Saturday, October 06, 2012

These Guys Were Unified, To Say the Least

Ever since the announcement of Pat Metheny's latest project, the Unity Band (with saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and longtime Metheny sideman Antonio Sanchez on drums), expectations have run high. The release of the group's debut recording this summer certainly lived up to expectations, but the true icing on the cake would be seeing the band in live performance, and those of us in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area had that opportunity last night at the House of Blues.

I hadn't gotten to see Pat live since March of '08, when even a late snowfall couldn't keep me from making it to Bass Hall in Ft. Worth to catch his newest trio (featuring bassist Christian McBride and Sanchez on drums). As I wrote then,
When Pat Metheny plays his hollow-body guitar, it's as if all is right with the world. His sound is immediately recognizable, and it projects a warmth and optimism like no other (as I've said before, it's reflective of his Midwest upbringing--like a drive through the country on a perfect Sunday afternoon).
And just like last time, the show started with Pat alone onstage, playing his unusual 42-string Pikasso guitar (and getting all kinds of cool sounds from same). As the rest of the guys entered the stage, the unusual four-necked instrument was also used on the opener, "Come and See." The show was off and running, and from that point, we were in for two hours of wonderful music.

As might be expected from a band with a single recording under its belt, the vast majority of tunes came from that album...but as might be expected at a Metheny show, the man has a vast back catalog, and he's not shy about rearranging things from Pat Metheny Group records, his solo work, or even collaboration with other artists in new and interesting ways. So it almost wasn't a surprise when, around halfway through the show, the band broke out with the classic tune "James," from 1982's Offramp. Though originally recorded with a piano and no saxophone, it sounded fresh and completely natural in this new version.

One personal highlight of the night was when some large cabinets in the back, virtually unnoticeable if one wasn't looking for them, were unveiled, revealing them to be a small part of the Orchestrion that was used on the 2010 album and tour of the same name--one of the few times I've had to miss him on tour. It was very enjoyable getting to see this thing in action; as I said, it was a scaled-down version of the instrument (which uses Pat's guitar to trigger various keyboard sounds and percussion instruments), but it was amazing to watch it in action (and I really liked the flashing lights that went off whenever a certain instrument made a sound). While one piece on the new CD utilized the orchestrion, it was a pleasant surprise to see it at this show.

Another highlight would follow, as Pat took the time to play duets with each of his bandmates. For Potter, it was Miles Davis' "Solar" with both of them soloing at breakneck speed. Williams joined the guitarist for a lively rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround," and I'm not sure of the title of the duet with Sanchez--who's always tasty and very fun to watch--but it was definitely fast and furious.

The main portion of the concert ended with the foursome's one recorded tune that was worthy of doing so--the album's closer, "Breakdealer." But pretty much everyone in attendance knew that the show wasn't done. I was trying to figure out what in the back catalog might serve as an encore; "The First Circle" was out, but I wondered if something even older like "Are You Going With Me?" was in the cards.  Sure enough, they fired up the orchestrion and had at it, with Potter getting a nice turn on alto flute.

Still, the audience clamored for more, and Pat happily obliged, returning to the stage for a solo acoustic number. As the beginning lines of "Phase Dance" from the PMG's debut album started to ring out, I was happy...even as it started to morph into a not-6/8 version of "Minuano." He gave us a few more tunes in that manner--the closest he'll ever come to a "greatest hits' medley," no doubt--and concluded the show to raucous applause.

My only quibble all evening was that Chris Potter was so low in the mix--in marked contrast to the recording, where he's quite up front. I've heard that the same thing happened in Austin the night before, so it wasn't just a "the rock guys at House of Blues don't know how to mic a jazz band" thing. Still, even that couldn't mar a stellar performance by four amazing musicians--all leaders in their own right (even relative newcomer Williams released his Concord Jazz debut in 2011)--who came together as one during a most memorable evening. I can't wait for the sequel...

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