Saturday, February 22, 2014

Meet the New Group. Not the Same As the Old Group, But Equally Amazing

One of my favorite bands of all time, the Pat Metheny Group, hasn't toured since 2005, after the release of "The Way Up," the album-length composition by Metheny and longtime collaborator Lyle Mays. Since then, Metheny has done a few other projects, including a trio with bassist Christian McBride and PMG drummer Antonio Sanchez, a solo recording with an Orchestrion (a machine that plays a variety of instruments--in this case pianos, marimbas, orchestra bells drums, cymbals, and blown bottles, among other things), and the Pat Metheny Unity Band, a collaboration with saxophone titan Chris Potter, up-and-coming young bassist Ben Williams, and Sanchez. The latter group came to the House of Blues in Dallas in the fall of 2012, and you'd better believe I was in attendance.

Though rumors of a PMG revival had floated around in recent years, a couple of things changed: According to a post on the Metheny website that I can't locate at the moment, longtime collaborator Lyle Mays is evidently enjoying semi-retirement, while bassist/producer Steve Rodby is kept busy by numerous projects. And during the Unity Band tour, the guys realized that they wanted to keep the band going, but with a different twist: The ability to play nearly anything from the PMG repertoire, along with the Orchestrion music. And thus was born the Pat Metheny Unity Group--the four members of the Unity Band, plus Italian musician Giulio Carmassi, who not only does the heavy lifting of playing piano and contributing the trademark soaring vocals, but also adds eight other instruments. The new recording, "Kin (<-->)," dropped just a few weeks ago, and it certainly evokes the classic PMG sound, enhanced by Potter's woodwind artistry and an increased role for the Orchestrion. The epic-length compositions, the cinematic qualities of the music...the classic sound was back, but in a new way.

The Group's inaugural tour brought it back to the House of Blues last night, and anticipation was running high: How deeply would they dip back into the PMG catalogue? Would we really get to hear Chris Potter soloing on The First Circle or Minuano? But more than anything, the anticipation of hearing the large-group magic once again was surely on my mind, and likely those of others as well.
The concert started--almost exactly on time--with a solo turn from Metheny on his specially-built, 42-string Pikasso guitar (a tradition that dates back to the Trio tour, if I'm remembering correctly), and then he was joined onstage by Potter, Williams and Sanchez; they proceeded to play a number of tunes from the original Unity Band recording. The sound problems that had plagued the 2012 appearance were not apparent this time--Potter came through loud and clear, which was not the case at the earlier show--and the musicianship of all four players was of course outstanding.

But something seemed out of place: Where was Carmassi? And where was the new music? As much as I was loving this, it appeared to be almost a repeat of the last show.  And then it hit me: They must be serving as an opening act for themselves! A quick review of the old material, and then they'll bring Carmassi onstage and start the new music?  OK, I could see that...

And this was precisely what took place as Metheny came to the mic for the first time: The Unity Band was "opening" for the Unity Group. Carmassi was introduced, and the group proceeded to play several numbers from the new disc, which amounted to a fairly substantial set, seeing as how the opening three tunes all clock in at over ten minutes apiece. Carmassi's vocals, the various sounds of the Orchestrion (from our vantage point this time, it was easier to see the keyboard percussion being "played" by the machine)...this was indeed the classic sound, done with new twists.

The rest of the band got some break time as Metheny played duets with each of them in turn, whether it was standards (raising the roof with "All the Things You Are" with Potter; a heartfelt but energetic take on Jobim's "insensatez" with Williams) or originals (Carmassi channeling the great Pedro Aznar on "Dream of the Return") and a wild romp with Sanchez, who got to blow things wide open on his solo turn. Yet Metheny--a ball of energy as he approaches his 60th birthday--remained onstage the entire time, moving tirelessly from one tune to the next.

After another tune from the new album, Metheny announced that there would be one tune left--which in this case meant one more tune until the encore(s) would begin. For this, they did indeed reach back into the PMG oeuvre for a masterful version of "Have You Heard" (I might have been among those who let out a whoop upon hearing the opening measures of this one).

But of course, the show wasn't over. Returning quickly for an encore, the group launched into another PMG classic, "Are You Going With Me?" The lengthy tune has a brief, simple melody (doubled wonderfully here by Potter on flute), but mostly exists as a relaxed groove that serves as a vehicle for an extended Metheny solo on his synth guitar that builds to a frenzy as the piece modulates upward several times, and this performance showed that a song that's over three decades old can still be amazingly fresh in these hands.

The band left the stage again, after a rousing ovation. So was that the end? Well, yes, for everyone except Pat, who closed the show as it had begun, alone onstage with his guitar, mashing up several of his well-known tunes (including "Minuano" and "Last Train Home") that hadn't made it into the set tonight.

So for those of us who loved the new energy of the Unity Band but missed the PMG repertoire, the Unity Group is the best of both worlds. Having Potter in the group not only recalls the great Metheny collaborations with Michael Brecker (on the latter's solo recordings and Pat's own "80-81"), but also adds a number of colors to the group (tenor and soprano saxes, bass clarinet, flute and bass flute); in addition, Potter, while already a young titan in his own right, seems to have been positively influenced by his work with Metheny, as his soloing style has evolved to fit this setting. Williams is a great new talent on bass, combining solid lines, jaw-dropping solo prowess (including some great arco moments) and a beautiful sound on the instrument. Carmassi provides the necessary elements of piano and vocals in fine fashion (and I'd love to hear him play some of his other instruments live), and Sanchez is as masterful as ever, providing the cymbalistic underpinnings that drive so much of the Metheny sound, yet given lots of freedom to crackle with energy when the music calls for it. And the leader himself, perpetually young, continues to be among not only one of the finest guitarists in jazz, but one of its finest improvisers and writers. I mentioned the cinematic nature of his large-form compositions, and so many of them have provided a major portion of the soundtrack of my own life.

I certainly hope for more from this group in the future, and you'd better believe I'll be there when they return. Check them out if the tour is coming to your area.


Anonymous said...

Really nice review; thanks! Can't wait to see them tonight in Los Angeles.

Kev said...

Thanks! Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Feel free to leave some thoughts here when you get back.