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Pat Metheny Unity Group at Centrepointe Theatre

John Kelman By

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Pat Metheny Unity Group
Centrepointe Theatre
Ottawa, Canada
November 12, 2014

"Every time we're planning a tour," he said to the near-sellout crowd at Ottawa, Canada's Centrepointe Theatre, "I always ask 'are we going to play Ottawa?' You think I'm joking..."

It's not often that the opportunity arises to catch a group near the beginning and end of a year-long world tour but, after seeing guitarist Pat Metheny's Unity Group at Stavanger, Norway's Mai Jazz Festival in early May, 2014, a second opportunity arose to catch the group's tour in support of Kin (<—>) (Nonesuch, 2014) in Ottawa and learn just how far the group has come in the six months separating the two dates.

And a lot has happened. Metheny doesn't get to Ottawa as often as he used to; his last visit to the city was as part of the reunited Gary Burton Quartet in 2009 that featured, in addition to the vibraphonist who gave Metheny his first big break back in the 1970s, bassist Steve Swallow and quartet newcomer Antonio Sanchez, who has been Metheny's drummer of choice since the early part of the new millennium. But the last time the guitarist played Ottawa under his own name was in 2005, in support of Pat Metheny Group's The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005), before returning to Montréal (where he'd been By Invitation artist for the previous five days) to close the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal the following night with the final show of the tour, performing in front of 125,000 people at a free outdoor show in the city's downtown core.

Perhaps it's true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Metheny may not get to Ottawa as often as he used to—for the decade beginning in the late '70s, the nation's capitol was a regular stop for the guitarist's PMG tours—but between the enthusiastic audience at Centrepointe Theatre and a band that has crisscrossed the world in the past six months and is all the stronger for it, Metheny delivered a show that actually rivalled his early '80s PMG performance on a warm summer's evening at nearby Camp Fortune. That open air show has remained a high point for Metheny fans old enough to have been there, but those attending this Pat Metheny Unity Group show were treated to a very different kind of band playing music that reflected Metheny's now even broader interests, ranging from complex, long form writing to flat-out improvisational flights of near-reckless abandon.

As wonderful as PMG shows have always been, Unity Group has proven itself a far more versatile band, its core quartet of reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez capable of playing literally anything the guitarist threw at them, and "utility player" Giulio Carmassi (who played keyboards, flugelhorn and vocals but plays even more instruments on Kin (<—>)) filling in all the gaps needed for the quintet to perform material off its current recording.

But beyond music from the core quartet's 2012 Nonesuch debut, Unity Band and the expanded Unity Group's Kin (<—>), Metheny's current group has also proven itself capable of satisfying those looking to hear music from across his 40-year career; and so, for those less familiar with Kin (<—>) and Unity Band, there was plenty of music drawn from earlier albums including Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976), Offramp (ECM, 1982), Letter from Home (Nonesuch, 1990) and (ECM, 1980)—even a track from Song X (Nonesuch, 1985), the guitarist's heralded collaboration with free jazz forefather Ornette Coleman—to keep them happy.

As in Stavanger, the show began with Metheny alone, as he continued to make the seemingly unwieldy 42-string Pikasso guitar—designed for him by Linda Manzer from the simple instruction "build me a guitar with as many strings as possible"—look easy, slowly building a piece that took advantage of everything the instrument had to offer, from strummed harp-like strings and resonating sympathetic strings running underneath others to a fretted neck tapped by Metheny's left hand. As ever, it was a way of gently pulling the audience into the guitarist's universe. As Potter, Williams and Sanchez came onstage, Metheny ended with a broad flourish, passing the instrument to his longtime guitar tech Carolyn Chrzan and, as the band began Unity Band's groove-driven "Come and See," picking up the blonde, hollow body Ibanez that would be his main axe for the evening.

After the show, Metheny said ..."the writing...the recording...it all comes down to this," and his 160-minute Centrepointe performance made clear that being onstage with a group of musicians ready, willing and able to do anything he wants—but also capable of pushing him to greater heights and new places—is where he belongs. But with a lifetime of touring that has seen him teamed with jazz legends ranging from Dave Holland and Roy Haynes to Jack DeJohnette, Holland and Herbie Hancock, it now seems that the Unity Band/Group, with whom he has toured since 2012, has finally allowed him to go beyond Pat Metheny Group with a quintet as capable of music that is an extension of PMG's rich cinematics while, at the same time, being more collectively adept at freer, open-ended blowing. While PMG always had pianist Lyle Mays as a writing/improvising foil—and occasional members, like trumpeter Cuong Vu and Richard Bona, were similarly virtuosic—with Unity Band/Group, the guitarist has finally found a group of true equals with whom he can explore his entire discography.

