Pat Metheny: The Unity Sessions

John Kelman By

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Pat Metheny Unity Group
The Unity Sessions
Eagle Eye Media

With the release of the The Orchestrion Project (Eagle Eye Media, 2012) DVD/Blu Ray video and associated The Orchestrion Project (Nonesuch, 2013) two-CD set released just over three months later, Pat Metheny changed his approach to the live recordings that have followed almost every major release/tour beginning with Imaginary Day (Warner Bros., 1997) and Imaginary Day Live (Eagle Vision, 2001).

Instead of recording live in front of an appreciative and enthusiastic audience, for The Orchestrion Project—given the inherent challenges of having the number of cameras required to truly capture the guitarist's solo project with his unwieldy but impressive pneumatic and solenoid-triggered, analogue instrument-constructed but still MIDI-driven Orchestrion—Metheny went into a performance space immediately after the completion of his solo world tour in support of the original 2010 studio album Orchestrion (Nonesuch), and recorded what was essentially his live set, but with more control over the environment so that he could produce a document that quite literally (especially with the 3D version of the Blu Ray) put his fans onstage with him.

It was a terrific move under the circumstances; after all, playing with preprogrammed Orchestrion tracks and loops that he'd build with frightening real-time complexity, it wasn't about human interaction; and so, while The Orchestrion Project may have lacked that spark which comes from playing in front of a live audience, the visuals— Metheny's ability to document the Orchestrion from angles that would have been impossible in a real performance, where so many cameras would have intruded on the audience experience— made The Orchestrion Project more a studio recording of a live set than an actual live performance, and was, consequently, an unmitigated success for what it was.

But is such an approach appropriate when documenting live performances played by a real band with real people? Does such an approach lose out on the inspiration provided by a real audience? These are two significant questions with The Unity Sessions, a Blu Ray or DVD that documents the majority of material from live sets performed on the 2014 world tour undertaken by Metheny's recent project, which began as the hard-blowing four-piece unit heard on Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012), and expanded into the quintet of Unity Group that, after releasing the more cinematically composed but still improv heavy Kin (<—>) (Nonesuch, 2013), crossed the globe from Stavanger, Norway to Ottawa, Canada over the course of more than six months.

As Metheny would say in his band introductions on this tour, Unity Group was really two bands, and the quintet that toured in 2014 with the addition of "utility musician" and multi- instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi wouldn't have happened had the original quartet—featuring powerhouse saxophonist Chris Potter, rising star bassist Ben Williams and longtime Metheny über-drummer Antonio Sanchez—not toured the world on the back of Unity Band in 2012 and had so much fun doing so; so much fun, in fact, that Metheny felt the need to keep it going, but in a form that took the less detailed, more improv-centric music of the first album and added new writing for the second that was far more complex and long form in nature...in addition to making the Orchestrion a key sixth member of the band.

Taking the same approach as The Orchestrion Project made it possible to record a live Unity Group set with the luxury of multiple camera angles that simply would not have been possible in a live concert setting, as well as providing the opportunity to fix any potential gaffs that might occur and, by having the freedom to do multiple takes, obtain the ones with which everyone was happy. The result? The Unity Sessions is a more immersive (and perfect) experience...making it no doubt that there is value in this approach.

Metheny has admitted, for many years, that when he knows he is being recorded he goes into a kind of "record mode," which changes how he plays and, to some, extent, discourages him from taking the same kind of risks he takes when he is playing without the knowledge of being permanently documented. It's a sad reality of today's concert-going experience, however, that—and despite requests and even admonishments from venues and performers not to record concerts on smartphones and tablets—there remain those who, nevertheless, mar shows by seeming unable or, worse, unwilling to comply. The consequence is that artists like Metheny find themselves in the position of no longer having control over the recording and distribution of their own music. And, all too often, it's those who proclaim themselves to be the artists' biggest fans who are the biggest culprits. How fans can profess to be such strong supporters of an artist's work while, at the same time, ripping control over their work from them is now a baffling reality. Metheny has even issued a YouTube video on the subject, which you can find under the "Videos" tab in the "Pat Metheny Related" box at the bottom of the page)

So, given that harsh reality of today's concert experience, Metheny has been faced with the alternative of making concert recordings the old fashioned way, warts and all—but also having fans record and post performances to Youtube that may not be what he and his band mates consider to be their best—or taking total control over documenting the concert experience à la The Orchestrion Project, rather than recording in a context almost certain to be marred by the invasive nature of audience recordings. By taking his group into a controlled environment, in addition to capitalizing on the greater opportunities made possible by capturing the visuals with more cameras placed in positions not possible during a "real" live show, there is also a greater certainty that the performance will be one that the group is happy to have permanently documented.
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