For three decades guitarist Pat Metheny has been producing music in varying styles, but almost always of intelligence and beauty and vigor. He initially made his name with Fusion (so much so that his “Phase Dance” from 1978’s Pat Metheny Group is a paradigm for 70s fusion). Over the years he’s ventured into Americana, solo work so outgoing that one is tempted to call it exprovisation, synthesizer distorted guitar sounds, Brazilian music, and work “classical” enough to be deemed “chamber jazz.” Metheny’s “bright, clear, ringing” guitar sound has distinguished almost all his work throughout the years.
Metheny has often found inspiration and challenge—and thus often made his best, most memorable music—when paired with another musician of his caliber (early on were his repeated collaborations with Lyle Mays, but since then he’s done stellar work with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Charlie Haden).
On his new release, Unity Band, Metheny plays with a quartet featuring another from among his small group of musical peers, South Carolina saxophonist Chris Potter (whose solo and group career ranges from participation in the Mingus Big Band to original compositions of startling variety) and once again this pairing raises Metheny’s game to great heights.
Let me make it clear that I think Unity Band is an uneven and unfocused effort (from the “Spanish” style opening of the first track “New Year” to the “random industrial atonal” mode of “Signals”) there is no one “sound” here. Though the personnel remain constant throughout the nine tracks, this is much more of a collection of recordings than a “date” in which a band works varied materials in a systematic or coherent way. In places the songs seem quite familiarly to adhere to the conventions of group improvisation, but in others they seem to follow the “additive” patterns of minimalism, and in yet others the “call and response” of hymns prevails. If some of the songs can be heard as exhortations to pleasure, then surely others must be called more contemplative (though perhaps they contemplate a fiery inner world more than a calm, peaceful realm).
Having acknowledged the disparate nature of the tracks, I’m struck by their continuing presence my mind’s ear; if I hit Pause after any of these tracks, rather than hearing the tune play over again in my head, I seem to hear it going on, expanding, morphing—I wonder even what one tune might sound like in the “mode” of one of the other tracks. The sound doesn’t so much stick in my head as plant a seed there, take root, and grow.
There is much beauty and pleasure here and I do recommend the recording, but (perhaps quite greedily) would have preferred a box set of four or five CDs by this band—one in each of the modes that passes too quickly by on Unity Band.
[In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I very slightly know Pat. We were in college together and one of my apartment-mates was a jazz major and Pat and I had a number of mutual friends. Several years ago when he was making an in store appearance at J & R Music World in New York, I stopped by to see him and get a CD signed. I was put in my place when speaking to him as he remembered my apartment-mate, remembered our mutual friends, even remembered being at a party in my apartment, but didn’t remember me. I also share a birthday with Chris Potter, but I can perhaps be forgiven that.]