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Pat Metheny Unity Band: Denver, CO, September 7, 2012

Geoff Anderson By

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Pat Metheny Unity Band
Botanic Gardens
Denver, CO
September 7, 2012

Pat Metheny is restless. And we're all the richer for it. Over a career that is now pushing 40 years, Metheny has been a constant innovator, not only in the development of musical styles, but new sounds as well, going so far as to invent new musical instruments to help him push, and sometimes explode, sonic boundaries. Now on tour with his Unity Band, Metheny showcased many of his discoveries and inventions at Denver's Botanic Gardens.

The Unity Band marks the first time Metheny has had a tenor saxophonist in his own band in over 30 years. The last time was when he recorded 80/81 (ECM, 1980), with Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman (as well as bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette). Since that time, he has consorted with other tenor saxophonists, but always as a sideman. A few of those appearances include Wish (Warner Bros., 1992), with Redman's son Joshua Redman and Tales from the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996), with Brecker. This time around, he has Chris Potter on tenor and soprano saxophones, as well as bass clarinet, with a band rounded out by drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams.

It's been seven years since the last Pat Metheny album, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005). Metheny has always bounced back and forth between the Group—by far his most popular format—and his various solo projects, but this hiatus is the longest there's ever been. PMG's soaring melodies and accessible rhythms are real crowd pleasers, but its music is also intricate, and even to hardcore music fans, interesting and often surprising. Metheny's solo projects, on the other hand, can yield music that is much more challenging and esoteric. Again, 80/81 is an example, with some serious hard bop and flirtations with the avant-garde. One of the more extreme examples is his Ornette Coleman collaboration, Song X (Nonesuch, 1985). He has also recorded a number of true solo albums such as New Chautauqua (ECM, 1979) and One Quiet Night (Nonesuch, 2003). Other albums without PMG come close to the Group's sound, such as Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992). In other words, there's no telling what Metheny will come up with next.

The Unity Band—both in concert and on its eponymous 2012 Nonesuch debut—comes closer to a PMG sound than many other Metheny solo projects. Much of the material emphasizes melody, and creating an atmosphere, more than drag strip speed and intensity. Friday night's concert began with "Come and See," a good example of the PMG-type sound, with a catchy, repetitive bass line setting a mood with a nice melody on top. However, the tune (and the concert) began first with an introduction by Metheny, playing his custom-made Pikasso 42-string guitar, which he first introduced on PMG's Quaret (Warner Bros., 1996). The guitar has two necks and four sets of strings, some of which criss-cross the body. Metheny played bass notes, with the fingers of his left hand hitting the fret board of the longer neck. Because his left hand was occupied, he plucked the remaining strings with the fingers of his right hand and had to select the strings already tuned to the notes he wanted to play—just like a harp. Following the intro, he switched to his more common blonde Ibenez hollow-body electric guitar. He had at least two of these, and they were his primary guitars throughout the evening.

"Roofdogs," another selection from Unity Band, featured Metheny's synth guitar, which goes back even further to PMG's Offramp (ECM, 1982). The new material continued with "New Year," Unity Band's lead-off track. A couple more quartet pieces followed, including one with a relaxed melody, and another from the school of hard bop. Then, digging deep once again, Metheny pulled out "First Folk Song," 80/81. This version was much shorter than original, but it nonetheless hit the highlights of the song. Next up was an Orchestrion piece.

In 2010, Pat Metheny released Orchestrion (Nonesuch). The Orchestrion is actually an elaborate, automated musical instrument that Metheny conceived and had built. Metheny said he got his inspiration from ancient player pianos, but he took the concept light years beyond the days of piano scrolls and ragtime. For instance, Orchestrion describes "Orchestronics" as "pianos, marimba, vibraphone, orchestra bells, basses, guitarbots, percussion, cymbals and drums, blown bottles, and other custom fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments." He took the entire contraption on the road and it filled whole stages, reaching 15 to 20 feet above the floor. He set up loops with synthesizers and computers, MIDI's the mechanical instruments into his guitars and stood in the middle of the whole thing and created music quite unlike anything heard before.

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