongs” and who doesn’t.

For the sake of research, here is the “offending track” in live performance:

While the Pat Metheny incident is, instead, a question of self-labeling (or, more precisely label-denial) I think it grows out of the same tendency, when it comes to musicians, for us to seek pigeonholes. You correctly point out that one of the notable things that Pat has done, over the years, is to tap into, blend, yea fuse many disparate styles into his music. And yet, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the word fusion. His marked avoidance emphasizes the power he accords the label.

So where does the tendency for genre labeling come from?

Does this come from the marketing side of the business?

Is it inherent in fan-dom?

Are musicians, themselves, prone to sort out into categories, like religious denominations?

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About thejazzmonger
Music fan. All types of music but, especially Jazz, Big Band, Swing & Oldies from the 50s & early (pre-Beatle) 60s.

5 Responses to Pat Metheny – Fusion Guitarists & Genre Purity

  1. Rusty says:

    I think the caller that had issues with Steely Dan being played on jazz radio is being a bit uptight. Most every form of music is fusionist in some way. Buddy Rich and Larry Mullins are both drummers– one jazz, one rock –but both were
    influenced at some level by tribal poundings that evolved and took differing forms throughout the ages. Is Eric Clapton a rocker or a blues man? Is Bonnie Raitt rock or blues? Is Linda Ronstadt rock or torch-singer? Is Michael Buble jazz or pop (and what about country crooner Blake Shelton who covers Buble’s song, Home)? Even certain celtic music is very reminiscent of Oriental music. One of the finest jazz albums I own is Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles (the purists are going to attack me, I know) This is his first solo project after the Police disbanded and his band consists of some pretty stellar jazz players, including Branford Marsalis. Now, is it traditional jazz? No, it’s definitely rock “infused” jazz (with a few outright rock songs), but there is no denying the jazz undercurrents and influence. And, yes, I think Steely Dan falls squarely into this category. Not completely rock, not completely jazz, but a joyful fusion of the two. Why certain artists get caught up in “purity” issues is a mystery to me. All musical
    styles evolve from preceding styles and that’s part of the joy of the art form.

    Enjoy your blog very much!

  2. Hey, thanks Rusty, for the kind remarks AND for the insightful comments. You go just where I was trying to get to, that almost all music is connected in some really fundamental ways.

    I’m not so sure it is the artists, so much as it is the “fans” who tend to get caught up in these rants about stylistic purity.

    Benny Goodman talked all the time about the interplay between his Classical playing and the Jazz & Swing for which he was most known.

    I wrote a couple of posts ago about Wynton Marsalis’ great updates on Facebook. One of the things I have most enjoyed are his notes that begin, “Today I’m thinking about…” and he will go off on all kinds of musical styles and performers and how much they have influenced him and others. It’s a real musical education getting a look at how his mind works.

    Here is an idea for an all reading here to pursue. Think of all the interesting “crossovers” you can and share them here in a comment. By that I mean, Linda Ronstadt (the long-time rocker) doing her great albums of Swing ballads with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Or the Sting album you mentioned.

    Let’s see what we can accumulate and share, folks!

    And welcome, again, Rusty.

  3. Rusty says:

    Well, there’s Rod Stewart with his two Great American Songbook records. Natalie Cole made the famous record of her Dad’s classics, Unforgettable (including the duet they “performed” of the song Unforgettable). Art Garfunkel recorded his own American classics record a couple of years back which is a very nice project called Some Enchanted Evening. On a smaller scale, several known rockers like Elton John, Paul McCartney and Sting did a duets project with Tony Bennett, crooning classics together with the classic crooner. And before Tony thought of the idea Frank Sinatra did a duets album of great American classics that featured such diverse artists as Cindy Lauper, Bono, Gloria Estefan and Carly Simon. And Carly Simon had her own go at the torch classics in her Torch CD. Even rapper Queen Latifah crossed over with two very nice projects, The Dana Owens Album and trav’lin’ Light (not necessarily jazz or torch-song or great American songbook material, but certainly a “crossover” from her break out rap projects). Remember back in the 70s that country singer Willie Nelson had a MONSTER hit record with Stardust; his remakes of many great American songbook classics. I’m sure there are many many more that I can’t come up with at the moment.

  4. Pingback: Once and Future Pat Metheny « the jazzmonger

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