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Live Reviews

Pat Metheny Unity Band: Denver, CO, September 7, 2012

By Published: September 28, 2012
Pat Metheny Unity Band
Botanic Gardens
Denver, CO
September 7, 2012

Pat Metheny is restless. And we're all the richer for it. Over a career that is now pushing 40 years, Metheny has been a constant innovator, not only in the development of musical styles, but new sounds as well, going so far as to invent new musical instruments to help him push, and sometimes explode, sonic boundaries. Now on tour with his Unity Band, Metheny showcased many of his discoveries and inventions at Denver's Botanic Gardens.

The Unity Band marks the first time Metheny has had a tenor saxophonist in his own band in over 30 years. The last time was when he recorded 80/81 (ECM, 1980), with Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
and Dewey Redman
Dewey Redman
Dewey Redman
b.1931
sax, tenor
(as well as bassist Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
b.1937
bass, acoustic
and drummer Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
b.1942
drums
). Since that time, he has consorted with other tenor saxophonists, but always as a sideman. A few of those appearances include Wish (Warner Bros., 1992), with Redman's son Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
b.1969
saxophone
and Tales from the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996), with Brecker. This time around, he has Chris Potter
Chris Potter
Chris Potter
b.1971
reeds
on tenor and soprano saxophones, as well as bass clarinet, with a band rounded out by drummer Antonio Sanchez
Antonio Sanchez
Antonio Sanchez
b.1971
drums
and bassist Ben Williams.

It's been seven years since the last Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
album, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005). Metheny has always bounced back and forth between the Group—by far his most popular format—and his various solo projects, but this hiatus is the longest there's ever been. PMG's soaring melodies and accessible rhythms are real crowd pleasers, but its music is also intricate, and even to hardcore music fans, interesting and often surprising. Metheny's solo projects, on the other hand, can yield music that is much more challenging and esoteric. Again, 80/81 is an example, with some serious hard bop and flirtations with the avant-garde. One of the more extreme examples is his Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
collaboration, Song X (Nonesuch, 1985). He has also recorded a number of true solo albums such as New Chautauqua (ECM, 1979) and One Quiet Night (Nonesuch, 2003). Other albums without PMG come close to the Group's sound, such as Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992). In other words, there's no telling what Metheny will come up with next.

The Unity Band—both in concert and on its eponymous 2012 Nonesuch debut—comes closer to a PMG sound than many other Metheny solo projects. Much of the material emphasizes melody, and creating an atmosphere, more than drag strip speed and intensity. Friday night's concert began with "Come and See," a good example of the PMG-type sound, with a catchy, repetitive bass line setting a mood with a nice melody on top. However, the tune (and the concert) began first with an introduction by Metheny, playing his custom-made Pikasso 42-string guitar, which he first introduced on PMG's Quaret (Warner Bros., 1996). The guitar has two necks and four sets of strings, some of which criss-cross the body. Metheny played bass notes, with the fingers of his left hand hitting the fret board of the longer neck. Because his left hand was occupied, he plucked the remaining strings with the fingers of his right hand and had to select the strings already tuned to the notes he wanted to play—just like a harp. Following the intro, he switched to his more common blonde Ibenez hollow-body electric guitar. He had at least two of these, and they were his primary guitars throughout the evening.

"Roofdogs," another selection from Unity Band, featured Metheny's synth guitar, which goes back even further to PMG's Offramp (ECM, 1982). The new material continued with "New Year," Unity Band's lead-off track. A couple more quartet pieces followed, including one with a relaxed melody, and another from the school of hard bop. Then, digging deep once again, Metheny pulled out "First Folk Song," 80/81. This version was much shorter than original, but it nonetheless hit the highlights of the song. Next up was an Orchestrion piece.

In 2010, Pat Metheny released Orchestrion (Nonesuch). The Orchestrion is actually an elaborate, automated musical instrument that Metheny conceived and had built. Metheny said he got his inspiration from ancient player pianos, but he took the concept light years beyond the days of piano scrolls and ragtime. For instance, Orchestrion describes "Orchestronics" as "pianos, marimba, vibraphone, orchestra bells, basses, guitarbots, percussion, cymbals and drums, blown bottles, and other custom fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments." He took the entire contraption on the road and it filled whole stages, reaching 15 to 20 feet above the floor. He set up loops with synthesizers and computers, MIDI's the mechanical instruments into his guitars and stood in the middle of the whole thing and created music quite unlike anything heard before.

Many people thought it would be a one-off experiment—interesting, but with no real long-term or practical uses. Wrong. For the Unity Band performance, he had a stripped-down version of the Orchestrion that included the bottle choir—basically a hillbilly pipe organ. Numerous bottles were arranged according to their size and air was automatically blown across the top to create tones: different size bottles, different tones. He also brought along some Orchestrion percussion—drums and cymbals—as well as orchestra bells, for additional melodic purposes.

"Signals (Orchestrion Sketch}" started with Metheny rubbing a cloth up and down the strings of his guitar. It looked like he was cleaning the guitar, but as he stepped on a few foot pedals, the soft scratching began repeating to set up a rhythm. He then started playing some riffs on his guitar that he also looped, and brought in the Orchestrion, layering the same thing with its various instruments. The rest of the band remained onstage, eventually joining in and creating an enormous sound. The Orchestrion had lights for each mallet that struck a bell, drum or cymbal, or when air blew across the mouth of a particular bottle. This helped in keeping track of what was going on, but it also created a flashing visual display that heightened the intensity of the multiple loops and the live band out front.

Metheny activated solenoids that operated each Orchestrion instrument with his guitar. An array of foot pedals gave him control over the different instruments and loops. During the Orchestrion tour, many reviewers likened Metheny to a mad scientist and, indeed, this segment of the show let him recreate that persona. Between his wild hair, the way he added layer after layer to the piece, and his operation of the various Orchestrion instruments, he looked like he was in a laboratory in a dark castle, adding and mixing mysterious ingredients to some sort of devilish brew.

After the gigantic sound of the whole band backed by the Orchestrion, Metheny switched to the other extreme and went around the band, playing a duet with each member. The piece with Potter was fast and intricate, sometimes in unison and sometimes diverging. For his duet with Williams, Metheny pulled out yet another 80/81 tune, Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround." As he did all night, Sanchez didn't merely provide a beat, but seemed to constantly solo, though not in a bombastic way; rather, he provided a steady undercurrent of polyrhythms.

After a couple more fairly conventional tunes with the full quartet, it was time for the encore. Up to that point, Metheny had visited many points of his past, including some of his unusual instruments and nods to past bands and collaborators, but a direct acknowledgement of the Pat Metheny Group was missing. The encore fixed that. The first song had the whole band, including the Orchestrion, playing "Are You Going With Me," an ultra-laidback tune first heard on Offramp. Next, Metheny grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat down for a wide-ranging medley that included a song from PMG's 1978 eponymous ECM debut; "Minuano (Six Eight)" and "Last Train Home," from Still Life (Talking) (Nonesuch, 1987), Secret Story's "Antonia" and "This is Not America," from The Falcon and the Snowman(EMI, 1984) soundtrack. Metheny then brought out the whole band for the final tune, a bossa nova number which represented yet another musical style.

Even without his most famous ensemble and longtime PMG collaborator, keyboardist Lyle Mays
Lyle Mays
Lyle Mays
b.1953
keyboard
, the Unity Band concert turned out to be review of the wide-ranging career from one of jazz's most creative—and restless—figures.


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