I don’t intend for this to be an “anything goes” type of blog, and I don’t really feel qualified to do reviews of art, but I do feel the need to say something — even if brief — about this. I had the distinct privilege of seeing Pat’s latest band, dubbed the Pat Metheny Unity Group, live last week, and boy…what a show. What I got to witness that night were guys who are all at the top of their game. This was also one of the few times that I went to a show of his without having heard the new record that he was touring in support of, which actually turned out to be a fun experience. I really had no idea what to expect, and I was in no way disappointed.
The thing that struck me both during and after the show is that even though this is not the PMG as we have previously known them, there are a lot of striking parallels. It’s almost like we are witnessing the birth of PMG Part II. The addition of keyboardist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi to what was the Unity Band quartet of last year definitely makes this feel more like the old Group we know and love: piano solos, wordless vocals, synths, and lush orchestration are all present and accounted for. But in a way, this new musical setting goes above and beyond the old, thanks to the presence of the orchestrion in the mix. The orchestrion came to be after the last record bearing the “Pat Metheny Group” name was released, so it has never had the chance to join the original group on-stage, but how Pat is using it in this new context is not entirely unprecedented: it seems to me that he’s using it with this group in much the same way that synthesizers have always been used in the context of the PMG for almost its entire existence. Pat has always loved experimenting with new sonic possibilities, and his use of synthesizers has (arguably) never been gratuitous, and was certainly never about trying to replace or find acceptable substitutes for traditional instrumentation. Lyle never played synths “instead of” carting his Steinway around with him, and Pat never played the Roland “instead of” acoustic or electric guitar, or “instead of” calling for an actual trumpet in his compositions — he wouldn’t have brought guys like Ledford or Vu on board if that was his goal. It’s always been about finding and using the right tool for a given job…the instrument in service to the music.
This orchestrion is something that was not possible technologically-speaking until relatively recently, and it is serving much the same function that synths have always served in the context of Pat’s larger, orchestrated band projects. That’s not to say that it will replace the use of synthesizers for him, but it does give him yet one more tool in his musical toolbox. It was very telling, I think, that this time around, over the course of the entire 3 hour (!) show, Pat never did a solo with just the orchestrion accompanying him. It was never the main attraction, front-and-center, drawing attention to itself. Rather, the orchestrion was folded into this quintet subtly and tastefully. Much like with the Synclavier before it, it has taken Metheny a little while to explore this new tool of his and to figure out what it is capable of, what its limitations are, and how he can use it in the context of an ensemble, but now I think we are really beginning to see the fruits of that. This is Pat’s second act in a sense, and I can’t wait to see where he takes it from here.
The new stuff was definitely a highlight of the concert, and “the new stuff” is what I always look forward to hearing the most whenever I go to one of his concerts, but there were also a few very nice surprises for long-time fans mixed into the playlist that night. I was honestly surprised at my own reaction to hearing some of these songs played live again, and I’m sure the emotional intensity of the moment for me was in part due to the fact that I wasn’t expecting any of it. Before diving into the new material, they played a few songs from the Unity Band record, including Roofdogs, which is just absolutely *killer* live. (Chris Potter is really something else.) At one point, they played a really great version of James. Metheny broke out Jobim’s How Insensitive again as a vehicle for showing off bassist Ben Williams, who played it with Pat as a duet. And then they officially ended the show with Have You Heard. Needless to say, that brought the house down. The encore piece was Are You Going With Me?, followed by a second standing ovation. The second encore piece (!!!!) was an amazing solo medley of past Metheny tunes (I counted 7) on the acoustic. It was a love letter to his fans. Absolutely sublime.
If the Pat Metheny Unity Group passes through your area, you need to go. This is not a tour to be missed.