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Pat Metheny: Pulling It All Together

Lawrence Peryer By

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As the 1970s came to a close, guitarist Pat Metheny was riding high on a wave of well-received albums, from his self-named Group and Trio and as a contributor to works by vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Jaco Pastorius and others. In 1980, he went somewhere else entirely and recorded what has come to be regarded as a landmark album, 80/81 (ECM, 1980). Featuring Metheny, tenor saxophonists Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, this double-album of tracks, predominantly composed by the guitarist, signaled Metheny's arrival at a whole new plane, capable of truly leading some of the best in the business, eliciting transcendent performances of captivating repertoire.

Metheny is now the elder statesmen, albeit one who continues to explore and innovate, ignoring labels like "jazz," never mind the sub-genres and splinter groups, be they avant-garde, fusion, or any other. Pat Metheny has been there, done that, often first—and, more often, better.

A generation after 80/81, 32 years to be exact, Metheny finally revisits a tenor saxophone-driven group with Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012). Benefiting from his ongoing willingness to showcase the best young players, Unity Band is anything but traditional. There are more than enough sonic twists and turns to satisfy longtime Metheny-watchers, but plenty of entry points for newcomers, too.

All About Jazz: It has been 32 years since you last put the tenor saxophone up front on record, yet you do not shy away from playing with saxophonists. Why the wait?

Pat Metheny: Even at the time of 80/81, it was hard to believe that I had gone four or five records without having made a record like that in a more traditional context since that was an environment I had played in so often. In many ways my own records and bands were set up as an alternative way of thinking to the more conventional kinds of instrumentations that I had come up playing in. The fact that it has taken another 30 years to get to it again is kind of a testament to how busy those alternative ways of thinking have kept me.

Also, I have really enjoyed the associations that I have had with a bunch of really great saxophone players that have invited me to collaborate on their projects in the interim. 80/81 set the stage for the five subsequent recordings that I made with Mike [Brecker], Joshua Redman came along and we did his record, Wish (Warner Bros, 1993), and a bunch of touring, Kenny Garrett and I did the Coltrane record, Pursuance (Warner Bros, 1996), I made a couple of interesting dates with Dave Liebman and Gary Thomas, and I played at various times live in different projects with David Sanchez, Ernie Watts and Donald Harrison. And of course, the project with Ornette Coleman, Song X (Geffen, 1986) [reissued in 2005 by Nonesuch, expanded, remixed and remastered, as Song X: Twentieth Anniversary].

But somehow for my own thing, after 80/81 I just couldn't seem to find exactly the right person who would take it from where that started to the next place I wanted to go as a next step with that kind of sound and writing. We all always talked about revisiting that band at some point, but with both Mike and Dewey gone now, that will never happen.

AAJ: How did the stature or legacy 80/81 impact your approach to the Unity Band?

PM: That session became almost a kind of iconic recording for a certain kind of thing. It was such a special record on a few levels for me personally. I have had good luck over the years pairing together bass players and drummers who hadn't really worked together before and believe it or not it was the first time that Jack [DeJohnette] and Charlie [Haden] had ever recorded together. The combination of Mike and Dewey was so interesting and they both played the music so well. The whole "strumming thing" with the rhythm section thing that had not really been done before quite like that set up a really different vibe, and especially the sort of intangible things that happened during the date. It was an especially fun record to make.

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