As the one of the guitar world’s high priests, and most generously hirsute at a very healthy looking 57, Pat Metheny remains a huge draw on the live circuit and one of the most consistently compelling soloists on the planet. Yet the guitarist’s career has zigzagged of late in what seems like a post-Pat Metheny Group era, the long-running unit seemingly shelved in favour of his impressive but slightly unnerving Orchestrion project, while he’s explored the freedoms of the trio setting on several tours (although never appearing in the UK) with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez.
Thus, making their London debut here, the Unity Band – featuring the jaw-dropping sax playing of Chris Potter and the fluid brilliance of young bassist Ben Williams and powerful drumming of Sanchez – is a chance for Metheny to explore the full range of his polymath tendencies be they a solo acoustic guitar intro on both six string and 42-string Picasso guitar, full-bore high-tempo blowing alongside Potter, and yes a down-sized Orchestrion. Where all this places Pat artistically today was hardly a concern once Metheny’s oriental Picasso guitar sojourns dovetailed into Potter’s bass clarinet and the arrival of Williams and Sanchez kick started the group fireworks. Metheny’s solos remain a thing of wonder: melodic at any tempo and packed with fresh ideas, his fertile imagination and phenomenal technique show no signs of flagging.
Yet when you’re sharing the stage with Chris Potter you have to step up. For every hoop-leaping fretboard explosion Metheny could muster, the saxophonist repeatedly produced solos rich in melodic invention, winding up to stratospheric speeds. Potter is often cited as the natural successor to the sorely missed Michael Brecker, but on this showing he’s more than shaping his own distinctive style and sound.
Metheny was doubtless enjoying these high-energy moments, pushing Potter to new highs each time, with bass and drums perfectly simpatico to the collective cause. The Orchestrion was unveiled, quite literally from behind three strategically placed black curtains, as Metheny began a fractured string scraping guitar loop, before chiming vibes, accordion and timpani began to sound, all triggered via his guitar and some invisible computer wizardry. The band soon joined this multi-part mêlée and while the technology is dazzling in its flexibility, and Metheny’s mastery of re-setting the tempo on the fly was seamless, its presence seemed to stifle some of that ecstatic earlier energy.
No doubt conscious of this slightly over the top technical exercise Metheny followed this with three duets with his band mates – duelling in spectacular style with Potter on ‘All The Things You Are’, breaking out the blues with Williams and finishing with the fast and furious ‘Go Get It’ with Sanchez. Metheny remains one of the all time greats and the Unity Band, while unifying the many creative strands of his career so far, ultimately provides him with total freedom, wherever he feels like going today.
– Mike Flynn
Photos: Roger Thomas