Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2005, Day 11, July 10, 2005

John Kelman By

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Over a hundred thousand people patiently waited in 30°C heat for the closing event of the 26th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal—an outdoor performance by Pat Metheny Group. In addition to signaling the end of another successful year for the festival, it was also significant in being the final stop on the group's six-month The Way Up world tour. Everyone began to get more than a little nervous about half an hour before the 9 pm start time, when the skies became dark with cloud cover and thunder and lightning could be seen and heard in the distance.

Fortunately, the threat of rain—which hit the festival hard the previous day, causing a number of outdoor shows to be cancelled—soon passed, and by the time Metheny and his group hit the stage, the skies were clear and it was the beautiful summer evening everyone had hoped it would be.

Pat Metheny Group took the GM Stage, the largest of six stages scattered throughout a six-block area of downtown Montreal that is closed off during the festival. It was immediately obvious that an outdoor performance would not impact either the audio or video quality that has been a trademark of Group shows for many years. A large projection screen behind the group displayed a combination of images linked to the music as well as close-up shots of members of the group: guitarist Metheny, long-time stalwarts Lyle Mays on piano/keyboards and bassist Steve Rodby, along with more recently enlisted members Antonio Sanchez on drums/percussion/bass, Cuong Vu on trumpet/guitar/percussion/voice, Gregoire Maret on harmonica/guitar/percussion/voice, and Nando Lauria on guitars/percussion/voice.

The festival had also arranged for large video screens to be situated throughout the performance area, ensuring that even those as far as a block and a half away had a great view. Video cameras were also all over the stage, with this concert being recorded for broadcast on the French flavour of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on July 24 at 8 pm, with broadcast on its English cousin to be scheduled for a later date.

When the Pat Metheny Group first began its tour with a number of warmup shows, including a February 14 performance at SUNY Potsdam, New York, the set list was similar, but it has also evolved since that time. Numbers like "The First Circle" and "(It's Just) Talk" were dropped in favour of "Last Train Home," "The Roots of Coincidence," "Minuano (Six-Eight)," and "Song for Bilbao," creating a longer and more broadly-complexioned set.

Still, the opening of the show remained unchanged. While strains of the introduction to the group's latest release, the seventy-minute continuous piece "The Way Up," poured out through the PA system, Metheny sat on a stage monitor with his baritone acoustic guitar. As he played a reworked version of "This is Not America," the rest of the group entered on a variety of toy instruments. Without pausing, the group then launched into a nearly eighty-minute version of "The Way Up" that revealed just how far it's come along after nearly six months of constant touring.

When the group performed the piece—a detailed, richly textured, and immensely complex composition by Metheny and Mays—in Potsdam, as good as it was, it was also apparent that they were still getting comfortable with such a massive live undertaking. While that performance went off with few snags, the musicians were clearly just working hard at finding their way through it. The difference in last night's performance was remarkable. Completely at ease with the challenging piece, everyone was able to take more liberty—within, of course, the intricate compositional form. Pat Metheny Group performances are more scripted than Metheny's work in other contexts, as he showed earlier this week with his By Invitation Series. The risks are less, but the diverse stylistic and textural capabilities of the Group still make it Metheny's flagship project.

It's hard to imagine that a live performance of such a heavily layered studio production as The Way Up could actually supersede it in terms of virtually all levels of impact. But the virtuosity of everyone involved, and their ability to reproduce all the key components resulted in a live sound that, while less dense than the recording, still retained all of its significant and defining musical values. Given that the group has released concert DVDs of its past three tours—and filming apparently took place earlier in the year in the Far East—hopefully the way that the piece has evolved from studio construction to live tour de force will be documented and out in relatively short order.

The growth of the composition into a flawlessly energetic performance piece of remarkable depth, with more vivid improvisational elements, makes it more the pity that this was likely the last time this piece will be played in concert. Playing some form of excerpt from the album on subsequent tours would in fact be antithetical to the whole philosophy behind the release, and so it's a good thing that it has been recorded. It's one of the most consequential musical achievements in a nearly thirty-year run of high points from the Pat Metheny Group.

