Pat Metheny Unity Band
Denver Botanic Gardens
September 7, 2012
By Geoff Anderson
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 September 7th at Denver’s Botanic Gardens.
The Unity Band marks the first time Metheny has had a saxophone in his own band in over 30 years. The last time was when he recorded the album 80/81 with Mike Brecker and Dewey Redman on saxes (and Charlie Haden on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums). Since that time, he has consorted with sax players, but always as a sideman. A few of those appearances include Pursuance with Kenny Garrett, Wish with Dewey’s son Joshua and Tales from the Hudson with Mike Brecker. This time around, he has Chris Potter on saxes (tenor, soprano and bass clarinet). The band is rounded out by Antonio Sanchez on drums and Ben Williams on bass.
It’s now been seven years since the last Pat Metheny Group album (The Way Up). Metheny has always bounced back and forth between the Group and his solo projects of various sorts (like 80/81 for example). This seven year hiatus seems like one of the longest. PMG is by far the most popular Metheny format. Its soaring melodies and accessible rhythms are real crowd pleasers. But the music of PMG is also intricate and, even to hard-core 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, the 80/81 project 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. He has also recorded a number of true solo albums such as New Chautauqua and One Quiet Night. Other albums without the PMG come close to the Group’s sound, such as Secret Story. In other words, there’s no telling what Metheny will come up with next.
The Unity Band, both in concert and on its eponymous album, comes closer to a PMG sound than many 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” from the new album. That was 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 with an introduction by Metheny playing his custom-made Pikasso Harp 42 string guitar. That’s right: 42 strings. He introduced this guitar around the time of the Group’s album Imaginary Voyage in 1997. The guitar has two necks and four sets of strings, some of which criss-cross the body. He 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 guitar. He had at least two of these and they were his primary guitars throughout the evening.
The next tune, “Roofdogs,” was another selection from the new album, and at the same time featured another unique, or at least unusual, Metheny instrument, the synth guitar. This instrument goes back even further, to around the time of the Pat Metheny Group’s album Offramp in 1982. The new tunes continued after that with “New Year,” the lead-off track from the latest album. 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” from the 80/81 album. This version was much shorter than the one on the 32 year old album, but it nonetheless hit the highlights of the song. Next up was the orchestrion piece.
In 2010, Pat Metheny released an album called Orchestrion. Orchestrion is actually an elaborate, automated musical instrument 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, the Orchestrion CD describes the “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, hooked the mechanical instruments into his guitars and stood in the middle of the whole thing and created music not quite like anything heard before.
Many people thought it would be a one-off experiment, interesting, but with no real long-term or practical uses. Wrong. He had a stripped down version of the Orchestrion on stage Friday night. He included the bottle choir, basically a hillbilly pipe organ. Numerous bottles were arranged according to their size and air was automatically blown across the top to create a tone; different size bottles, different tones. He also brought along some percussion features of the Orchestrion for drums and cymbals as well as orchestra bells for additional melodic purposes.
The tune started with Metheny rubbing a cloth up and down the strings of his guitar. It looked like he was cleaning the guitar, but as he stepped on a few foot pedals, the soft scratching began repeating and set up a rhythm. He then started playing some riffs on his guitar which also began repeating. He layered on the loops and then brought in the Orchestrion and started doing the same thing with its various instruments. The rest of the band remained on stage and eventually joined in and created an enormous sound. The Orchestrion had lights for each mallet that struck a bell or a drum or a cymbal or when air blew across the mouth of a particular bottle. This helped in keeping track of what was going on, but it also created a flashing visual display that heightened the intensity of the multiple loops and the live band out front.
After the gigantic sound of the whole band backed by the robot band, Metheny switched to the other extreme and went around the band, playing a duet with each member. The piece with Potter was fast and intricate, sometimes in unison and sometimes diverging. For the duet with Williams, Metheny pulled out yet another 80/81 tune and played “Turnaround,” a song written by Ornette Coleman. Sanchez, as he did all night, didn’t merely provide a beat, but seemed to constantly solo, but not in a bombastic way; rather, he provided a steady undercurrent of polyrhythms.
After a couple more fairly conventional tunes with the full quartet, it was time for the encore. Up to that point, Metheny had visited many points of his past including some of his unusual instruments and nods to past bands and collaborators, but a direct acknowledgement of the Pat Metheny Group had been missing. The encore fixed that. The first song had the whole band, including the Orchestrion, playing “Are You Going With Me,” an ultra laid back tune first heard on Offramp. Next, Metheny grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat down for a wide ranging PMG medley that included “Phase Dancer” (or was it “San Lorenzo” (?) dang instrumentals(!)) from the first PMG album; “Minuano (Six Eight);” “Antonia;” “Last Train Home;” “This is Not America” and others. Metheny brought out the whole band for the final tune, a bossa nova number, which represented yet another musical style.
Even without his most famous ensemble, the Pat Metheny Group and his long-time collaborator in that unit, Lyle Mays, Friday night’s concert turned out to be review of the wide ranging career of one of jazz’s most creative, and restless, figures.