Pat Metheny Unity Band: Bringing It All Together
A jazz guitar icon shines with his strongest band in years
"I've spent more time here this year than I have at my house," quipped Pat Metheny at the top of his four-night residency at Seattle's Jazz Alley, making reference to his appearances last fall at the club in duo with bassist Larry Grenadier. While the duo shows were an unusual and welcome chance to hear Metheny in an intimate club setting, the current run with his extraordinary Unity Band is a full-fledged event.
The Unity Band is notable because it is the first group that Metheny has led which features a saxophonist since his landmark "80/81" album, which showcased Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman. For the Unity Band, Metheny has enlisted a worthy successor to those titans: Chris Potter. An established solo artist in his own right, Potter is one of the most original and deep players on the modern jazz scene, and a supremely well-matched foil for Metheny. The quartet is rounded out by a startling rising star of the upright bass, Ben Williams, and Metheny's longtime associate, the extraordinary drummer Antonio Sanchez.
The band has been touring for months to support their excellent self-titled album, and the road experience showed. As the group aptly demonstrated in their superb set, they have tremendous range, sounding confident, authoritative and capable of deeply empathetic listening and interplay all the way from shimmering acoustic-based ballads to full-tilt electric workouts. The grooves were locked in tight, and the soloing by all the members seemed to draw from a never-ending well of inspiration.
Metheny wrote all of the outstanding tunes on the new album, and the range of the writing, which ties together many of the varied phases of his work throughout his career, provided a rich and varied musical palette for the band to explore. Highlights included "Come and See," kicked off by a trance-inducing intro on harp guitar that stepped into high gear with a grooving ostinato from Williams (doubled by Potter on bass clarinet). Another memorable tune was the lyrical and rhythmically dynamic "Leaving Town," a composition that harkens back to some of Metheny's trademark early writing with the Pat Metheny Group, updated for a modern quartet sound. The tune featured an absolutely showstopping solo by Sanchez, who is truly the band's not-so-secret weapon -- driving the group on the grooving tunes, floating and pushing during the quieter, more rubato numbers, and generally anchoring the proceedings.
The only dip in the flow was the inclusion of the set-closing "Signals (Orchestrion Sketch)," kicked off by stage hands removing the mysterious black shrouds of cloth over parts of the stage equipment to reveal Victorian-era looking machinery that began to light up, pulsate and tap in rhythm to Metheny's guitar. ("Orchestrion" was Metheny's ambitious 2010 project and album, which involved the creation of a mechanical orchestra of percussion instruments, triggered by his guitar and electronic loops, as an accompanist – a uniquely high tech approach to technology vaguely similar to that of a player piano). After building a tremendous head of steam during the first part of the set, the band had to readjust a bit to play along with the external structure imposed by the Orchestrion, and after the free-flowing abandon and energy of the other selections, the musical space felt a bit confining. This is not a comment on the excellence of the music itself, the creativity involved in the Orchestrion concept, or the superb accompaniment by the rest of the band (Potter's solo during this segment was a soaring wonder). If it were a typical two- or three- hour Metheny concert, and there was time for an extended interlude to change gears, it would have been welcome, but in the context of a single 90-minute club set, it felt a bit shoehorned in.
Having had the opportunity over the years to see Metheny in many different contexts and bands, one attribute emerges very clearly: Metheny's remarkable consistency. I have never heard him be anything less than fully involved in the music and have never heard him have an "off" night (that most any artist should conceivably be entitled to). His prodigious talent is unquestionable (and has been since his first album) but his dedication, passion and presence, and full devotion to the music each and every night, are what set him apart from the many other worthy and talented guitarists in jazz. The Unity Band is one of his most exciting projects in years, and a superb forum to revel in what he does best.