An Interview with Mike Metheny
I have known jazz flugelhorn performer and educator Mike Metheny since 1979. I was attending the Berklee College of Music at the time, and one of my fellow classmates, a student of Metheny's, invited me to attend one of Mike's recitals. The first time I heard Mike's playing was truly inspiring. He has an incredibly full, rich tone and a focused sound that I immediately wanted to emulate. I think Mike Stern was featured on guitar that particular night, so the rhythm section was really cookin'. Mike Metheny was playing flugelhorn the entire performance, and besides Art Farmer or possibly Clark Terry, I had never really heard someone get that rich a tone on the flugel. Mike's musical ideas are fluid and tasteful and his improvisation consists of well thought-out swinging phrases, never playing throw-away notes for the sake of being flashy. I was fortunate to study with Mike for two years while attending Berklee College, and we continue to enjoy a lasting friendship to this day. His most recent CDs are KC Potpourri and Back to Basics. Both are available at his web site (http://www.mikemetheny.com).
PT: Mike, first let me thank you for taking the time to do this interview. While I'm doing it from an educational standpoint for the readers of the ITG Journal, I must admit that I'm a little biased when it comes to your playing since I'm also a former student.
MM: Well, I probably learned as much from my students at Berklee as they learned from me. I have many positive memories of those six years, and I'm glad you and I are still in touch.
PT: I know you're currently residing in Missouri. Were you born and raised there?
MM: Yes. Born in Kansas City, and raised in a nearby suburb called Lee's Summit.
PT: Thinking back on your development and career as a musician, what were some of the advantages or disadvantages of growing up in the Midwest, as opposed to residing in one of the coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles?
MM: Among the advantages were the innocence and the slower pace, which could also be seen as disadvantages. But I'm glad I had that background. The faster-paced lifestyle would come later when I lived in the Washington D.C. area and then in Boston.
PT: When did you first experience music?
MM: There was music in our house as far back as I can remember. My dad was a very good trumpet player, as was my maternal grandfather, who even played some gigs with Sousa in World War I. And our old Zenith stereo -- back when stereo was new -- always had something good playing on the turntable, back when there were turntables! Some of the first music I remember coming out of it were records by trumpeters Don Jacoby, his Have Conns Will Travel, and Rafael Mendez, featuring "Perpetual Motion." Amazing, both then and now.
PT: At what age did you begin playing the trumpet? Did you have formal lessons in school or did you pick it up on your own?
MM: I was ten when I joined the fifth grade band in my elementary school in Lee's Summit. And yes, I had lessons and great instruction from my first teacher, Keith House. Mr. House was both an excellent trumpet player and an inspiring music educator. Forty-some years later, I still can't believe how lucky I was to be around him as a student. I feel the same way about John Alexander, my trumpet teacher later on at the University of Missouri/Columbia.
PT: What was the musical climate like in your hometown and high school growing up? Was it "hip" to be in the concert band, marching band or jazz band? Were there other avenues for young players to get together outside of school? Like in garage jazz combos or rock/jazz groups?
MM: It was very hip to be in Mr. House's concert band. And I was in it for five years, beginning in the 8th grade. Marching band was just a necessary evil, and there was no jazz band, other than a group that got together after school to play mostly stock charts. That was where I learned how to read jazz figures and notation, and again Mr. House was our mentor. As far as garage bands, my brother Pat, who is now a great guitarist, handled that end of things.
PT: Having lived and performed in the Boston area, do you think there's a cultural difference or mindset that is immediately discernible between Midwestern and East Coast jazz players?
MM: Sometimes. Like I said, in the Midwest things are much more laid back. But you can find great musicians anywhere, no matter the region. I mean, Doc Severinsen, who's another one of my first trumpet heroes, is from a tiny little town in Oregon. But there's also something to be said for the elevated passion and intensity found in major cultural hubs like Boston, where I lived for 13 years. It makes you play better. There's more at stake.
PT: I recently read in an article in another publication that you always had the ability to execute fast passages easily. Do you attribute this to hours of practice on technique and articulation skills, or is it a natural talent to be able to do this?
