To his enormous credit as a musician, Pat Metheny has become more rather than less interesting as his career has developed. New Agey sounds have taken the place of airy Brazilian textures (the forgettable likes of which closed this February 15th show) while his work in studio and on the road has left him wholly unpredictable.
Fascinatingly, in the last few years, the disparity between The Pat Metheny Group projects and the guitarist/composer's more straight-ahead jazz endeavors has narrowed considerably and, despite the ambitious project that comprise PMG's new album, The Way Up , the performance at Johnson State consolidated that impression.
Watching the band perform the piece in its entirety as the opening hour and one half of the evening, you couldn't help be dazzled. Whether it's the fleetness with which Metheny himself switches from guitar to guitarmany set up on stage on stands to almost but not quite let him replicate overdubbing in the studioor the sight of the various band members witching instrumentsthere is no one in the group who doesn't double up! (and interestingly and perhaps most telling, they all played guitar at one point, even keyboardist Lyle Mays), the thought of pre-tour rehearsals close to boggles the mind.
Yet this stop in Vermont, the fourth in an extended tour of America and Europe, found the Pat Metheny Group appearing a little too careful as they navigated the changes of the piece. That sensation was lessened if you closed your eyes and just listened, yet you can't help but wonder how The Way Up will sound live when the sextet knows it by heart and plays it with a flourish rather than with caution. Perhaps at that point the grandiose interludes will be curtailed and hopefully, the errant sound that plagued much of the early part of the set will be reduced; it might've been simply the production being too large for the relatively friendly confines of the Johnson College's Dibden Center, but there were too many moments when a lack of clarity reduced the impact of the band's musicianship, in particular when it came to separation of Metheny's guitar work and Cuong Vu's trumpet lines. Bassist Steve Rodby's instrument did not penetrate the mix as perhaps it should have either and while hat might be the result of the composition itself, the breezy nature of which recalls many early Metheny/Mays collaborations, it nevertheless reduced the dynamic range of the sound, if not of the musicians playing.
Such passing reservations, significantly, disappeared as the second half of the close to three hour show progressed. With less thought to precision, and more room for open-ended improvisation, the emphasis on tunes lent itself to more emotion right from the start as Metheny and spectacular drummer Antonio Sanchez engaged in a duet that finished with some startling body English from the guitarist; it's clear Pat relished the presence of Sanchez: he's placed stage right and up front, as physically prominent as Mays and perhaps, at least for this performance, every bit as significant a contributor (and perhaps more so given his frequent drum breaks).
With its picturesque, evocative atmosphere, the new PMG album calls to mind more than a few earlier entries in the Pat Metheny discography, and not all of them group projects as alluded to above. Little wonder then that the individual selections through which the group moved so effortlessly seemed chosen to highlight the continuity: picking "Are You Going with Me?" from Offramp allows substantial room for Gregoire Maret to take the spotlight and play his bittersweet yet playful harmonica, the light melancholy likes of which were originally simulated by an electronic keyboards. Metheny's jocular intro to a medley of "James" and "All The Things You Are" belied he consummate skill with which he, Rodby and Sanchez deftly navigated the changes, embroidering the melodies and imbuing the performance with a passion that may at times seem lacking in Pat's music.
Pat Metheny puts as much emphasis on composition as improvisation, and therein lays the heart of his ambition, on this current tour and his music in general. With his versatile band in tow, the guitarist is as eager to generate the emotion necessary to illuminate the proper passages of a given tune as allow free rein to feeling as his guiding principle as he plays. This delicate balance is to a great degree what has made the Missouri native endlessly intriguing for nigh-on thirty years now (even if not all his music has been that appealing). Being able to observe this process up close made his appearance in Vermont this mid-February all that much more memorable.
Visit the Pat Metheny Group on the web.