For 40 years, Pat Metheny has been chasing an ephemeral muse. A jazz musician, both at heart and in capability, Metheny has unfailingly pushed the jazz envelope as a composer, freely bringing in elements of various musics not traditionally considered grist for the jazz mill, among them folk, world music and progressive music of various stripes.
Because of this, Metheny has often been referred to as a “fusion” artist, but any pejorative sense of that term has always been an ill fit for Metheny. Unlike the majority of his peers, who have fostered a neo-traditionalism – an impressive, virtuosic and inspired nostalgia for the golden years of early jazz, bebop, and post-bop, but a nostalgia, nonetheless – Metheny has repeatedly insisted that jazz remain, as it was during its major periods of influence, open to change, growth and new challenges.
On Wednesday, Metheny brought his latest project, the Unity Band, to UB’s Center for the Arts. Throughout the course of a nearly three-hour show, Metheny presented a tour through his broad imagination, along the way celebrating the entire spectrum of his canon, from the individual, folk-based pieces represented on albums like “Watercolors” and “New Chautauqua,” to the finely detailed, progressive leanings of Pat Metheny Group efforts like “Still Life (Talking)” and “First Circle.”
The full house responded with consistent enthusiasm, offering numerous standing ovations, and demanding three encores before allowing Metheny to leave the stage.
He had help. Considerable help.
Saxophonist Chris Potter has earned his reputation as one of the finest jazz saxophonists currently working – his album “The Sirens” was certainly one of the finest jazz recordings of last year – and his role as Metheny’s main foil in first the Unity Band, and now, the Unity Group, has considerably elevated the level of onstage interplay. Potter played beautifully throughout Wednesday’s show, whether sparring with Metheny on a high-octane duo interpretation of the standard “All the Things You Are” or switching to flute for a simply transcendent take on the ethereal set-closer “Are You Going With Me?”. Some might argue that he was the finest soloist on stage Wednesday, but this being music, and not sports, concepts like “best” don’t carry much weight. Suffice to say Potter was right at home in this heady virtuosic mix.
Metheny has been working with drummer Antonio Sanchez for several years now, and what comes across as a nearly telepathic interplay between the two musicians served as bedrock for Wednesday’s set. When the pair offered a duo version of “(Go) Get It,” that high level of musicianly interplay was amply evident.
Bassist Ben Williams stuck to the acoustic upright for most of the evening, and his solos were heart-rendingly lyrical. Williams underplayed throughout, and in so doing, provided a welcome counterpoint to the often furiously virtuosic soloing of Metheny and Potter. Metheny and Williams performed “Bright Size Life” as a duo, and this was a high point, its subtlety and surprisingly spontaneous feel earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
Giulio Carmassi arrived a few songs into the set to provide piano, subtle synth strings and wordless vocals to the proceedings, and his presence lent a lush beauty to the Unity Band’s sound. “Dream of the Return,” from the Metheny Group album “Letter From Home,” served as a showcase for Carmassi.
Much of the set list was culled form the Unity Group’s recently released “Kin” album, and it was clear that this was the material that the band members were most excited about. After opening with the trio of “Come And See,” “Roofdogs,” and “New Year,” from the 2012 “Unity Band” album, Metheny steered the group through a dense chunk of the “Kin” album, starting with the title track, and running through “Rise Up,” “Born” and “We Go On,” all of which featured inspired group interplay and face-melting soloing.
Metheny and the band closed with “First Circle,” and then returned with the several encores. A persistent crowd in standing ovation mode brought Metheny back for a solo acoustic farewell, which found him hunched over his acoustic guitar, eyes clenched shut, creating a medley in real time of some of his most treasured melodies, among them “Minuano (Six Eight)” and “Last Train Home.”
There is a wistful beauty in Metheny’s writing, and with the Unity Group, he has found an ensemble voice able to share that beauty while simultaneously making their own mark on the music. Wednesday’s show was as good as modern jazz gets. That said, calling it jazz seems somehow reductive, as if it doesn’t quite cover it.