MM: It was mostly natural for me. I was playing Clarke's Carnival of Venice well over the "speed limit" when I was 13. The downside to that is, to this day as a jazz musician, I find myself editing out excess notes and trying to say more with less. Dizzy Gillespie once said, "It took me 30 years to learn what not to play." I'm sure it will take me much longer than that.
PT: When did your interest in jazz first come about? Was there a teacher in high school or college that motivated you to pursue this avenue?
MM: I got serious about jazz improvisation late, at about age 25, after being mostly a classical player the previous 15 years. Pat, who is five years younger, was the main inspiration and my first real jazz teacher. I'll never forget that summer, after I'd just gotten out of the Army, when Pat wrote out a bunch of jazz scales and other harmonic concepts I'd never really explored. It was pretty eye-opening. And it helped me change course and start moving in a new musical direction.
PT: Am I correct in remembering you once telling me that you were a member of one of the armed forces concert bands? Was it concert music and marches that you primarily performed, or was there any involvement in jazz during this time?
MM: I was in the U.S. Army Field Band in Washington D.C. from 1971 to '74, and played all concert band music. The Jazz Ambassadors, the Field Band's jazz component, was a separate unit that I rarely saw or heard. This was before Pat showed me all those great jazz scales!
PT: Are there any players from that time that you still keep in touch with or players that you knew who are also currently involved in the jazz scene?
MM: Well, that's over 30 years ago, and many of us were just glad to get out of the Army and move on. But that band was loaded with excellent legit players -- many had gone to Eastman, Julliard, the New England Conservatory -- and, thanks to email, I've gotten back in touch with several of them. Also, I do know of some excellent jazz musicians who were there at that time, like trombonist Brett Stamps, who was in the Jazz Ambassadors when I was in the concert band. We've worked some jazz camps together in recent years and laughed when we realized we were at Ft. Meade at the same time.
PT: After you left the military, was there any thought given to auditioning for a professional symphonic group?
MM: None at all. At that point my classical career had gone as far as it was going to go. Next up I got my master's degree at Northeast Missouri State University, where they let me write some truly outrageous halftime shows for the marching band. From there I went on to Boston and Berklee.
PT: Did you go back to school with the idea of getting a teaching degree or did you spend some time testing the waters in terms of your ability to make a living as a player?
MM: Well, my two years at NMSU made for the perfect transition. As a member of the college jazz band, I had the opportunity to try out all the material Pat had showed me, get my master's in music education, then head east where I enjoyed the perfect balance between teaching at Berklee and gigging all over New England. The late '70s and all of the '80s were a great time to be in Boston. The jazz scene there was incredible.
PT: One of the biggest lessons learned during my time as a student with you was that an artist is never truly satisfied with his or her playing, and that you're constantly growing and striving to become a better player. What were some things that helped you reach your goals as a jazz player?
MM: The truth? I'm even less satisfied with my playing now than back when I knew you at Berklee. And the ironic thing about that is: I know so much more today than I did then! So, you'd think I'd be more at peace about things, right? Not for a minute! The more I learn, the more I realize I haven't even scratched the surface, and quite frankly, the more embarrassed I am about things I played 25 years ago. But, tomorrow is a new day.
PT: When did you make the transition to using the flugelhorn as your main instrument of choice?
MM: In 1974, the same time I made the transition from classical to jazz. My trumpet sound was always very bright, even for classical playing, and I tried everything. This mouthpiece, that horn... But when I became a fulltime jazz player, the flugelhorn was the only axe that really had the "voice" I was looking for, as it still is today. That concept of sound even extends to my classical playing. I play mostly flugel on the new classical CD.
PT: Who were some major jazz trumpet performers you listened to, borrowed from, or studied with?
MM: After I made the switch to flugel, I fell in love with the playing of Art Farmer. Clark Terry was also a major influence, as was Freddie Hubbard. All three of those guys defined the sound of the flugelhorn in jazz, and they will always represent the yardstick for that instrument. And yes, I've borrowed heavily from each of them!
