Reviews & Opinions
Jazz Road Trip: Pat Metheny Unity Band
Pat Visits the PAC
Thirty five years is a long time in any musical career, but especially for someone as exploratory and edgy as guitarist Pat Metheny. Yet that is exactly how much time has passed since his previous appearance in Erie, Pennsylvania. Since those days of an ambitious young guitarist attempting to launch a solo career,
There has been the enormous success of the Pat Metheny Group, as well as celebrated trio, quartet, duo and solo recordings. And perhaps the wait was worth it, for he returned to Erie with his celebrated Unity Band. The concert was sponsored jointly by Mercyhurst University and JazzErie.
Metheny unassumingly took the stage by himself and sat down with his Pikasso guitar. Hearing this 42-string wonder on CD, it is unavoidable to think that it is several guitars being multi-tracked, but to actually see it played is astonishing. Double necked guitars are nothing new, but this instrument has two additional sets of string crisscrossing the body allowing Metheny to emit the sounds of a guitar, a bass and a harp as he thoughtfully improvised a seamless tapestry that blended influences, both western and eastern, into a serene prologue.
Bandmates, Chris Potter, Antonio Sanchez and Ben Williams quietly made their entrance and began “Come And See” as Metheny switched over to his trusty hollow-bodied electric. Potter played his repetitious bass clarinet line and Williams’ ostinato bass figure cemented the hypnotic groove and planted the hook too deeply to be removed. Like a roller coaster ride, we were now aboard, the cars in motion, there’s no getting out; we’re going for a ride. Rhythms as crisp and tight as freshly starched and pressed shirts fueled the proceedings from Sanchez’s drum kit while Metheny’s guitar was ringing out waves of notes that sang with unparalleled beauty. Potter switched to tenor for a solo that exemplified his expertise at bridging the melodic with abstraction, setting the stage for a solo from the young bassist that showed that he was more than capable of holding his own with the seasoned elders.
The coaster crested the first hill and now hurtled into the wild abandon of “Roof dogs.” Metheny’s solid body guitar synth wailed in unison with Potter’s soprano sax as they spewed torrents of notes through every twist and turn, undulating joyously. Williams was visibly enjoying himself as he and Sanchez ground out the supporting foundation like a well worn grist mill. As the tune built to a cacophonous fever pitch, it was nearly impossible to distinguish the guitar from the soprano sax. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
“New Year” allowed everyone to catch their breath with adhesion to melody being the prime directive, whether via the warmth of Metheny’s acoustic guitar, Williams’ unhurried bass solo or Potter’s deep tenor statements. Sanchez was ever versatile with a light feel that contrasted sharply with what was necessary for the previous tune. “James” has a melody so contagious that all four musicians were smiling broadly and despite the darkened hall, the near sell-out crowd probably was as well. Sanchez took a solo that was supple and mellifluous, while Potter embarked on an animated foray that searched for fresh moods and textures with which to make his knotty statement.
For those who missed Metheny’s 2010 Orchestrion solo tour, a stripped down version of the devise was deployed on stage for “Signals (Orchestrion Sketch).” Initially, Metheny appeared to be cleaning the strings of his guitar, but was in fact setting up a loop of ethereal sounds that was the foundation’s first layer. As he added additional courses of guitar, all looped, the Orchestrion Machine, which is sort of an expanded one-man band/ player piano (and quite likely an electrician’s worst nightmare) kicked in with nearly every accompanying sound imaginable. And the visuals were pretty cool as well. Metheny still has his trademark shock of hair and with the device’s lights blinking and flickering as each component engaged, he looked for all the world like a mad scientist bringing life to his creation. His Unity Band-mates eventually joined in with the results being both palpable and heady.
The counterbalance to this phantasmagoric piece was three successive duets between Metheny and each member of the band. Whether conversing on an old standard or spontaneously improvising, the dialog was one of intense camaraderie. With a nod to the past finally coming late in the program, “First Folk Song” from the 80/81 recording acknowledged that this is the first Metheny led band in over thirty years to utilize a saxophonist. The two sax players on that date are legends and Potter was not intimidated at all as he wrung notes out of his tenor with confidence that proclaimed that he also is part of that “club.” Metheny furiously strummed his axe to lay down the folksiness that is inherent to this piece’s identity. The encore tune “Bright Size Life” satiated the delighted crowd, with Potter now playing flute on this halcyon Metheny classic.
One of the notable things about this performance was how close in sound and texture it was to that of the Pat Metheny Group. Outside of PMG, Metheny has released several live projects over the years and their aural quality is similar to live jazz recordings from other musicians. But PMG has a distinct “sound” that was also very apparent in the sonority of the Unity Band. If there is a possibility that this is to be the “new, world tour vehicle” for Metheny, then all those Erieites who patiently waited thirty five years to again see him perform should indeed know that all good things come to those who wait.
By Gary Finney
March 3, 2013