Pat Metheny is a unique jazz entity. He doesn't identify with the retro-jazz purist movement, nor is he a smooth jazz or hard-core fusion commodity. His music is rarely played on jazz stations, contemporary or traditional.

"We don't fit anywhere," Metheny says of his group.
Yet the guitarist, whose melodic style changed the jazz/rock ball game in the late 1970s, is one of the most important jazz musicians of the past 20 years. "The idea of trying to turn jazz into a form like baroque music, or some kind of light classical music, doesn't resonate for me what the music is about," says the seven-time Grammy-winner. "To me, jazz has always been about musicians who gathered elements that were particular to their time and reinterpreted those elements in a more sophisticated and advanced way. I don't believe in jazz as a repertory music. It's music of individuals. The cultural context that forms individuals' lives, that causes them to play the way they play, is something that can never be re-created. It certainly can't be reduced to a set of musical or idiomatic quirks that form a style. It's so much more complex than that. When I think about jazz, I think about it as a process or a way of being and a way of relating to the spirit of your time and manifesting that into sound. That is the kind of philosophical spirit I see that connects all jazz guys."

That philosophy has in many ways defined the 43-year-old Missouri native's musical career. His endeavors both inside and outside of his group have been far reaching. He's composed television and film soundtracks, made an avant-garde album with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, recorded with Bruce Hornsby, recorded and toured with Joni Mitchell and played with any number of jazz legends, including Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden and Sonny Rollins. He's also taken substantial risks, including the near-infamous Zero Tolerance for Silence, a radical outing that split fans and critics alike.

But Metheny's most famous and enduring project is still the Pat Metheny Group. Formed in 1977 with Lyle Mays, Mark Egan and Danny Gottlieb, the group combined jazz and rock styles with a less aggressive tone than was the norm for the era. The result was almost instant commercial success with their self-titled debut CD, and Metheny became one of jazz's golden boys. The group has undergone personnel changes over the years -- bassist Egan was replaced by Steve Rodby in 1980, drummer Gottlieb was replaced by Paul Wertico in 1983, and various vocalists and percussionists, such as Nana Vasconcelos and Pedro Aznar, have come and gone -- but the now core quartet of Metheny, Mays, Rodby and Wertico has remained intact for 15 years.

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"The curiosity that we all share about music is what keeps it fresh for us," Metheny says. "We're a pretty restless bunch. You can see that in terms of what we've done when we've been away from the group. Lyle's written chamber music, classical pieces. Paul's all over the map doing different kinds of things. We all have a lot of different interests. But at the same time, there's a shared set of experiences that are very particular to the group, to its history, and to the kind of stylistic things the group has become known for that are really only available to us in the group. Freshness has never been a problem. The problem for us is to keep coming up with things that are at the same level as the standards that we've set. There's a couple of those tunes, like 'First Circle,' where it's not enough to just write a good tune. You have to come up with a whole sonic environment, a whole kind of world that is open-ended enough that we can find ourselves in it."

Such lofty ambitions are hard to realize, but the foursome does just that on their most recent release, Imaginary Day, the Pat Metheny Group's first release in three years. As is almost standard for Metheny, Imaginary Day has some unusual instrumentation, including a 42-string Pikasso guitar and a fretless guitar. Playing new types of guitars is nothing new for Metheny. He was one of the first to popularize the guitar-synthesizer in the early '80s and at one time played, but never recorded, the now forgotten digital guitar (though a videotape of him at a Montreal International Jazz Festival does have him playing it).

While Imaginary Day continues the tradition of unique instrumentation, it doesn't fall prey to gimmickry. The instrumentation and elements drawn from other musical genres (such as techno) are part of a grander ambition to create a full-scale work instead of a standard collection of songs. Individually, the songs stand on their own, but they are also a series of collective movements that create a larger performance. In that sense, though different from some of the group's other work, Imaginary Day is similar to both Metheny and Mays's landmark 1981 collaboration As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls and Metheny's 1992 solo epic, Secret Story.

"I think [Imaginary Day is] probably the most ambitious writing that Lyle and I have done together," Metheny says of the new CD. "We really kind of upped the ante in a few departments in terms of what we tried to do. As a complete record, from the beginning to the end as a piece, like a narrative statement, I would say it's probably the best group record we've done."

The narrative qualities of Imaginary Day are also present on Metheny's 1997 collaboration with Charlie Haden, Beyond the Missouri Sky. Released to critical and popular acclaim, the Haden/Metheny collaboration incorporated jazz, folk and country influences to paint a picture, a soundscape if you will, of the Midwest.

"That's one of my favorite projects that I've ever been a part of," Metheny says. "I have to hand that to Charlie. I remember while we were making that record, I kept saying, 'Charlie, we're doing an awful lot of ballads, here.' He was like, 'It's okay. Don't worry about it. That's what I want to do.' I probably wouldn't have been able on my own to get up the nerve or had the kind of vision to say, 'Okay, I'm going to do a record and I'm going to have 13 tunes on it and 12 of them are going to be ballads.' But on the other hand, Charlie got a part of me on that record that I've never got on a record before. It's quiet, but it's very intense."

Metheny has several other nongroup projects waiting in the wings. He appears on bassist Marc Johnson's forthcoming release The Sound of Summer Running and recently finished a recording with the all-star crew of Gary Burton, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland and Chick Corea. The latter project marked the first time Metheny had recorded with Corea. "I guess everybody was a little bit apprehensive, like, 'Wow, this better be good!' " Metheny says. "But in fact it was. Sparks were flying right from the first note."

There are more side projects on the horizon for Metheny, including a duet CD with legendary guitarist Jim Hall. "He's one of the most truly adventurous musicians I've ever run across." Metheny says of his idol. "It's just a pleasure to be around him."

But at the moment, Metheny's touring with his group in support of Imaginary Day. Given that their history includes an uncommonly large repertoire of great music, it's not unusual for the band's shows to last three hours. Of course, a three-hour concert wasn't that uncommon in the Pat Metheny Group's early days either.

Over the past 20 years, the group has built a large, almost cultlike following. They remain one of the most popular jazz bands in the world. Still, after more than two decades of success, Metheny is sometimes miffed that his popularity is, by pop or rock standards, relatively minor.

"Whatever level of popularity we've ever achieved has always been kind of a mystery to me, to tell you the truth," he says. "A big part of it has to do with the amount of touring that we've done over the 20 years that we've been around. We've really worked hard to find an audience for our music on its own terms. Once people hear and become fans of the band, they tend to become fans for life."

It is easy to be a lifetime fan of Pat Metheny. Predicting his next move, though, is a bit more difficult. After thousands of gigs, 23 releases and numerous awards, he continues to evolve beyond the boundaries of genres. He's limited only by his imagination, and that's one thing that always seems to be expanding.

The Pat Metheny Group performs at 8 p.m. Friday, February 6, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Tickets are $22.50 to $37.50. For info, call 629-3700.

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