An important eighth member of the band deserves to be mentioned. She may not be onstage performing, but she's absolutely essential to Metheny's ability to put on a show of such logistical complexity: his guitar technician of twenty years, Carolyn Chrzan. Given the seemingly endless number of guitar changes, which also involved continual readjustment to accommodate his wide variety of unorthodox tunings, Chrzan quite simply is Metheny's critical right hand. And during some of his earlier performances at FIJM this week, it also became clear that her involvement goes beyond the instruments themselves, as she was seen to be adjusting settings on Metheny's high tech equipment rack at more than one show to get the tone that he was looking for.

Another key player who rarely receives the kind of recognition he deserves is Steve Rodby. A core member of the group for over twenty years, he's the kind of bassist who can be almost invisible, rarely taking a solo and always putting the interests of the ensemble ahead of his own. Still, his impeccable time, consistently perfect choice of notes, and unfailing groove in the broadest of musical contexts that make up a Pat Metheny Group performance have made him absolutely essential to the group's complexion. He's also taken on more of a role in production over the years and, even this far into the tour, could be seen wearing a conductor's hat at more than one point during "The Way Up."

Nando Lauria—who didn't participate on the recording of the The Way Up, but is another indispensable member of the touring group—never receives any form of solo recognition; but watching him throughout the show, his contribution became clear. While Maret and Vu could be found playing guitars at various points in the performance, it's Lauria who Metheny trusts with key and challenging parts that, logistically, he can't play himself. Lauria, who will return to Brazil following the conclusion of the tour, has a recording project planned that hopefully will see him reach a larger audience.

Following the wonderfully understated conclusion to "The Way Up"—which received an overwhelming ovation from the crowd—the musicians launched into the second part of their three-hour performance. As before, Metheny deconstructed the group into a variety of subsets—a frighteningly up-tempo duet with Sanchez of "(Go) Get It," a tender duet with Maret on "Always and Forever," a trio version of "James" with Sanchez and Rodby, and a quartet version of "Lone Jack" that, with Mays added, turned into a powerful solo spot for Sanchez following a lengthy tradeoff between Metheny and Mays. Mays and Metheny also turned in an achingly beautiful version of "Farmer's Trust," with Mays' opening solo incorporating triggered synthesizer sounds from his midi-ed Steinway piano and Rodby entering for the end theme.

One song that never seems to get stale is "Are You Going With Me?," from '83's Offramp As has been the case since the group's Speaking of Now tour in '02, Metheny opened the piece as a duet blending his lush 42-string Pikasso guitar and Vu's textural trumpet. Vu's work just keeps getting stronger. Blending a variety of sound processing with a clearly modernistic approach that nevertheless demonstrates clear reverence for precedent, Vu is a player who has received broader recognition through his association over the past four years with Metheny. And when the entire group entered, Maret's solo tradeoffs with Mays became another highlight of the show, before Metheny delivered one of his high-powered guitar synthesizer solos that yet again drew a huge ovation from the crowd.

Closing the marathon set with "Minuano (Six-Eight)," it became clear that the group wouldn't be able to leave without an encore. "Song For Bilbao" gave Metheny, Mays, Maret, Vu, and Sanchez one last opportunity to raise the bar. Vu's solo, in particular, demonstrated a more developed sense of narrative than heard earlier in the tour, as did Maret's.

Throughout the performance, the group was seen to be almost in awe of the huge crowd—but clearly loving it. It's not often that any group gets to play for an audience the size of a small city, and so the Pat Metheny Group's final stop on The Way Up tour couldn't have been better-picked. In the hotel following the performance, Lauria said that everyone would now be going their own separate ways until next time. Given that this version of Pat Metheny Group is perhaps the best ever, one wonders where they'll go next. One thing is certain, following both this show and his whole By Invitation Series: Metheny is an artist who continues to evolve and avoid predictability; and with a group this vital, their next step will be well worth following.

Festival organizers will have a tough job ahead of them to top some of the triumphs of the 26th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, now the largest jazz festival in the world. Still, they manage to deliver all kinds of surprises every year, with attention to as broad a swath of musical styles as possible for attendees from across the globe, and expectations are already high to see what they can come up with to make FIJM 2006 an even greater experience.

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