Pat Metheny Trio at Chicago Symphony Center

Paul Olson By

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Pat Metheny Trio
Symphony Center, Chicago
September 30, 2005
The Chicago Symphony Center's 2005/2006 Jazz at Symphony Center season came to an auspicious beginning as perhaps the biggest name in jazz music, guitarist Pat Metheny, brought the newest version of his trio to the ornate, acoustically impeccable Center. Metheny's last album, the Pat Metheny Group's wonderful The Way Up, was his best Metheny Group recording in some time, but the band's tour seemed to play every city on the earth in a concert milieu that, in its pyrotechnical heft and grandeur, left little to chance. It was also pretty great, but it might have left Metheny craving something a little more scaled-down.
Metheny's trios have always provided a less bombastic, more spacious avenue for his playing, with more of a jazz-centred approach than the grand-gesture, rock-inflected Metheny Group. This version of his trio consists of Metheny, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sánchez (who, as a member of the Metheny Group, has now played with the leader for many, many gigs). Their Symphony Center concert was deeply satisfying musically; it was also quintessentially Metheny in its crowd-pleasing blend of older favorites, fine new compositions, lots of guitar playing, and—despite the relative modesty of the trio format—a certain sprinkling of rock-concert Sturm und Drang.
Metheny started the performance solo on his acoustic Manzer baritone, playing a ruminative, dark-hued improvisation that slowly transformed itself into the more open-hearted, bucolic terrain of his classic "Last Train Home (the rapt Metheny fans cheering as they recognized the song). He followed up on the same instrument with a shimmering "One for the Boys, with its alternating hard-strummed chords and crisp arpeggios—the chordal progression somehow utterly Methenyesque in its impression of optimistic yearning. His final solo tune was an improvisation on his 42-string acoustic Pikasso, notable for its probing bass line that sighed under the harp-like higher-register glissandos. Parts of this piece seemed to touch upon some of the melodic territory of Metheny's 1981 suite with Lyle Mays, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls—sort of a miniature Wichita.

McBride and Sánchez then took the stage, Metheny donned his trademark Ibanez PM-100 electric, and the group took off with a supple, Sánchez-propelled "So May It Secretly Begin. Sánchez and Metheny have played together now for years, and they have a remarkablly honed, empathetic rapport. The drummer's got a flawless, crisp technique, and seated as I was above the stage, I could appreciate just how deft that technique is as his hands sailed around his kit, his gaze seldom straying from Metheny. It's remarkable to watch Metheny as he stands grimacing ecstatically, bobbing his head as he rips out endlessly engaging, imaginative lines—with his curly mop of hair, trademark striped pullover, faded jeans and sneakers, he hasn't changed his look one iota in twenty-five years. And if he's a visual anachronism, he couldn't care less; he's one of the most popular, employed musicians on earth, and the pleasure he takes in playing is utterly palpable.

Good though "So It May Secretly Begin was, Ornette Coleman's "Police People, one of the "new songs from the near-perfect rerelease of 1985's Metheny/Coleman collaboration Song X, was even better. Metheny played its Ornette-composed theme with snapping, carnivorous vigor, and its Metheny-composed, more traditional changes were tailor-made for Sánchez's skittering, nervous drumming and McBride's rock-solid bass—and, of course, for Metheny himself, whose scorching, rapid-fire runs and emotion-charged stringbends were equalled only by his remarkable guitar comping over Sánchez's drum break.

Metheny plays so much guitar that, coupled with Sánchez's occasional excesses in taste (some of his playing, especially his solo work, resembled the kind of look-what-I-can-do bombast one sees in instructional videos), could have pushed the band into empty grandiosity. But McBride always saved the day; despite his daunting technique, he's really a songs-oriented bassist. On a sweet new ballad known as yet only as "No. 72, McBride was willing mostly to play simple roots of the chords—he always seems to play what a piece needs. Yet on the same tune, he delivered an arco solo that seemed to draw out every melodic possibility latent in the song, and his bass solo over minimal Sánchez cymbal/snare support on the equally new, up-tempo, provisionally-titled "No. 13 was technically frightening—yet again characteristically melodic and singing. This solo turned into a thrilling, gleefully racing duet with Metheny that was alone worth the ticket price.

Another new piece, "Gulf States, inspired by the recent tragedies endured by those regions, was unabashedly sentimental, and powerfully emotional, with a melody not unlike "Shenandoah, some fine brushwork from Sánchez and rich, painterly acoustic chords from the leader. The bluesy, swinging "Soul Cowboy left the recorded version by Metheny's last trio of Bill Stewart and Larry Grenadier on Trio 99>00, good though it was, in the dust. McBride's bass line drifted almost polyrhythmically away from Metheny's and Sánchez's time—then popped effortless back into tempo, and his solo on this tune was flawlessly articulated and at the same time earthily soulful.

The show wasn't without its flaws. A guitar-synth interlude took the band into sonic orbit, Metheny seeming to race ahead of a mob of pursuing guitar delay while the band simply broiled alongside—but this deteriorated into some overstated, rock-concert nonsense with Sánchez smacking an over-reverbed cymbal alongside some high-drama improv from Metheny and McBride in a red-lit, crowd-pleasing, rather empty display.

It didn't matter. The crowd adored it all, and for the most part, they should have. Metheny's alternating trio shows on this tour with quartet gigs featuring saxophonist David Sánchez—but while that configuration sounds extremely inviting, this trio configuration left little to be desired in terms of group communication, overall chops, and great songs. I can't wait to hear the upcoming trio CD.


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