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.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Sightreading

(This is almost certainly a "rerun," as I'm reasonably sure that a kid has said something like this in the past.) 

We do a lot of sightreading in lessons after Solo and Ensemble, and I always emphasize the importance of checking the key signature--but sometimes after the fact...

KID: (misses key signature notes in the first measure of the piece)
ME: What's the first rule of sightreading?
KID: Don't mess up?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Musical Forms

I do a lot of sightreading after Solo and Ensemble, and several of the kids have been reading a piece that's written in the form of a canon...

ME: Do you know what a canon is, with only one N in the middle?
KID: It's a camera!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Hypothetical Situations

It's Solo & Ensemble week for my 7th and 8th graders, so the emphasis is on "practicing performing"--doing run-throughs of their solos without stopping...

ME: So this time, I want you to keep going no matter what happens, just like you'll do on Saturday. The only reason you would stop on Saturday is if you stopped breathing--which would of course be sad--or unless the judge stopped breathing and you went over to administer CPR.
KID: No mouth...
ME: Totally understandable.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Cartoon Characters

I was working with a kid who hadn't gotten to play for a little while and was of course a little rusty...

ME: I know you're just getting back into the swing of things, so I'm not expecting you to have this whole assignment ready for me today.
KID: That's good, because I might have to call you the Grinch if you did.
ME: No, I'm not the Grinch. But here's a piece of trivia for you: Remember the song, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"? The guy who sang that is the same person who did the voice of Tony the Tiger.
KID: Who?
ME: The mascot for Frosted Flakes. He's in all the commercials. He always says, "They're GrrrrrrrEAT!"
KID: Oh, that tiger guy? I didn't know his name.

(And if you're into extreme trivia, the tiger's voice artist had a great name: Thurl Ravenscroft.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tourists Say the Darnedest Things?

SAN ANTONIO--I'm here for my annual trip to the TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association) convention. After I finished talking some shop with a colleague who disembarked on a lower floor, an older couple in the hotel elevator asked me, "Is there some sort of band competition going on this weekend?"

I tried to explain (in a mere three floors' worth of elevator ride) how TMEA was a lot more than just "some sort of band competition" and how it was attended by most of the music educators in Texas and even from other states.

LADY: So they do what--they practice?
ME: Yes, the all-state groups rehearse, but there are also clinics, concerts, exhibits, things like that. We probably have around 10,000 people here.
LADY: I believe that; I think we've seen most of them.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Older Musicians

When my students start learning about jazz, usually in 8th or 9th grade, we play out of a series of books by the great Lennie Niehaus. The books were written in the '60s, which is evident by its unusual cover art, which I often refer to as "psychedelic zebra stripes."

ME: But even though the cover looks funny, Niehaus is a wonderful saxophonist and composer. He's in his mid-80s and still plays, so far as I know.
KID: He still plays at that age? Wow, I wouldn't have any air left!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Contest Judges Say the Darnedest Things

Here's what one wrote on a student's comment sheet from last Saturday's Solo & Ensemble Contest: "Make it more seamless like you are verbally speaking."

I guess that makes sense; what in the world would the saxophone sound like if the kid made it like he was non-verbally speaking?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Themselves

I was greeted in a most unusual manner by this particular beginner...

KID: Guess what--I grew two inches since the last time you saw me!
ME: That was just two weeks ago. You really grew two inches in two weeks?
KID: Yeah--I'm wearing boots!