Thursday, July 5, 2012

New Life: Pat Metheny Unity Band

Named after a small church near his hometown in Missouri, guitarist Pat Metheny’s new recording, Pat Metheny Unity Band (Nonesuch 2012), offers jazz fans a welcome change in musical direction for one of the most popular musicians in the world today. With all new compositions and a new band to play them (Chris Potter, Antonio Sanchez and Ben Williams), this quartet, whose playing time has been relatively short, the Unity Band sounds remarkably fresh, innovative and tight. (The band was formed this past winter to record this album.) The collective experience of each member has clearly lifted the whole group and while their debut album isn't particularly stellar, it captures a band that can only get better with time.

Thirty years ago Metheny released an album simply titled 80/81 (ECM, 1982) featuring veteran tenor sax man Dewey Redman, father of the very talented Joshua Redman, and the late Michael Brecker. That record explored Metheny’s interest in a traditional jazz quartet of bass, drums, guitar and saxophone. To Metheny, it was always a musical choice to play outside the traditional quartet setting. Consequently, the instrumentation of most of his groups since then has not featured a horn player on the front line. The difference this time was the addition of horn player Chris Potter. Potter has led his own bands over the years but has been particularly good with Dave Holland’s small groups for the past ten. On this record he brings everything to the music with solid playing on every cut, especially “Breakdealer,” which closes the album. But like any jazz recording that captures a moment in time, in this case February of 2012 when it was laid down, as the band tours and continues to play, the music will definitely get better. Metheny certainly knows how to pick ‘em!

Pat Metheny Unity Band  opens gracefully with a composition called “New Year.” Its Spanish influences are enhanced by Metheny’s nylon acoustic guitar accompaniment suggesting a simple idea that opens the musical doors for Potter to improvise freely. I was immediately struck by the relaxed nature of the track and cohesive sound of the ensemble. By opening the album with this song, Metheny eases the listener into the music and the new sounds of the band. The second track is basically the flip side. “Roofdogs” cracks the speakers with a more aggressive sound typical of Metheny’s “electric” records. I’ve never doubted Metheny’s ability to understand the timbre of his instruments and how he uses them. In other words, the sound of his guitar is not only distinctive but also distinguished. (An acoustic guitar is often plucked while an electric is often played with a pick.)

the Pat Metheny Unity Band

“Come and See” offers a funky bass line from Ben Williams, winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk competition. His combined talent of technique and melodious playing suits the music by offering a solid bottom end that frees drummer Antonio Sanchez. It’s a great complement to Metheny to put a rhythm section together that works so well. As for Chris Potter, who also plays bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, Metheny’s compositions seem to work well on the record although some cuts seem contrived to my ears, namely “Interval Waltz,” whose melody sounds more like a work in progress than a finished composition. But for the most part, everything works on the Pat Metheny Unity Band. And the prospect for future recordings is bright.

Pat Metheny’s Unity Band is on tour in Europe this summer with dates booked for North America in the fall.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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