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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2005, Day 6, July 5, 2005

John Kelman By

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There's always a unique vibe to the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, but this year the excitement is even greater. In the festival's early days, guitar legend Pat Metheny was a constant fixture at the festival, appearing with his own projects, collaborating with others, and often found at late night jams.

But it's been some time since Metheny was in town, and so his reappearance as the artist-in-residence for the second By Invitation Series of the 26th edition of FIJM is almost akin to the return of the prodigal son. His five By Invitation concerts include his trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez; an intriguing show to team him with artists he's admired from afar, including bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello, trumpeter Enrico Rava, and saxophonist David Sanchez; a reunion with vibraphonist Gary Burton, who gave Metheny his first real exposure back in '74, and bassist Steve Swallow; a duet concert with bassist Charlie Haden; and a double-header that pairs him first with guitarist Mick Goodrick and then saxophonist Dewey Redman as he revisits the 80/81 repertoire. Metheny will also be sitting in with harmonica master Toots Thielemans, as well as playing a free outdoor show with his longstanding Pat Metheny Group that represents the end of not only this year's FIJM, but also the Metheny Group's The Way Up tour, which has taken them around the world during the past six months.

Needless to say, expectations for Metheny's sold-out By Invitation Series were high. And based on his first performance on day six—normally a transitional day between the two halves of the festival—not only did his trio with Colley and Sanchez not disappoint, they set the bar incredibly high for the rest of the series.

Walking out to thunderous applause at Le Spectrum, a roughly thousand- seater, club-style venue, Metheny sat down with his baritone acoustic guitar and launched into the high-energy power-strumming of "Song for the Boys," from last year's solo disc, One Quiet Night. Moving immediately to his 42-string Pikasso guitar, an instrument that boggles the mind of most guitarists, Metheny created a huge sound that, with the help of copious amounts of reverb, was about as lush as any guitar- based instrument can get.

When Colley and Sanchez walked out on stage, Metheny segued into the Latin- informed "So May It Secretly Begin," trading the Pikasso for his stock-in-trade hollowbody electric. Immediately he made it clear that just because he's an instantly recognizable player, that doesn't mean he's predictable. Just when one thinks that it's possible to anticipate where Metheny will go, he surprises with ideas that, while building on his thirty-year career, are incredibly fresh. And while his signature guitar tones have always been distinctive, they also continue to evolve; his hollow body sounded somehow thicker and denser, than ever before, which lent the trio a remarkably full texture.

Metheny's command of his instrument is simply staggering. With any finger in any phrase acting as the potential foundation for a supporting chord, Metheny managed to bring his own complexion to the idea of self-accompaniment. His chordal work is unparalleled; his constant and ever-shifting reharmonization of familiar changes took all material—most notably the gorgeous ballad "Never Too Far Away," the lighter "Sirabhorn," an up-tempo reading of "Bright Size Life," and an achingly beautiful version of Horace Silver's "Lonely Woman"—to new and unexpected places. His playing is inarguably more muscular than it was in his early days, but even when he delivers flurries of notes more concerned with texture than melody, a larger compositional construction is at work.

In contrast to the necessarily more scripted performances of the Pat Metheny Group, the trio context offers the ability to take considerably more risk. Sometimes—as when he first switched to his trumpet-like guitar synthesizer halfway through what would ultimately become an intense tour-de-force version of "Question and Answer"—Metheny appeared to be not so much uncertain as he was searching for the right way in. But that was the beauty of the performance: an opportunity to hear Metheny really stretching himself, with no boundaries and no constraints. It's always curious to hear people criticize Metheny for the more structured and at times deceptive accessibility of Pat Metheny Group. The fact is that Metheny—who's as likely to pursue free jazz with Ornette Coleman or Derek Bailey as he is Americana-based work and more mainstream material—is almost unrivaled for his breadth of musical concerns. One may not like all his projects, but his significance and contribution to the evolution of his instrument and jazz are undeniable.

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