Unity Band was, indeed, more about music as a context for extended soloing while Kin (<—>), with the addition of Carmassi and heavier use of his pneumatic/solenoid-driven Orchestrion, was more about the writing, and Metheny's intermission-free Ottawa set was not unlike that in Stavanger, where he used the Unity Band as an "opening act" for Unity Group. And so, with the quartet, Metheny expanded upon material from Unity Band, adding an incendiary guitar synth solo to that album's "Roof Dogs." But he also took the opportunity of having a saxophonist in the band to revisit both the balladic "The Bat" and folkloric "Folk Song One" from 80/81, in addition to a boisterous look at Song X's "Police People" and the brighter, more joyful "James," first heard on PMG's Offramp but, as revealed by Metheny during one of the rare occasions when he spoke to the audience, originally intended for 80/81.

Technology has long been big part of Metheny's approach to making music, and so when Carmassi came onstage for the Unity Group portion of the show, so, too, was the Orchestrion undraped, its melange of blown bottles, tuned and untuned percussion—even an Orchestrion accordion—becoming truly a sixth member of the band. As much as it added a huge swatch of instrumental parts and colors to the mix, it was a significant visual as well, with lights going off every time a particular instrument was triggered, either by programming or from Metheny's MIDI-connected guitar. From Kin (<—>)'s title track and even more extended "On Day One" to a positively gorgeous look at the balladic "Born" and a surprising performance of "Genealogy"—a brief, through-composed piece on the album lasting just 38 seconds—Metheny demonstrated that PMG may now be inactive, but he's still interested in the kind of textural breadth and epic composing that became such a trademark for that group.

If the Unity Group's Stavanger performance was superb, its Ottawa performance was even better—somehow more relaxed and, paradoxically, energetic. After performing music from Kin (<—>), as in Stavanger Metheny then engaged in a series of duets with his band mates, one at a time. While most of them were the same—"Bright Size Life" with Williams, "Más Allá (Beyond)," from PMG's First Circle (ECM, 1985)—first a solo piano and voice feature for Carmassi but then a duo with Metheny on nylon string acoustic guitar and, finally, a trio with the Orchestrion adding a lovely blown bottle chordal cushion—and his duo with Sanchez, "(Go) Get It," first heard on Trio 99>00 (Warner Bros., 2000) and 2000 Grammy Award winner for "Best Jazz Instrumental Solo"—there were differences as well. Instead of playing Miles Davis's "Solar" with Potter, an unidentified piece provided the context for some unrelenting, high velocity and harmonically expansive in-tandem free play from Potter (on tenor) and Metheny (back on his Ibanez).

Short, but most surprising—and most welcome—was Metheny's use of the fretless classical guitar (made grungy with the addition of copious distortion) that he used with PMG on the title track to Imaginary Day (Warner Bros. 1997), but used here to turn "(Go) Get It" from woody jazz blow-out to hard-edged, raucous and rock-edged excursion. It's an instrument he should pull out of storage more often.

There's little to be said about Potter, Williams, Sanchez and Carmassi that wasn't already said in the review of Unity Group's Stavanger performance, other than they all hit the stage running, and despite a set beautifully constructed in terms of dynamic flow, didn't stop once until they left after the first encore, a version of Offramp's "Are You Going With Me?" that featured Potter on flute. Together with the set-closer Letter from Home's "Have You Heard"—that Metheny turned from solely a guitar feature to another opportunity for Potter to demonstrate why he's one of the most important saxophonists of his generation—it was a strong end to a captivating performance that demonstrated how, at 60, Metheny is clearly a long way from either slowing down or resting on his already considerable laurels.

Metheny returned for a second encore alone, performing a solo acoustic guitar medley of a variety of well-known songs—ranging from "Phase Dance," from Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978), and First Circle's "Praise" to "Minuano (6/8)," from Still Life (Talking) (Nonesuch, 1987), Bright Size Life's "Midwestern Nights Dream," "This is Not America," from his soundtrack to the 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman, and, from his career-defining Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992), the beautiful "Antonia."

It ended the show as it began: Metheny alone onstage, doing what "it all comes down to": putting on a performance that—as has been the case with not just this entire world tour but the guitarist's entire career—reflected his ongoing growth as a composer, performer, bandleader and innovator.

Photo Credit: John R. Fowler

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