Saturday, March 15, 2014

Pat Metheny spreads his guitar charm at the Palladium with the help of his new, expanded band

Prolific as he's been in the recording studio and active as a touring artist, Pat Metheny apparently applies such stamina to individual shows as well — if his appearance fronting his Unity Group Friday at the Palladium is any indication.

Chris Potter (from left), Antonio Sanchez, Pat Metheny and Ben Williams are the Unity Band.
He came on alone just after 8 to play a long introspective solo on a mutant guitar with strings set at various positions in addition to the normal one along the instrument's neck. Soon joined by his sidemen, Metheny kept churning out music on several guitars for over two hours without a break.

He looked as smilingly relaxed at the end as he had at the beginning. It's not far-fetched to suppose that the Missouri native, who will turn 60 in August, still loves music. When a performer conveys that love to an audience so generously, it's no wonder that his career has such staying power.

Reportedly nearly all 1,200 seats made available for the concert were sold. As Metheny acknowledged from the stage, the engagement marked his first appearance in Indiana in many years.

So he was even more inclined to share his transition from the Unity Band — a quartet featuring reedman Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez — to the Unity Group. The quintet adds Giulio Carmassi, contributing wordless vocals and keyboard command of an electronic orchestra. "On this tour we're our own opening band," the bandleader told the crowd as he turned toward tracks from his new Unity Group CD. "Kin," after a lively first hour devoted to its 2012 self-titled Unity Band predecessor.

The Unity Group material allows for more indulgence in the "atmospheric" side of Metheny's music. Celesta sounds and supplementary percussion effects were woven into a seductive mixture in the show's second half; it all sounded great in the Palladium's spacious acoustics.

The new songs display that penchant for controlled rhythmic turbulence and airy melodies that have put the guitarist at the edge of the smooth-jazz genre at various points in his career. This flirtation, and the occasional jibes of jazz critics as a result, made all the more sensational his rant against Kenny G over a decade ago that the guitarist is now said to regret. And few fans would ever place Metheny, even at his furthest excursions from jazz, within clutching distance of the saxophonist's bag of a few anodyne tricks.

The real problem? The guitarist's incredible chops and love of every sonic texture the guitar (with technological help) can command are seldom reined in, as sometimes they should be. Abundance is too important to Metheny's muse. There's got to be stylistic amplitude, and that sets him apart, but in ways that may lose some listeners from moment to moment. Thus, he's far from being the grooviest guitarist going — even though he is capable of bluesy righteousness, a quality richly seconded by Potter and Williams in Friday's concert.

Those sidemen, plus Sanchez, also share Metheny's skill at laying out a rapid profusion of ideas. Right at the point you might have thought everyone was getting tired, Metheny started a parade of his colleagues in a duo format, from Williams to Potter to Carmassi to Sanchez. No one seemed to wilt in the slightest. For its contrapuntal intensity, the partnership with Potter struck particular gold with me.

Speaking of gold, the best way to take in so much Metheny may be to look for the shining nuggets as you let the sweep of the music overtake you. This may sound far-fetched, but he's a romantic with a vast reach, and that makes the musical payoff occasionally vague, even gaseous. He's the Percy Bysshe Shelley of jazz guitarists, Shelley being the older contemporary of the more grounded John Keats, who advised his fellow poet in a letter: "You might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and 'load every rift' of your subject with ore."

Insightful advice, but not such that Shelley could ever accept and remain himself. Similarly with Metheny: His music takes flight, and you might lose sight of it, or crane your neck sorely trying to follow it, but there is something admirable and cherishable in all those notes.

It's fortunate for Metheny that music is an abstract art, so that it's not so obvious as with a poet where the magnanimity might be curbed. And it remained happily uncurbed Friday night at the Palladium.