LIVE: Pat Metheny Unity Group @ Proctors, 3/20/14
Review by J Hunter
In one way, it’s no big whup that photographs were forbidden during Pat Metheny’s latest visit to the Capital Region. Aside from a little silver amongst the long wavy straw that’s always been Metheny’s hair, he’s still pretty much the same – same long-sleeved t-shirt, same jeans, same “Aww, C’MON! Is that applause for ME?” grin that wins you over before he plays a single note. And those same phenomenal guitar skills that have kept him at the forefront of the throngs that play his instrument. And it’s not like either Metheny or his primary partners on this gig (reed wizard Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez) work at being some kind of visual feast: They just show up in street clothes and blow the doors off the joint, and they did that over the course of a masterful two-hours-plus performance. If we’re to believe Metheny’s comments about this group, which first surfaced on Metheny’s 2012 Nonesuch release Unity Band, they’re going to be together for a while. And that is a beautiful thing.
No, the only reason I’m sorry there are no photos of this show is that those who didn’t attend won’t get to see the technological monstrosity that crowded most of the stage and literally forced multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Giulio Carmassi into the background, both physically and musically. It’s called the Orchestrion, and it’s an invention of Metheny’s that was inspired by his grandfather’s player piano. We’re talking a multitude of instruments – from keyboards, orchestral bells and vibes to single cymbals, blown bottles and an accordion – linked by computers so they’ll “expand” whatever music Metheny and his cohorts choose to play. It has video screens that play cinematic scenes that are either designed to enhance the images we are supposed to envision while the music plays, or they are a visual expression of the Orchestrion’s “mind.” Either way, the Orchestrion is visual as well as audio – but it ain’t no feast!
The good news is the Orchestrion only did its thing when the band played selections from the group’s latest release Kin; the bad news is that meant we had to deal with it for (in Metheny’s words) “an extended selection” from that disc that took up most of the regular set. Quick clarification: Although much of it was a chore (for me, anyway), we’re not talking root canal here. In many ways, the new music is a logical extension from what Unity Band gave us, despite Metheny saying he wanted to do “a whole new album.” The music is definitely larger, and when paired with Carmassi’s soaring vocals, the result has more than a whiff of the late-era Pat Metheny Group’s output, but it firmly pushes the boundaries Unity Band did. God knows the Kin section’s “analog output” was off the charts. Potter is one of the few primary soloists who can match Metheny’s energy and creativity volt for volt, and he did that on a variety of instruments, including guitar; meanwhile, Williams and Sanchez were just as big and bad and bodacious here as they were in separate performances at last year’s “Jazz at the Lake.”
Put simply, there are few jazz outfits on the scene today that kick ass and take names like (again, in Metheny’s words) the “Unity Group.” The opening portion of the show – heavy with excerpts from Unity Band – was absolutely phenomenal, from Metheny’s hushed solo-acoustic opening of “Come and See” to the breakneck version of the ’80s-era PMG track “James.” My favorite part of that section was the volcanic “Roof Dogs,” which had Potter creating a dynamite harmonic on soprano sax with Metheny’s synthesized guitar lines. A set of acoustic duets was a much-needed reprieve from the Orchestrion, and although Metheny’s act-and-react improvs with Potter and Sanchez were sensational, it was Metheny & Williams’ killer reboot of the title track from Metheny’s 1975 debut Bright Size Life that left me speechless.
In the end, though, Metheny’s musical Frankenstein loomed over the proceedings, even when it wasn’t playing – and when it was, it drew your eyes away from the music that the ACTUAL musicians were creating at the front of the stage. Yes, yes, “It’s new technology,” and “You can’t stop progress…” and all that happy horseshit. But to my mind, this was no different than playing to a pre-recorded backing track, and that shit was deemed verboten a long time ago. If Metheny wants to play with his new toy in a recording studio, that’s his call. But when it comes to live performance, I want live human beings doing the job, not some musical version of The Machine from Person of Interest. Music in general is already too computerized for its own good. To have computers take over the concert experience is all too much.