PT: Besides your brother Pat, who gave you a "leg up" into the jazz scene and material to practice? Who would you describe as a mentor, and with whom were you able to apprentice?
MM: Without even knowing it, several of my colleagues at Berklee in the late '70s were inspiring mentors. Jeff Stout and Greg Hopkins immediately come to mind. I spent a lot of time with my ear to their studio doors and at their gigs trying to figure out what they were doing that sounded so amazing. I may have been a teacher at Berklee, but I always felt like an eager student around such great players.
PT: As musical apprenticeships go -- dating back to the days of Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong, through the bands of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, up to a time when younger musicians can study with masters like Clark Terry and Jimmy Heath -- do you feel that there are just as many opportunities for such apprenticeships? Or are the big institutes of learning, like Berklee, Eastman and the University of North Texas, providing enough experience for our up and coming players?
MM: Obviously there are fewer opportunities for promising young players to apprentice with renowned leaders... mostly because so many of them are dead! Art Blakey comes to mind. Just think of all the great players who "went to school" in that band. So yes, places like Berklee, with its outstanding faculty, have had to take up a lot of the slack. Today talented young jazz musicians can go to a school, polish their skills, earn a degree... then get a gig in Branson!
PT: When I first heard Woody Shaw back in 1972, I heard a completely new approach to jazz improvisation on our instrument. What are your thoughts on Woody's contribution to the harmonic legacy of jazz trumpet playing? And do you have any personal picks for the next major innovators?
MM: Woody was great; and he had a unique musical voice you could easily identify after just a few notes. Almost all major innovators satisfy that requirement. Are there players today who are taking the music forward with fresh ideas and a distinct identity? Sure. But I also think the days of influential icons like Miles Davis are over.
PT: Since the mid 1980s you've become very skilled at performing on something called an EVI. Please explain to the readers what this is and how it has influenced or changed your playing style?
MM: Well, the EVI -- or Electronic Valve Instrument -- is so old now it's new again. In a nutshell it's a trumpet synthesizer that was designed by Nyle Steiner 25 or 30 years ago, is MIDI capable, and is no longer available, unless you have Nyle make you one. There just weren't enough trumpet players like me crazy enough to buy and play them, I guess. But I still really enjoy the EVI. It has given me a whole other voice over the past 20 years, and it's also a great way to rest my lip on those nights when things aren't up to par. No chops required. The downside to the EVI is that it requires those two or three extra trips to the car before and after the gig. Sometimes the drummer is packed up and gone at the end of the night before I am!
PT: After learning how to play the EVI so successfully, do you sometimes get frustrated at not being able to execute something on flugelhorn that you can do on the EVI?
MM: Usually it's the other way around. In terms of melodic lines, there's a lot I can do on the flugel that I cannot do on the EVI. The fingering system is just too complicated. But again, I approach the EVI as a totally different instrument. Much like a saxophonist approaches a flute.
PT: Do you still spend more time practicing on the flugel than say the B-flat cornet or EVI in terms of basic physical maintenance requirements of a brass instrument? Or do you try to divide your practice time on each instrument?
MM: I do most of my daily classical practicing and warming up on the Mt. Vernon Bach cornet I've had since 1962. It's a great horn, although it's finally starting to get a little "creaky" in its old age. Then I try to keep the jazz side in shape on my old LeBlanc Noblet flugelhorn I've had since 1966, as well as the EVI, which is now 15 years old. And not that you asked, but I've had the same mouthpiece for over 30 years, a Bach 6. So, as you can see, the days of trying to solve my many playing problems with new or different equipment have long since ended.
PT: You have recently released two CDs, K.C. Potpourri, which features big band and small group jazz selections, and Back to Basics, which is strictly a classical venture. Are you playing C/B-flat trumpet(s) on Back to Basics, or do you incorporate flugelhorn and EVI?
