Pat Metheny Unity Band
September 28, 2012
Pat Metheny is an incredibly accomplished guitarist. He has had to clear mantle space for 18 Grammys during his nearly 40-year career. Not just academies, but people love this man. Lots of people. I can't really say I'm one of them. Last night, before an ecstatic crowd of middle aged men and their lady friends, Pat Metheny's quartet worked through a set that lasted over two hours and included three encores.
I bookended my week with the Pat Metheny Unity Band, catching them on Monday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. It was not something I intended and it is not something I plan to do again anytime soon. Metheny deals in a strange sort of fusion jazz. Swing is of limited importance and note counts seem to dominate every solo. Challenge me to sing back a melody and I would lose that wager.
In between these two sets I happened to catch Metheny's drummer Antonio Sanchez and saxophonist Chris Potter in a more free jazz setting at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo and had a completely opposite experience. The two played with an unmatched ferocity with Sanchez turning the house drum kit into a smoldering pile of rubble. In Metheny's hands that rubble is polished into shiny stones and then slathered in a gearhead's wet dream.
By the end of the first three songs of Friday's set, Metheny had already played four different guitars. He opened alone with a 42-string Pikasso guitar, strumming in every direction while supplying his own bass line, evoking a spa-like tranquility. His band, which also included bassist Ben Williams, soon joined him.
They mostly worked through tunes from their recent release, Unity Band, with Metheny giving ample solo space to his tight ensemble. Although lacking in soulfulness or modest tempos, this band can play through anything but always in deference to their large-haired leader.
Several times this summer, in the wee hours of the morning, I have heard a pack of coyotes chase something small and frightened up a tree near my apartment. They make a jarring and terrifying howl that seethes with uncontrollable lust and leaves me wide-eyed in the dark. Metheny's Roland G-303 Guitar Synthesizer controller strikes a similar tone and leaves me feeling equally uncomfortable. Metheny turned to this guitar several times and he seemed capable of playing more notes on this machine than any of the other guitars on his rack.
Halfway through the set, Metheny unveiled his true mad scientist machine: the Orchestrion. The Orchestrion is a one-man band consisting of an accordion, a glockenspiel, various cymbals and a series of tuned bottles. He mans the system from his guitar as lights highlight where each instrument is being played behind them. It is a bit like the Old Spice Muscle Music filtered through the 8-bit mind of Johnny Five. The band plays along with Metheny and his machine, doubling the size and sound of the group. When the curtains were stripped off of the machines several people applauded in recognition of the beast.
The band then took turns dueting with Metheny which was a pleasant break from the assault. Metheny strayed slightly from his barrage and leaned into a sort of Joe Pass vein, outright swinging alongside Williams who offered his own Ray Brown-like chops on a crisp blues.
The group then closed the show four times. The audience provided a standing ovation every time with Metheny returning once for a smooth solo and then with the entire band.
A week of Metheny has not turned me into a convert. I respect his ability on the guitar but yearn for a warmth and simplicity that few around me seemed interested in. I'll wait for when Ahmad Jamal comes in November. Hopefully I won't be alone.
Personal Bias: I know what it is like to spend window-less afternoons in a Berklee practice room.
The Crowd: Couples who remember when Metheny only had a half-dozen Grammys.
Random Notebook Dump: I have never seen such a busy merch table at a jazz gig.