Pat Metheny: Unity Band
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It may be premature to write about the Pat Metheny Group in the past tense, but it's been seven years now since The Way Up (Nonesuch Records, 2005) and its last world tour. A feeling is creeping in that the 68-minute opus may have been a magnificent closing statement and a poignant swansong for that important group. How, precisely, do you top that? The perpetually busy Missouri guitarist has since occupied himself with shorter compositional song form in more intimate settings, either solo, in trio or quartet settings. The lunatic compositional and architectural ambition of Orchestrion (Nonesuch Records, 2010) proved in a sense that The Way Up was perhaps just another marker along the way; with Metheny the way is always up.
So, Unity Band can be seen in context as a return to a familiar stomping grounda straight-ahead workout characterized by Metheny's trademark lyricism and pronounced melodic bent. Saxophonist Chris Potter's presence marks Metheny's first recorded collaboration on his own projects with a tenor saxophonist for 30 years, though the guitarist played with tenor player Michael Brecker intermittently over 25 years, right up until Becker's passing, which begs the question why Metheny hasn't recorded more frequently with saxophonists. Long-standing drummer Antonio Sanchez and up-and-coming bassist Ben Williams bring rhythmic and melodic guile to a fairly uncomplicated affair, which nevertheless, ranks highly in Metheny's extensive discography.
A wealth of memorable melodies color nine Metheny originals and there's plenty of room too for burning improvisation. Metheny and Potter dominate the solos, but there's no escaping the tremendous swing and propulsion that Sanchez and Williams bring. Sanchez' light but ever-evolving energy has characterized Metheny's bands for a decadein 2005 Metheny described Sanchez's presence in the PMG as "one of the most significant changes in the band's 28 year history"and his playing is often so subtle he gives the impression of using brushes far more often than he actually does. Only on the urgent, bop-flavored set closer "Breakdealer" does Sanchez go guns-a-blazing, spurred on by Metheny and Potter's bustling synergy. Williams too, extracts huge swing and groove from concise phrasing and is a quietly powerful personality. His solo on "New Year" is beautifully lyrical.
Metheny, whether on acoustic, electric or synthesizer guitar has rarely sounded better. Like a great story teller, there's immediacy about his soling; seduction is instant, and each phrase draws you in further. The lovely acoustic intro to set opener "New Year" evokes guitarist John Williams for its combination of delicacy and neo-classical melodicism, and the same instrument graces the gently paced "This Belongs to You," where Metheny and Potter's relaxed intimacy is akin to opening a window onto a very private yet compelling dialog. Yet, even when stretching out on guitar-synthesizer, as on the brooding "Roofdogs," there's great economy in Metheny's playing, and less of the ecstasy-driven vein that he's well known for on that instrument.
Much of the music follows a head-solo-solo-solo-head pattern, with Metheny and Potter stating the themes in unison. Conventional in their structure they may be, but songs like the John Coltrane-influenced "Come and See," the melodic gem "Leaving Town" and the powerful, intense "Interval Waltz" are some of the finest compositions Metheny has penned in a career spanning close to forty years. Potter's authorative playing on soprano, bass clarinet and tenor surely inspires Metheny to some of his most striking solos committed to record, and the two form a very empathetic partnership. On "Interval Waltz" Potter's deft accents subtly ratchet up the tension as Metheny carves out a fine extended solo.
Some of the most exhilarating exchanges, however, come on "Signals (Orchestrion Sketch)," a sprawling ten-minute saga initiated by Metheny's Orchestrion, or rather a scaled-down version of the behemoth of an instrument that he conceived for the eponymously titled CD. The percussive intro has a film-noir-meets-sci-fi edginess and a knotty, Frank Zappa-esque flow, but soon gives way to a grooving group dynamic. Sanchez provides the motor as Metheny and Potter explore individual but parallel lines on synthesizer-guitar and tenor respectively. The multi-layered, repeating motifs create head-bobbing grooves and as the music soars, the spirit of the PMG at its most epic is recalled. Gradually, the powerful waves subside, and, as they recede, a gentle percussive rattling sounds, as though a breeze has passed through the Orchestrion.
For all his eclecticism and experimentation with form and genre over the years, Metheny has always returned to straight-ahead contexts. The Unity Band is, without a doubt, one of the most satisfying of these vehicles to date. If indeed the PMG is no moreand it would be nice to be proved wrongthen it's to be hoped that this wonderful group might become Metheny's primary on-going concern.
Tracks: New Year; Roofdogs; Come and See; This Belongs to You; Leaving Town; Interval Waltz; Signals (Orchestrion Sketch); Then and Now; Breakdealer.
Personnel: Pat Metheny: guitars, guitar synth, Orchestrion; Chris Potter: saxophones, bass clarinet; Ben Williams: bass; Antonio Sanchez: drums.