MM: There is a little bit of everything, mostly flugelhorn and EVI, some cornet and trumpet, all with guitar and keyboard accompaniment. I really wanted to do something different on this one, rather than take a run at the Hummel, the Haydn, and so on, which has been done many times before by far better players than me. For Back to Basics we recorded several new adaptations of the music of Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, and others using different blends of the instruments I mentioned. And it was great fun. But after so many years away from my classical roots, playing those simple melodies properly was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I now have renewed respect for all the great trumpet players who perform the classics so effortlessly.
PT: On your recording Day In - Night Out from 1986, you have a beautiful and haunting brass choir composition titled "Epilogue" that is very classical in nature. What was the motivation for this composition, and have you ever published it?
MM: That was pretty much a one-shot deal, and the motivation was to write a sad funeral dirge with a major chord at the end, as if to say, "all is not lost... there's hope!" Incidentally, on Back to Basics -- nearly 20 years after Day In -- there is yet another overdubbed brass choir where I play all the parts. This one, however, is a lot happier, I promise.
PT: From a technical standpoint, how difficult is it to record these choirs where you are overdubbing yourself four or five times? Is intonation the biggest challenge?
MM: Absolutely. As you know, no matter how good the instrument is, it still has built-in pitch problems. So, that's always a concern. Also, phrasing and breathing the same way each pass can be tricky. The good news is that, when I have to go back and fix things over and over, there are no other players in the studio getting bugged about it.
PT: K.C. Potpourri is quite different from your past recordings in terms of personnel and repertoire selection. What were some of the challenges you faced in putting this project together? Did you personally know the majority of the players involved or did you rely on recommendations?
MM: The title was the logical choice in that everyone on the CD, big band and small groups alike, are all friends of mine, people I greatly respect, and some of Kansas City's finest players. As far as challenges, let me put it like this: it's a lot easier to round up a quartet for a recording session than an 18-piece big band!
PT: Besides performing and teaching master classes, for nine years you held the position of editor at JAM, Kansas City's "Jazz Ambassador Magazine" (http://www.jazzkc.org). Do you miss doing the writing work? Do you ever see yourself writing a biographical novel on a major jazz figure in the near future?
MM: I've been joking with people lately that nine years is longer than I've ever done anything, other than play the trumpet. So no, I don't miss that gig very much. Fifty-seven issues was a lot of ink, I'm proud of the work we did, but it was time to move on. As far as a biographical novel is concerned, I wonder if anything has ever been done on the life of Rocky Rockwell...
PT: Mike, thank you very much for spending this time speaking with me and sharing some of your personal insights into your career and trumpet playing. And I'm sure readers will enjoy playing the transcription of "Are You Real?" (*) from K.C. Potpourri. Good luck with your future musical endeavors, and please come visit and perform in the Boston area sometime soon!
MM: Thank you, Paul. I am grateful to you and to the ITG for this opportunity.
(*) Also available at http://JazzTrumpetSolos.com
Paul Tomashefsky was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, and attended the Connetquot High School in Bohemia, Long Island. His interest in jazz was first ignited under the leadership of high school band director "Red" Reynolds. He has been on the faculty of the Westborough Public Schools Fine Arts Department since 1989. His teaching responsibilities have included grade five general music, chorus and band. He was the director of the Bentley College Jazz Ensemble in Waltham, MA from 1985 until 1995. He has also worked as an administrator for the College Gate/College Academy Summer school program for gifted and talented children, based in Stoughton, MA. He received his Bachelors Degree in Music Education in 1983 from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. While at Berklee, he studied with Lou Mucci (lead trumpet player for the Gil Evans/Miles Davis Orchestra), Mike Metheny, Jeff Stout, and (guitarist) Jackson Schultz. He also received the Art Farmer Jazz Performance Scholarship. Other teachers have included Mark Gould, Tim Morrison and Earl Rainey. As a performer, he currently plays trumpet with the Westborough-based classic rhythm & blues group, TailSpin. Past performing groups have included: Quintessential Brass, Bobby Rydell, The Four Tops, Urban Renewal, Jacques D'Ambroise and the National Dance Institute (under the direction of Peter Mansfield), and his own Spectrum Jazz Quintet.
(c) 2006 International Trumpet Guild