A giant of the jazz world just keeps on innovating...
PAT METHENY, one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists, has assembled a typically unusual band for his current tour. The five-man Unity Group could well be the only one on America’s summer concert circuit that peps up its performances with an orchestrion.
Metheny has been working with the machine (containing more than a dozen instruments), for over 5 years now, (watch video below from 2010).
The orchestrion serves as a sort of mechanical orchestra on which mallets pound a vibraphone, sticks hit cymbals and drums, and so on—all triggered by Mr Metheny’s guitar and foot pedals. The orchestrion may not be to all tastes, but its use in these concerts is emblematic of Mr Metheny’s fresh approach to contemporary jazz, which shows no signs of wilting after more than four decades.
Mr Metheny has been showered with accolades, both for his guitar-playing and for his composing, since he began performing in local clubs at the age of 13. He has won 20 Grammys and sold about 20m records, a rarity for a jazz musician. He has collaborated with a pantheon of musical legends that includes the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He has been copied and studied by his peers and by students. Last year DownBeat, a magazine devoted to jazz, inducted him into its Hall of Fame, making him just the fourth guitarist to receive the honour.
As he turns 60 this month, Mr Metheny is focusing his energies on the Unity Group’s world tour, which is aimed at promoting its newest album, “Kin”. He sees “Kin” as being linked to the albums that came before it, as another chapter in a songbook that began with “Bright Size Life”, his first album, released in 1976. “To me, it’s one long story, one long record with a revolving cast of characters,” Mr Metheny says of his recording oeuvre of more than 50 albums.
The Unity Group is among the best bands Mr Metheny has put together and should burnish his reputation further. It includes Antonio Sanchez, his longtime collaborator and a master drummer; Chris Potter, a saxophonist; Ben Williams, a bassist; and Giulio Carmassi, a multi-instrumentalist. But it is Mr Metheny, the band’s maestro, who is its centre of gravity. It is his sheer improvisational ability with the guitar that will startle most listeners. Guitar synthesisers, whose use he has pioneered, and a 50-strong collection of guitars, give him a vast palette with which to colour his songs. At one moment his playing can sound like a cross between a trumpet and a flute; at another he delivers the high-frequency wail more typically heard in rock. For those who just want to appreciate his fingerpicking technique, though, the best moments are those when he takes up a normal acoustic guitar and plays solo.
When launching the Pat Metheny Group back in 1977, Mr Metheny was keen to develop an ensemble that would sound unlike any other in the jazz world. With the help of Lyle Mays, his co-founder and pianist, he assembled a four-man band that played acoustic and electronic instruments. But it was later, when the group added multi-instrument musicians, inventive vocals and hand claps that it developed its signature sound. The band hit a creative peak with “The Way Up”, a 68-minute song in four movements that was recorded in 2005. An expansive piece encompassing jazz, classical and avant-garde music, it was written as a protest against the dominance of short radio-friendly tunes. Critics were certainly impressed: the CD was the group’s tenth Grammy-winning recording in under 25 years.
Mr Metheny, who hails from Kansas City, Missouri, has long tested the boundaries of what a guitar can do and what it should look like. In the 1980s he asked a Canadian luthier, Linda Manzer, to create a guitar with as many strings as possible. The result was the Pikasso (pictured), a 42-stringed, three-necked beast that can play the sounds of an electric guitar, a traditional Japanese koto and a harp. Thirty years later Mr Metheny still uses it at the start of many concerts. His belief that guitars are “open-ended” instruments, something to be expanded both musically and physically, typifies his ceaseless search for newness in his music. “Someone who knew me when I was 14 said I was the oldest 14-year-old on the planet,” he says. “Now I’m a 14-year-old who is 60.”