“We’ve all had cool gigs in Schenectady,” guitarist Pat Metheny said when he first addressed the crowd. After making the album Unity Band in 2012 with saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez, and bassist Ben Williams, Metheney said, they “had so much fun touring that we signed up for another round.”
“We’re kind of like our own opening band,” Metheny said after the quartet finished playing a set of music representative of the first album. He explained the distinction between the Unity Band, and the Unity Group that features Italian multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi, as well as many other surprises. As the direction that the group was going became clear to Metheny, he was able to tailor the compositions on the new album Kin to further explore that trajectory.
Metheny said we would get to see “some crazy things” happen in the second half, and he was right. This wasn’t just because of the individuals themselves, but all the musical machinery that also became a part of the overall performance. Like Metheny’s Orchestrion project, the Unity Group also used robotic elements like a vibraphone that played itself, cymbals that played themselves, and what looked like two dressers full of glass bottles that played themselves via wind blown over the openings like you might do with a beer bottle. All those bottles gave a kind of wind organ sound and contained LEDs so that they would light in such a way that you could actually see the chords change.
The contour of the evening was carefully plotted for ups and downs, as the night started off soft with Metheny as the only artist on stage strumming on his Pikasso guitar—an instrument with sympathetic strings like a sitar to give it an Eastern sound. Potter complemented the sound with his wailing bass clarinet, but spent most of the rest of the evening on tenor and soprano sax. He also showed off his own guitar skills when he and Metheny both strummed acoustic guitars to open the tune “Rise Up,” which features Sanchez playing a cajon. Metheny played that unusual instrument to start the night and worked his way through electric hollow-body guitar for the more traditional (if you could even use that word) jazz sounds, and also used his MIDI guitar for some soaring swoops of color, as well as classical acoustic guitar for some mellower hues.
Metheny also changed up the pace by doing duos with every member of the Unity Group before sending off the night with an all-in, no-holds-barred full-band excursion. In fact, the only standard jazz tune of the evening was “All the Things You Are,” played as a duo with Potter.
It seems to be Metheny’s vision to give you everything. It’s not enough for him to simply have a “jazz quartet” that plays tunes. No, these compositions are episodically developed. Each of these musicians as soloists are also acting with a compositional ear toward improvisation. Use of space, development of ideas, melody, and even beautiful tone production all factor in to some of the shared sensibilities of the members of the Unity Group.
This was not just a night of pure entertainment. Yes, it was entertaining, but it was also a challenge to everyone in the audience of nearly a thousand. In total, the performance ran nearly three hours without any significant breaks, except for a standing ovation after nearly every piece. In this way, Metheny’s music has become symphonic, each piece a journey that beckons you along and elicits emotional responses from a wide swath of his audience.